J. Joksimović: Bilateral blockades undermine the trust in the sincerity of the enlargement policy
September 30 2018 | Belgrade
In the interview for Espreso, Jadranka Joksimović, the Minister of European Integration and the official of the Serbian Progressive Party, speaks about the opening of new chapters, blockades by Croatia, amendments to the Constitution and the developments in the Serbian Progressive Party.
What is the status of Serbia’s EU membership negotiations and when can we expect new chapters to be opened?
- The process of accession is a long-term process and our citizens are well aware of that. We do not want to raise excessive expectations of our citizens so that they would not get too disappointed, but we also do not intend to be too pessimistic, because, after all, we must note that there is progress. The opening of the chapters follows the process of reforms in the country and is evaluated by the EU member states.
- I cannot say that I am dissatisfied, since we have so far opened 14 out of the total of 35 chapters, two of which have been provisionally closed. The last conference was held at the end of June this year, and I now believe that we will proceed with the opening of new ones by the end of the Austrian presidency. We should explain this to the citizens, because it is important for them to understand. A calendar year is divided into two presidencies, every six months another country presides the EU. In the first half of this year, that was Bulgaria and now it is Austria, and its presidency finishes at the end of the year. I expect that we will open several new chapters. You have heard the statement of the Austrian Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz, who announced that at least three new chapters would be opened, including Chapter 9 - Financial Services, Chapter 17 - which refers to economic and monetary policy and Chapter 18 - which refers to statistics.
- We have been prepared for these chapters for a long time now, but, in the meanwhile, we have sent two additional chapters - Chapter 2- Freedom of Movement for Workers and Chapter 4 - Free Movement of Capital. Therefore, now I can tell you that we have prepared 5 negotiating positions, but that is not all - we are working on several more, and I rightly expect that we will open at least three chapters by the New Year. That will mean that Serbia has a good pace when it comes to negotiations.
- You know, the elections for the European institutions are approaching and everyone is focused on that. They deal less with the enlargement and candidate countries, which is not to our advantage at the moment, but that is a phase that will certainly pass, and it is important for us to maintain the pace of the opening of chapters and of the reforms. I must emphasise that I believe we will succeed in this despite everything, because you can see that Austria has kept its focus on enlargement, and that Romania, as the next presiding country, also stated that the topic of enlargement would stay on the agenda. The EU member states make the decision on the number of new chapters to be opened based on the progress in the rule of law in a candidate country. Those are Chapters 23 and 24 that refer to judiciary reform, fight against corruption, minority issues etc. Serbia has recently made significant progress in these areas and I think the member states will recognise that. You are aware that there was a large and inclusive public debate on the draft Constitutional amendments, which will enable more independent and efficient judiciary in Serbia, and that is really a crucial process in the reform of every country. We have received the opinion of the Venice Commission which has the highest authority to say whether all that we are doing is in accordance with the best European practices and the principles of independent judiciary. I think that we have done a good job; in addition, at the Government session held last week, we adopted the new Law on Free Legal Aid that is essential for Chapter 23. We have also adopted the Law on Personal Data Protection, and the pivotal Law on the Prevention of Corruption is in its final phase and its adoption is expected soon. Due to all these facts, I expect that we will succeed in opening a larger set of chapters. I do not know whether we will have two intergovernmental conferences, one in October and the other in December, or only one in December, since that does not depend on Serbia, but on the agreement of all member states. Of course, we do everything that we can, we lobby and present the progress of Serbia, but I reiterate - it is not all up to us. However, I am an optimist. You know, when you have results and when you work, the progress will come.
To which extent, if any, have the negotiations in Brussels slowed down the process of negotiations with the EU?
- The topic of enlargement is not as popular in the EU as it used to be 10 or more years ago. The topic of enlargement was very favoured at that time. Europe was not facing some of the challenges it currently faces - here I primarily refer to the migrant crisis, Brexit and many other topics. Now, the topic of enlargement is favourable but is not in focus. Somehow, everyone would rather deal with some other topics, especially now in light of the elections. On the other hand, the relations at the Western Balkans are getting more complicated - not due to the action of Serbia - and that is sending an image of instability, making the EU citizens wonder whether they need new members if those members will bring new instabilities. On the other hand, I think that this region, and particularly Serbia, is not the source of instability, but that on the contrary we have shown in the previous years that we have been a factor of stability - a special factor, and President Vučić has given impetus to it, as well as this Government that has been fully committed to dialogue, agreement and compromise, but I am not sure that all the others share this dedication. You know, we do what is best for our citizens and what primarily enables stable economic prosperity for our people. I believe that this obviously cumbersome process will result in the recognition of Serbia as the most serious candidate for EU membership and as the country that has demonstrated the highest level of responsibility.
- Whether the membership will come in 2025 or two years earlier or later - I really do not think that is the essence. What is important is that there is a realistic opportunity and I do not see a reason why Serbia would not use it. Many have used it, although I am not sure they realistically deserved it at that time, so why wouldn’t we. I am only saying that there is no reason for us to be frustrated or dissatisfied, it is important to stay focused and go forward.
President of the Republic of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić has said that agreement with Pristina is only possible if Serbia is afterwards guaranteed accelerated accession to the EU, do you agree with that?
- The President has said that the comprehensive agreement should also include some guarantees from the EU regarding Serbia’s membership. You know, I understand this position because it stems from previous experience, based on the way the EU guaranteed the implementation of the Brussels Agreement. I am not satisfied with this implementation, because this agreement is guaranteed by the EU. I would like to recall that Ms Mogherini spoke of 4 August as a deadline for establishing the Community of Serb Municipalities and that has not happened. And nobody talks about it anymore. Having had such experience, President Vučić expressed the need for some more solid guarantees. I even have a counter proposal: “Serbia can guarantee that the reached agreement would be implemented three months after its accession to the EU”. Why not make this a topic? We, as a responsible and credible government, can give such a guarantee. I am always in favour of creative solutions. We are a serious European state.
Croatia is announcing new blockades of Serbia on its road towards the EU, do you really expect this to happen?
- I am not focused on Croatia and their position. There are other countries that do not want to see Serbia or some other countries going towards the EU. Croatia has shown tendency to impose bilateral barriers and blockades, but let’s be honest, if we only paid attention to those who would like to block us, we would not be implementing the policy in the best interest of our citizens. That is precisely what we do, we implement our policy solely in the interest of the citizens of Serbia, and obstacles will occur - whether they will be caused by Croatia or some other countries, we will see. I just think that it is not a good practice because it undermines trust in the enlargement policy.
If we exclude the issue of Kosovo, what are the matters where Serbia will have a lot to do on its way to EU membership?
- The reforms implemented through all these 35 chapters are not abstract matters - this is a book of reforms, and each chapter refers to a certain area. Each of the chapters - agriculture, environment, economy, these are all matters we are working on. The biggest challenge poses environmental protection, which is a complex chapter. Many say that this chapter is the most expensive, but I never see it as an expense, since investing in environmental protection means investing in health and better life of every individual, thus it is an investment that raises the quality of life. Agriculture also requires additional alignment, but this year, for the first time, our farmers will obtain grants from the IPARD funds, which will open numerous opportunities for the development of this branch of the economy. These are all matters that represent a challenge, but also an opportunity that we must use.
Is the change of the Constitution one of the preconditions for Serbia’s accession to the EU?
- The change of the Constitution is a precondition in two senses. First, in the sense of the aforementioned judicial reform, because all these institutional and constitutional reforms must be confirmed through a referendum. That is one aspect of it. The second one refers to the changes of the Constitution right before EU membership - when a country accesses the Union, it must align its constitutional and legal framework with the European.
How would you assess the work of the Government so far, from 1 to 5?
- I am currently in my third term of office as minister, but these have all been the governments of continuity, ever since 2014 and the address of Aleksandar Vučić - then Prime Minister. We have been working on this paved road of reforms. Therefore, I think that all my colleagues are working hard in their line ministries, and we have also been able to measure our performance through the chapters. I cannot give a grade, but I can say that it would be like this: “Stable, good, but could be faster.”
That means four then?
- All right, if you say so.
You are constantly working on yourself; you enrolled in the doctoral studies at the Faculty of Political Sciences - how is it going?
- I started my career at the Faculty of Political Sciences as a teaching fellow and assistant, first at the courses Economy of Transition and Diplomacy and Diplomatic History. Due to the nature of my work I could not start doctoral studies earlier, although it was a logical step. However, in the end I chose, despite some other, numerous opportunities, to complete doctoral studies at my original faculty, because what better way to prove yourself than in your own home. I am attending lectures, trying to complete the studies, and I am now enrolling in the second year. I believe that it is important that we always work on ourselves, try hard and learn.
Who do you best get along with in the Government?
- What does get along mean? Sometime you get along well even with people who have different standpoints than yours. Let me tell you, the Minister of European Integration is actually a coordinator of the entire process and my role is to regularly exchange the results with all my colleagues and that is what I do. I maintain contacts with everyone and that is functioning well. Outside of work, I mostly communicate with my colleagues from the party, primarily with Nela Kuburović and Zorana Mihajlović. It is a sort of a female clan, but I must confess that sometimes I am not easy to cooperate with.
The session of the Presidency of the Serbian Progressive Party was held, and on that occasion, President of the party and the Republic of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić announced some changes. After the announcement, all the officials shouted: “Vučić, stay!” What is your view?
- Aleksandar Vučić is the man who, undoubtedly, really undoubtedly, and I say this without intention to flatter or adulate, took the wheel and the responsibility at a difficult moment. He has thus paved the way to a policy that has been accepted not only by our citizens - which the most important thing - but also all over the world. I think that no one can contest this fact. In that sense, I truly believe that the result of the Serbian Progressive Party is the result of his strength, vision and energy that we have accepted and followed, some more and others less successfully, which is normal.
Source: Espreso, author: Darko Zlojutro