Jadranka Joksimović, Minister of European Integration: Serbia can be satisfied with the European Commission's report, but there is room for improvement

31. May 2018. | Belgrade

Jadranka Joksimović, Minister of European Integration: Serbia can be satisfied with the European Commission's report, but there is room for improvement

The main foreign policy priority of Serbia since 2000 has been full membership in the European Union. This was once again confirmed on the occasion of marking Serbian Diplomacy Day by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Serbia, as a candidate for membership, has 35 obstacles on that path, and the entire process of European integration has had numerous ups and downs over these past 18 years. How the European Union sees the European path of Serbia, when we can expect the opening of new chapters and what attitudes young people hold are all topics we discussed with Ms. Jadranka Joksimović, Minister of European Integration in the Government of the Republic of Serbia.

The European Commission report on Serbia's progress in its European reforms has recently been published and it somehow seems that this is the most objective one to date. What is your general opinion on the Report itself and do you agree with the predominant public assessments?

The report may generally be assessed as objective and balanced. In almost all areas of reform, it has been estimated that some progress has been made and there are no areas where backsliding has been identified. In that sense we can be satisfied. On the other hand, the report contains certain assessments that seem more of a political impression than a review of the current state of play. These are segments that we believe could have been more objective and based more on facts.
For us, at this stage, the most crucial assessment made by EU Member States is related to whether the progress achieved is sufficient for opening more negotiation chapters. We believe that this is the case. Serbia has made concrete progress in all areas of reform and we expect that this progress will be recognised and valorised through the decision to convene the Intergovernmental Conference in June and open new chapters.

Which segments of the Report would you assess as positive and with which ones would you disagree?

We are satisfied with the assessment of the situation regarding the economic reforms where significant progress has been noted. The Government is continuously committed to the efficient implementation of economic reforms and it is good that this unequivocal political will has been recognised in the EU. We are also very pleased with the progress made in some vital sectors of reforms such as transport and agriculture.
Serbia has again received high marks in the area of regional cooperation, which once again shows the importance of Serbia's role as a key country in the region dedicated to peace, stability, cooperation and any form of connectivity within South-East Europe. Our role and performance at the recently held EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia have additionally confirmed Serbia’s role and importance.
In the part of the Report dealing with freedom of expression, no progress has been noted and we cannot agree with such an assessment. Particularly given the fact that in November 2017, the EU hired an independent expert to come to Serbia so as to conduct a so-called peer review mission related to the situation in the media and freedom of expression and prepare a report. In our opinion, this report was very objective, with relevant comments and recommendations, but to our surprise, the formulations from the report of the expert engaged by the EC were not included in the Progress Report. We believe that some progress was made in the reporting period and that the Report should have noted this. However, we have acknowledged this assessment and we will definitely continue to work on meeting the EC recommendations.

There are 35 negotiation chapters on Serbia's path to the European Union. So far, we have opened 12 and provisionally closed 2. Do you think that this process, which began in December 2015, could have gone somewhat faster and can you pinpoint the reasons for the delay?

The First Intergovernmental Conference between Serbia and the EU was held on 21 January 2014, thus launching the accession negotiations at the political level, while the Second Intergovernmental Conference between Serbia and the EU was held on 14 December 2015, when two of the 35 negotiation chapters were opened - Chapter 32 on Financial Control and Chapter 35 on monitoring the implementation of the Brussels Agreement on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. I believe that we have a solid pace as regards the opening of chapters and that much has been achieved, but also that a lot is being done in the process of European integration.
The delay in the process of accession negotiations, as well as false promises regarding the terms of Serbia's entry into the EU, dominated the political scene in the past from 2000 to 2012, thus contributing to the development of Euroscepticism among some of our citizens. No introvert moment in the EU may be ignored. It is focused on internal problems and challenges - including economic issues, Brexit, migration and generally complicated international relations that require the repositioning of the EU as an economic and political alliance, which certainly does not contribute to the essential regeneration of the enlargement policy agenda. But that moment will pass. The EU has always functioned in interchangeable cycles of enthusiasm and indifference towards enlargement. It is vital that we do our job.

Chapter 23 (on justice and fundamental rights) is often highlighted in the public as the largest and most difficult ‘legal and functional constraint’ in Serbia’s European integration process and it is quite certain that the EU will be rigorous in terms of the forthcoming reform of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary. Do you agree with this assessment and is this, in a purely legal sense, truly the most difficult step for us?

Chapter 23 is complex and special because it includes the most significant changes - established behaviour patterns, a worldview - which are implemented through the most important set of reforms involving the whole society, while responsibility is distributed according to the measurable performance of implementing competences. It seems that only the Government has obligations and responsibilities. If you take into consideration who participated in the preparation of the Action Plan preceding the opening of the chapter, you may notice that all three branches of government are involved - legislative, executive and judicial, but also, as some researchers say, the fourth regulatory branch of power that we call independent, i.e. regulatory bodies.

This is what makes the chapter politically and institutionally demanding. The legal challenge of this chapter is to demonstrate, through legal practice, the capacity for implementation. In Brussels, the term for this is track record. Another legal challenge is to find the best balance between the country’s legal tradition and principles common to European states, which are the source of law and a standard of the Council of Europe, in areas where there aren’t many common and codified EU regulations. The point is that solutions should be in line with the best EU practices, as well as applicable to the country's political and institutional cultural set-up. Therefore, there is not so much acquis communautaire in this area.

J. Joksimović: The point is that solutions should be in line with best EU practices, as well as applicable to the country's political and institutional cultural set-up.

The inevitable issue at the end of the second decade of the 21st century is the issue of a healthy environment. According to Minister Trivan, Serbia has to allocate EUR 15 billion in this area, which represents more than one third of the country's total GDP. For comparison’s sake, according to LIFE programme - the EU's main financial instrument for funding projects in the field of environmental protection, over EUR 3 billion has been invested since 1992. Do these figures indicate that Chapter 27 is actually the main ‘landmine’ on the European path of Serbia, despite certain commendations expressed in the Report?

I would not say a ‘landmine’, especially when you take into consideration that the implementation of EU environmental law should contribute to improved public health and health of the population, preservation of natural resources, creation of a more competitive economy and, in general, contribute to raising the standard and quality of life, as the quality of life is not measured exclusively by average salaries.
I wouldn’t intimidate citizens with astronomical figures. I have never perceived this as a cost, but as an investment into health and sustainable development of the state and citizens. Cost-analyses of the implementation of EU environmental legislation have always been conducted and the amounts have always been very high, as these regulations require the installation of state-of-the-art technologies in industrial plants or the construction of very complex utility infrastructure.
So far in Serbia we have prepared sectoral analyses of the cost of transposing European environmental regulations. These were conducted before the official start of the negotiations. Now that we are deep in the negotiation process, we should wait for new assessments, as well as the completion and adoption of the so-called DSIP (directive specific implementation plan) or the plan for the implementation of environmental protection directives. Estimating costs is a very complex task in which we have the support of European experts. The quality of the negotiations will depend on the adequacy and objectivity of the estimates presented.

Can you tell us when we may expect the development of the negotiating position and opening of this Negotiation Chapter?

After the European Commission adopted the Screening Report for this Chapter on 9 January 2017, the Republic of Serbia officially received a letter from the Council Presidency, inviting us to submit the negotiating position for Chapter 27 without opening benchmarks. The main reason for opening this chapter without any opening benchmarks is the adoption of the so-called post-screening document, which was adopted at the session of the Government of the Republic of Serbia on 4 September 2015. Since the practice of setting opening benchmarks for Chapter 27 was introduced, Serbia has become the first state to open the chapter without fulfilling them, as it is considered sufficiently prepared to open the Chapter due to the existence of the so-called post-screening document.
Work on the Draft Negotiating Position is well under way. We expect the first working versions mid-year, which, as we know, is in line with the process of consultations with the European Commission on the draft negotiating position. This is a very demanding process, which is why it is inconvenient to make estimates on the date of the opening of this chapter.

Among other things, Serbia is part of the Energy Community, which aims to align the energy policies of non-EU countries with the Union's energy policy. In 2012, the EC Ministerial Council adopted Directive 28 which envisages that the Government of the Republic of Serbia should increase the share of renewable energy sources in its total gross energy consumption to 27% by 2020. The Report notes with regard to Chapter 15 that we are not yet in a position to achieve this despite the new Energy Law being relatively well aligned with the acquis. Do you perceive this gap between legislation and practice as a general problem in the accession process?

It is also an issue that relates to the Sustainable Development Agenda, production and consumption of energy, and therefore there is an obligation to increase the share of renewable energy sources. Of course, these are not areas in which it is easy to achieve standards, even for EU Member States. It is vital to constantly work through a system of small steps that will lead to significant changes.
By Decision of the Ministerial Council of the Energy Community of 18 October 2012 (D/2012/04/MC - EnC) on the application of Directive 2009/28/EC and amendments to Article 20 of the Treaty Establishing the EnC, the Republic of Serbia undertook to adopt the legal framework and transpose the provisions of this Directive into its system. The same Decision also sets out a very demanding binding target for the Republic of Serbia, namely 27% of renewable energy in its gross final energy consumption in 2020.
Directive 2009/28/EC has been partially transposed through the Energy Law. Regarding bylaws, the Regulation on Guarantees of Origin has been adopted, while bylaws in the field of bio-fuels are under preparation and, with their adoption, Directive 2009/28/EC will completely be transposed in the energy sector.
Under Article 15 of the Decision, every second year, the signatories of the Treaty Establishing the EnC submit to the EnC Secretariat a Progress Report on promoting and using energy from renewable sources with regard to the goals set out in the National Action Plan. The National Renewable Energy Action Plan of the Republic of Serbia was adopted in 2013 (Official Gazette of the RS, No 53/13). The Third Report to be submitted to EnC by the end of 2018 is under preparation.

The most difficult political issue in the process of EU accession is certainly Chapter 35 which, among other things, deals with the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Almost every citizen of our country gets the impression that the European Union is very biased on this issue. This is also evident in this Report, where it was commended that a Working Group for developing the Statute of the Community of Serb Municipalities was formed after five years of delay. Now we see that even this move is disputable. How do you perceive such a position of Brussels?

Chapter 35 (Other Issues) is not a substitute for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina; Chapter 35 is used to monitor the implementation of arrangements achieved through the Brussels Dialogue. As regards the part of the Report related to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, which to our surprise, included information that progress had been achieved in the formation of the CSM, progress has certainly not been made, and we have drawn particular attention to that and made a remark to the representatives of the EC.
I would like to recall that five Member States have not recognised the unilaterally declared independence of so-called Kosovo and that the EU is a framework and a mediator that is acceptable due to its status neutrality. Hence, the process of the dialogue is facilitated and mediated by the EEAS and Federica Mogherini, as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU.

In all likelihood, the question above all in this process will be the achievement of a legally binding agreement with Pristina, whose content is not yet known. Can you guess what it would contain and would the signing of that agreement mean that Serbia will be taking a ‘political short-cut’ to the door of the EU? Or will we again play carrots and sticks?

I think it is first of all important that we insist on the fulfilment of another legally binding agreement signed by Ms C. Ashton, the former High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, according to which the EU became the guarantor of the implementation of the agreement. It is, of course, the Brussels Agreement that is legally binding and which is part of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, signed between Belgrade, Pristina and the EU. So, it is not a bilateral agreement. Belgrade has fulfilled all obligations under the Brussels Agreement, while Pristina has not formed the CSM for more than five years, which represents the substance of that agreement. Only then should the issues of property, cultural heritage, rights of evicted and displaced persons come to the agenda.
Accordingly, the content of a legally binding agreement on the comprehensive normalisation of relations should arise from the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. And this is not a matter of taking a short-cut to join the EU, because you can ask the question in another way- what if Serbia was not in the process of European integration? Would that mean that we would be telling ourselves that everything is exactly the way we want it to be and that we would not be concerned about finding sustainable solutions to the issue of Kosovo and Metohija and our interests in all the listed areas? In a high state policy, you must carefully assess the circumstances that affect a process, the power of other stakeholders, and how much you can get, win more, or lose less at that moment. There will always be contradictory opinions but to solve outstanding issues is the duty of responsible political elites.

Finally, I would like you to comment on the results of the survey ‘Attitudes of students of the University of Belgrade on Serbia’s foreign policy’, which our Centre conducted. The views of the youth regarding the EU are fairly pessimistic. Are you concerned about this trend and are students rightly advocating such attitudes towards Serbia’s European path?

The Ministry of European Integration also conducts public opinion polls asking citizens twice a year about their views on the EU and European integration of Serbia. What we have seen from the results of these surveys, conducted according to the Eurobarometer standard, and after almost a decade of experience, is that the trend is generally always positive in terms of the respondents’ opinion on the membership of our country in the Union. We can observe periods of increased and diminished support related to a whole range of political circumstances.
According to our surveys from January this year, this support is 52 percent, which means that this percentage of citizens would vote for Serbia's accession to the European Union in a referendum, while 24 percent are against membership.
It is without a doubt that events, mainly international ones, greatly influence this trend. As regards the youth, what I know is that most would like to work and study in EU countries, to specialise, travel. The Centre's survey was conducted more than a year ago and, as you have noted yourself, the international circumstances of the time contributed to the results being, as you say, pessimistic. In relation to the consequences of Brexit, the migrant crisis, the stalled implementation of the Brussels Agreement, and, if you want, the standstill in the enlargement policy, the Union itself did not have a definite answer a year ago. Now, after the Summit in Sofia, and before that, the release of the Enlargement Strategy, I would say that the situation has changed somewhat for the better. We can observe the perspective of Serbia's membership in the EU with more optimism, and I am convinced that students from Serbian universities, who, as seen from your survey, are very well informed, will recognise and support this perspective.
According to our survey this year, in the target group of young people between the ages of 18 and 29, 49 percent of respondents replied that they would pick a positive answer at the referendum on membership. Of this number, 52% of students supported Serbia's membership in the EU, while 14% out of the total number of young people were against, whereof 11% were students. In order to maintain this trend, it is our obligation to provide as much information as possible so that they, as well as all other citizens, could build their opinion on facts and understand the benefits of adopting European standards - for each of them individually, and therefore for the state.

The interview with Ms. Jadranka Joksimović was conducted by Radomir Jovanović, a member of the Management Board of the Centre for International Public Policy.

Source: Centre for International Public Policy