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J. Joksimović: Cross-border cooperation improves the relations between our two peoples

July 22 2020 |

J. Joksimović: Cross-border cooperation improves the relations between our two peoples

Which area has proven to be the most fruitful in cooperation between Romania and Serbia?

Traditionally, tourism sparks the greatest interest within the cross-border cooperation programme between Serbia and Romania. In this area, there is a series of interesting projects that are currently being implemented, such as a project that envisages the landscaping of archaeological sites Majdan in Serbia and Parța in Romania, and building the capacities for tourist reception.

Very successful cooperation has also been achieved between the ministries of internal affairs that have jointly realised several projects in the area of environmental protection and emergency response. These projects included organising joint training courses and seminars for the members of the two ministries, as well as purchasing useful equipment that is extremely significant for police departments within the programme territory, helping them to provide a faster and more efficient response in case of floods, fires and other emergency situations.

In this programme period, significant funds have also been allocated for cooperation between Romanian and Serbian health centres and hospitals.

Apart from “soft” projects, which project would you single out as strategically crucial in cooperation with Romania?

Currently, two strategic projects are being implemented, where I would like to single out one that is becoming particularly important as it includes investing in the healthcare system which, in all countries across the globe, has been put to the test during this period of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the project is dedicated to the improvement of malign disease diagnostics and treatment, the funds invested in healthcare through this project in the form the reconstruction and furnishing of the hospital building in Požarevac, purchase of necessary medical equipment for all project partners, and software for networking the hospitals within the programme territory, will certainly contribute to better functioning of the healthcare system in Romania and Serbia.

In 2018, I visited the General Hospital in Požarevac on the occasion of marking the beginning of the implementation of this project whose importance I recognised and which I personally advocated because it directly contributes to the improvement of our citizens’ health and includes cooperation between healthcare institutions from both sides of the border for the purpose of ensuring access to modern and efficient healthcare services for oncological patients living in the region.

I would like to add that, apart from the General Hospital in Požarevac which is the lead partner, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Serbia, the County Hospital in Timisoara and the County Hospital in Resita, Romania, are also the beneficiaries of this project.

How effectively does the cross-border cooperation with Romania contribute to improving the citizens' quality of life?

Every form of cooperation, particularly at the local level, significantly contributes to improving the relations between the two peoples and the two countries, and certainly – to improving the quality of life. Since the beginning of this cooperation, non-profit institutions from the border areas of the two countries have jointly realised 233 projects, of which 30 projects are still ongoing, while contracts for four more projects are under preparation. Through the realisation of these projects, a total of EUR 146.1 million has been invested in the programme territory, in the area of economic and social development, environmental protection, emergency response, as well as culture and tourism. Financing of these projects enabled the realisation of a wide range of activities which brought significant progress to the local communities where the projects were implemented, ranging from the reconstruction and modernisation of access roads and bike paths, emergency situation management system, investing in medical infrastructure and investing in education and online training and learning systems, all the way to activities aimed at promoting tourist, cultural and archaeological sites within the cross-border region of Romania and Serbia.

Where do you see room for the development of new areas of cooperation with Romania?

The areas of cooperation implemented in this programme territory are defined through a comprehensive process of territory needs analysis and public consultations. The regulation for the upcoming period 2021–2027 defines policy areas and special policy areas for cross-border cooperation programmes, where the main areas in the Romania–Serbia programme will ensure continuity with the ongoing programmes, while, in light of the new importance of the green agenda, the area of environmental protection will focus more on the promotion of energy saving, renewable energy resources, sustainable water management, green infrastructure in urban development, pollution reduction etc. Projects in the area of culture and tourism will be implemented through greater inclusion of local actors from the programme territory. In addition, the programme will support projects in a special policy area related to border security, which is also a new topic in this programme.

What do you think about a tendency to modify the cross-border cooperation between Serbia and Romania through IPA funds into a trilateral platform that would include Hungary, Romania and Serbia?

In the first period of implementation, the programme was trilateral – exactly between Hungary, Romania and Serbia. However, in the period 2007–2013, the European Commission decided to separate this trilateral programme into three programmes (Hungary–Romania, Hungary–Serbia and Romania–Serbia). This practise is still ongoing, while the preparation of the programme for the following financial perspective is in the final stages, so it is certain that these programmes will not merge into a trilateral one by 2027.

Can you describe the contribution of the Serbian community in Romania to the cross-border cooperation with the mother country? Are there any examples?

Several organisations of the Serbian community in Romania are very active in applying for funds from the Cross-border Cooperation Programme Romania–Serbia. In the previous programme period, ‘Dositej Obradović’ High School from Timisoara participated in two projects. At the moment, this institution and ‘Borislav Petrov Braca’ High School from Vršac, which is the lead partner, are implementing a project that, among other things, envisages the creation of multifunctional classrooms with modern equipment, which will ensure a higher quality of education in specific areas. Furthermore, the Romanian municipality of Sviniţa, which has majority Serbian population, participated in the project ‘Keepers of Tradition’ whose aim was to preserve cultural heritage and use this heritage for the purpose of developing local tourism. I would like to invite all other interested institutions to engage in these programmes with relevant projects.

The Mixed Intergovernmental Commission for the Protection of Minority Rights has identified education in the Serbian language in Romania and education in the Romanian language in Serbia as the largest problems for minority communities primarily due to the population drain. Are there any considerations regarding a cross-border project that would serve as an incentive for the education process in mother tongue?

Education is one of the areas chosen by the citizens and institutions from the border areas of the two countries, and a huge number of projects has been or is being implemented in this area. The two countries, i.e. the Governments can only open the door to the implementation of such projects, but the education institutions themselves have to form partnerships and prepare projects. One example of good partnership is precisely the cooperation between ‘Dositej Obradović’ High School from Timisoara and ‘Borislav Petrov Braca’ High School from Vršac, while support will certainly continue to be provided to all initiatives in the area of education in mother tongue that fit into the scope of the programme. The Ministry of European Integration, which I head, provides support to beneficiaries in terms of increasing the capacities for project preparation and establishing partnerships in the neighbouring country.

Serbia strives to ensure a high-quality education system in mother tongue for all national minorities, including the Romanian national minority. In that sense, we closely cooperate with the National Council of the Romanian National Minority, as well as with competent institutions in Romania, so as to improve the quality of textbooks. In addition, Serbia is the only country that had an obligation to establish a special Action Plan within chapter 23 for the promotion and improvement of national minority rights, where an entire area of this document is dedicated to the issues of improving education. It would have been good if others had had the same obligation prior to becoming member states or if other candidates and potential candidates had that obligation.

Moreover, Serbia has one of the best legislative frameworks in the area of national minorities. I think that we have done a lot in this field and that our citizens of Romanian nationality recognise the commitment of the Government of Serbia to improving their rights. In February 2020, the Government of Serbia published a new call for applications in the area of education through the budget fund for national minorities, and we can proudly say that budget financing has become a practice.

How much does the current cross-border cooperation with Romania contribute to Serbia’s preparation for EU membership?

Cross-border cooperation programmes overall, including the programme with Romania, provided the first direct contact organisations in Serbia had with the rules for using EU funds that apply to EU member states as well. The knowledge that the beneficiaries of these funds have acquired throughout the years is invaluable and does not only come down to rules for project preparation and implementation, but also includes values that are built through strategic planning, preparation, coordination, negotiations with project partners, and adhering to the overarching or horizontal principles that are an integral part of this process (gender equality, non-discrimination, equal opportunities and sustainable development). These projects prepare not only the beneficiaries of funds, but also the citizens of border areas, for equal participation in the implementation of the EU regional and cohesion policy, which has been and will be one of the pillars of a more functional and connected Europe.

How much support have the EU and European partners provided to Serbia during the pandemic?

We are very grateful to the European Union and its member states for the assistance they have provided us during the pandemic. Immediately upon the introduction of the state of emergency, I addressed European Commissioner for Enlargement Várhelyi with a request to enable the reallocation of unused pre-accession funds for the purposes of emergency support to our healthcare system. In only two weeks, we signed the agreements based on which we purchased the missing medical equipment, such as ventilators, monitors, masks, food and hygienic packages for the most vulnerable citizens, and covered the transport costs for over 740 tons of medical equipment from China and India. In the following period, the European Union will cover the costs of engaging 200 medical professionals who will be engaged in healthcare centres across Serbia, which will further strengthen our capacities in the fight against the spread of this infection. 

Furthermore, Serbia has received assistance from EU member states through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, while, in the upcoming period, I also expect assistance from the EU Solidarity Fund for which I have recently submitted a comprehensive application. In addition to its readiness to support our healthcare system, the European Union has committed to support the recovery of our economy, which, like the economy of entire Europe, has suffered negative effects of the pandemic. By the end of the year, we expect the presentation of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, which, among other things, will envisage significant grants for the support to the private sector and the realisation of priority infrastructure projects. I believe that all of this represents undeniable proof of the EU’s strong solidarity and another indicator of the importance of the European integration process for the citizens of Serbia. Moreover, I would like to note that Serbia has demonstrated a high level of solidarity with the countries of the region, as well as with Italy, when – at the initiative of President Vučić – I personally delivered two million surgical masks, two million epidemiological masks, one million gloves and one hundred thousand protective suits, in April. In addition, I would like to recall that, in May, Serbia donated EUR 2 million for the development of a vaccine against COVID-19, and that, less than two months after the first donation, I participated in the video summit organised at the initiative of EC President Ursula von der Leyen, where the Government of the Republic of Serbia donated additional EUR 100,000 for research and development of a vaccine against COVID-19.

Last year, Romania held the presidency of the EU Council. How do you assess its support to Serbia on the European integration path?

We have good bilateral and neighbourly relations with Romania. Romania supports Serbia in the European integration process and that support is valuable to us. We maintain regular contacts with Bucharest regarding the matter, and we strive to develop this cooperation further. During the Romanian presidency from 1 January to 30 June 2019, we opened negotiation chapter 9 – Financial services (on 27 June 2019). Romania’s EU Council presidency was to some extent burdened with resolving important issues regarding the EU’s internal reform, such as Brexit, EU restructuring (an informal Summit of EU leaders was organised in Sibiu on 9 May 2019, on the topic of a strategic plan for the future of the EU in the years following Brexit) and the formation of the new composition of the European Commission, given that the European Parliament elections coincided with the period of Romania’s presidency. I would like to thank our Romanian colleagues who, despite such unfavourable circumstances in the area of enlargement, managed to organise the Intergovernmental Conference where the aforementioned chapter was opened. 

Journalist: Nikola Lakić
Source: Naša reč
Photo: Tanja Valič, Tanjug