Serbia wants to be a part of a strong and influential EU
July 01 2018 | Belgrade
Opening new chapters always shows that there is continuous progress in negotiations with the European Union. Bearing in mind the overall atmosphere within the EU, which is very tense, and in some segments polarized, as well as the scepticism of some member states towards enlargement, the opening of chapters is a positive message for us, says Minister of European Integration Jadranka Joksimović in an interview for ‘Politika’, since two more chapters were opened on Monday in Luxembourg at the Eighth Intergovernmental Conference - chapters 33 - Financial and budgetary provisions, and 13 - Fisheries. Serbia, however, submitted five prepared negotiating positions in March, and the minister points out that "it is important to be patient and consistent and to continue and intensify reform processes".
- Persistence, patience, responsible determination and cool-headedness are the recipe for sustainable progress. It can always be faster and there can always be more, but numerous circumstances that do not depend on us as a candidate country affect the dynamics of the accession process. Sometimes a smaller number and sometimes a larger number of chapters will be opened. In general, I think that we cannot be dissatisfied with the achievements in the process of European integration during the Bulgarian presidency, but we expect further progress by the end of the year. I believe that there is a real possibility that during the Austrian presidency other chapters for which we are prepared at the technical level be opened: 9 - Financial services, 17 - Economic and monetary union, and 18 - Statistics, and we are working intensively on the preparation of new negotiating positions.
The impression is, however, that more was expected from this six-month period in which Bulgaria's main agenda was the issue of EU enlargement?
The impression might be such, but it should be acknowledged that, with its engagement, Bulgaria managed to restore the enlargement on the EU agenda, despite the generally unfavourable overall atmosphere among the member states. In addition, although the Sofia Summit did not have the topic of enlargement officially on the agenda, the fact is that, for the first time in 15 years, there has been a meeting between the EU and the region at the highest political level. In that sense, it can be said that the Bulgarian presidency was successful and useful for us. After all, we have opened two new chapters, which is valuable indeed. It is important to establish the continuity of the presidency of members that support enlargement and see it as a priority, and we certainly expect the continuation of such a policy during the Austrian and Romanian presidencies. I want to point out that the Serbian Government, President Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), as the largest party of the ruling coalition, carry out the reforms primarily because of the citizens and the desire and the need to create a state that will serve their interests by applying European values, norms and standards.
It is important to establish the continuity of the presidency of members that support enlargement and see it as a priority, and we certainly expect the continuation of such a policy during the Austrian and Romanian presidencies
Bearing in mind that we opened the first chapters in December 2015, and that 14 of the 35 negotiating chapters are currently open, can the entire negotiation process end in 2023 at this pace, so that possibly we can become an EU member in 2025?
I consider that 2025 is not unrealistic for Serbia's membership, if we remain politically stable, if the region is stable and if we accelerate reforms, which are the strategic goals of the Government. In this way, the dynamics of opening the chapters can be improved and our goal is to achieve that more than one Intergovernmental Conference be held per the Presidency. It is not unrealistic that by the end of 2023 we open all the chapters and by that time we gradually begin to close those that are now open. Also, I remind you that the year you quoted, 2025, was first mentioned by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking about Serbia and Montenegro as the frontrunners of the European integration process in the region. We see this year as a framework deadline, a strong encouragement and a clear incentive to continue with the reforms that form the essence of European integration, and not as a certain and definite date of accession to the EU. I am convinced that 2025 is an important indicator by which the EU is showing that it counts on our country as a respectable and very serious candidate for membership.
This is not the first time that some EU members will not let more than two chapters “pass”. In December last year, according to unofficial information, we were blocked by Germany, France, Great Britain, Sweden and Croatia, allegedly dissatisfied with the reforms in Serbia. Is it again about these countries and these reasons?
I would not speak about blocking, especially in the circumstances in which the European integration process is currently taking place. I believe that it is the right wording that, in the opinion of the member states, and do not forget that a consensus has to be reached among all, Serbia has made enough progress for two chapters to be opened in June 2018. That is exactly the decision of all 28 member states. There were those who supported the opening of more than two chapters, but the consensus was reached on two. We fully understand the political circumstances surrounding the decision-making process in the EU and we believe that overcoming any challenge that the EU is facing today is in the best interest of Serbia. Serbia wants to be part of a globally strong and influential EU.
Do only reforms pose a problem, or, as often speculated, is it also the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, i.e. the pressure to end the Brussels Process as soon as possible by a legally binding agreement?
The EU Member States’ positions on all issues are familiar. They are disclosed in the conclusions of the General Affairs Council where it says that Serbia, alongside Montenegro, has formally achieved the greatest progress in the accession process during this period. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for other countries despite some positive results achieved by our neighbours Macedonians and Albanians. On the other hand, the conclusions give us good guidelines on the focus of reforms in the coming period. They contain recommendations for progress in the most politically important areas of negotiations. The recommendations include both positive and negative assessments of the situation. Therefore, the assessment of the situation has many shades and is not a black and white picture that the media often serve to the citizens. Regarding the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the EU negotiating framework with Serbia is clear - a legally binding agreement on a comprehensive normalization of relations should be reached before Serbia becomes a member, so it is not timed by a specific year. Prior to that, another legally binding agreement must be implemented whose guarantor is the EU - the Brussels Agreement. It is known what is most important for us - the formation of the Community of Serb Municipalities, and we expect to see this as a concrete matter that Pristina will fulfil. And there are also issues of property, cultural heritage, human rights ... Therefore, the process is difficult, and we have shown the capacity for dialogue and compromise, and we expect Pristina to show it as well, if it has it. This is because the solution that is reached through an established dialogue cannot be imposed - it takes two parties and, in this case, the EU as a mediator.
What all the reports on Serbia's progress have in common is: the issue of KiM, the rule of law, freedom of the media, independent judiciary, the fight against corruption, public administration reform. Does Serbia have the capacity to work on all these issues in parallel so as to complete everything in five years?
It is undeniable that Serbia, as the largest and most important country in the region, has the capacity to implement all the necessary reforms. The government is currently particularly committed to reforms in the field of the rule of law, primarily to constitutional amendments aimed at better and more efficient functioning of the judiciary. The reforms are being implemented in parallel in several areas - consultations with the Venice Commission on the amendments to the Constitution, the drafting of the Media Strategy with a new working group that includes representatives of all media associations, finalising the work on several key laws.
Although there is still no agreement within the EU on how to deal with the migrant crisis, do you have a prepared answer if Serbia is asked to agree to be "a parking lot" for a greater number of migrants from the Middle East and Africa?
When have you ever heard from any of our officials or EU officials that Serbia will be a parking lot, especially a parking lot for people? From the very beginning of the migrant crisis, Serbia has wanted to be part of a common and solidary solution with the EU, and there are at least three reasons for that. The first is of the humanitarian nature and the intention to help everyone who is in trouble in accordance with Serbia’s modest potential. To be completely clear: this does not mean that Serbia will turn into a collection centre, but will, in proportion to its possibilities, help implement a common European solution. The second reason is security, since a joint action with the EU leads to an overall greater certainty and predictability of the solution, and therefore to a greater security of all our citizens. The third reason lies in the fact that, as a country that is negotiating on membership, we want to be part of the solution to all the challenges the EU faces, because as an EU member, we will also be able to participate in decision making on all these challenges.
If Serbia did everything in due time, would it be able to count on that 2025 for EU membership with full certainty, given the need for the reform of the EU itself and the famous position of French President Macron on the matter?
I have nothing against disclosed introspection and internal actions for EU reforms - on the contrary, I believe that a stronger EU will have a bigger and better capacity, among other things, to receive new member states. In that sense, I do not think that enlargement and President Macron’s concept collide, but that these are two processes that can take place in parallel. The year 2025 is a potential membership date as outlined in the Enlargement Strategy, but I think it is not an unrealistic date. Also, it is realistic that, until then, the EU will carry out an internal reform, which entirely suits us, because it is in our interest to enter a stronger and more stable European Union, in which we will fully integrate our own capacities.
The stories that a visa-free regime between Serbia and Iran, and perhaps some other countries, poses a threat to visa liberalization with the Schengen countries are no longer speculations - Commissioner Johannes Hahn has spoken about this in Luxembourg, and it is also mentioned in the conclusions of the heads of EU diplomacy. Has Serbia been given some "tasks" in that regard?
In 2015, in the midst of the migrant crisis, Serbia demonstrated its ability and responsibility towards EU countries in terms of responsible border control and participation in joint solutions. Certainly, the member states are monitoring the situation regarding the movement towards the EU of citizens of all countries that are on the EU’s negative lists, but we are very watchful of the situation and we monitor the flights at the airport together with the Frontex members and there is no reason why our visa-free regime would be compromised. The process of European integration is not a process in which tasks are imposed against one's will. Everything we do, we do voluntarily. European integration is a meeting of two political wills - the will of the Member States that formulate the EU's policy and our will as candidates. We intend to align the visa policy by the time of accession, because we believe that this will mean greater security of our country.
Author: Biljana Baković