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We have shown that the EU can count on Serbia

February 17 2021 | Belgrade

We have shown that the EU can count on Serbia

INTERVIEW: JADRANKA JOKSIMOVIĆ, Minister of European Integration

Communication with the European Commission, but also with member states whose support is necessary, has for months been carried out quite intensively at the strategic political, as well as technical level, and we are trying to jointly reach a solution that will truly enhance the pace of the negotiations. The application of the new methodology for EU accession negotiations is to be presented by mid-February or at the beginning of March, says Jadranka Joksimović, the Minister of European Integration, in her interview for Politika. She adds: “There are a lot of details, but it is in the common interest of both the EU and candidates that the new way of negotiations becomes an efficient EU instrument for monitoring the implementation of reforms as well as for encouraging the realisation of the European integration process in the region.”

You expect “the Intergovernmental Conference, as a political forum where we will fully define the application of the new methodology to Serbia with our European partners” to be held by the end of June. Does this mean that it would only be possible to open the first clusters in the second half of the year at the earliest?

This is not only a matter of mechanical regrouping of previous chapters, because the clusters represent six leading EU policies. Serbia is already gradually joining these policies. In terms of the content of the clusters, bearing in mind that we have already opened numerous chapters grouped within them, we are, in a way, already well-advanced in the cluster reform process, since all our regulations in those areas have been undergoing alignment with the EU acquis for years. The novelty is the additionally emphasised political liability of both sides in the negotiations, so that the alignment would be faster and complete. There is a possibility of holding an intergovernmental conference by the end of June, where the application of the new methodology would be actively and thoroughly defined for Serbia, as an acceding country. The clusters encompass areas that are mutually important for Serbia and the EU, as they are related to the implementation of economic and infrastructural reforms under the highest European standards, as well as to the application of the EU Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans.

Will the amendment to the Constitution of Serbia possibly be a condition for the opening of the first cluster?

What is important is that we have already opened all negotiation chapters within cluster 1 and that, despite the extraordinary circumstances we faced in 2020, we managed to finalise the revision of the action plans for chapters 23 and 24, in consultations with the EU and the civil society. We will see how the EC will define the criteria for cluster opening or whether the fact that all chapters within cluster 1 – Fundamentals have already been opened will be sufficient. The amendment to the Constitution should aim at achieving a more efficient judiciary, to the benefit of all Serbian citizens. In December, the new Government resubmitted proposals of constitutional amendments to the National Assembly, and they are fully aligned with all remarks and comments of the Venice Commission. This is now part of the parliament’s obligations, because all institutions of the system have their own role and obligations with regard to progress in the negotiations. It is important that we have thus managed to preserve the continuity of reforms, and I expect that the report on the rule of law, which the European Commission should publish by June, will objectively assess the progress we have achieved. 

Cluster approach to reforms

The Serbian Government is already working on a new cluster approach to coordinating internal reforms. How is this cluster approach different from the previous work on negotiation chapters?

So far, negotiation chapters have been assessed individually, independently of each other. Now, this concept has been changed, and individual chapters have become much more interrelated, even those that seemingly do not have much in common in practice. This is why this EC’s plan of application is important to us. However, the cluster approach certainly raises the level of necessary political coordination and reform activities of the entire Government.

Have you learned anything further about the new methodology, the manner and the beginning of its application from your conversation with Clément Beaune, the Minister of State for European Affairs at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs? After all, it was the French who initiated the adoption of the new methodology.

France did initiate the changes, but after their first proposal, we also had a series of other proposals added by other member states, followed by the final agreement on them in February last year. Nonetheless, we are grateful to Paris for having launched this topic at a moment when the EU enlargement policy lost its focus and turned from an essentially political process basically into a technocratic and sclerotic routine, for which it was evident that the EU citizens themselves, and later their political elite, started showing less and less understanding. Minister Beaune reiterated France’s position that the new negotiation methodology was an instrument for the political steering of the process, which, along with necessary reforms, would bring the region back into the EU’s focus and make the negotiation process more credible and predictable based on the merits of each individual candidate. We find this position acceptable, since we have so far unequivocally demonstrated, on multiple occasions, that we advocate a faster and more dynamic process. 
Therefore, the recent visit of President Vučić to Paris is also important, as one of the topics of his conversation with President Macron was the application of the new methodology, because it maintains the momentum of this crucial matter for us. Certainly, we engage in an active dialogue with all other member states as well, particularly with the presiding troika – Germany, Portugal and Slovenia.

It is important that we have thus managed to preserve the continuity of reforms, and I expect that the report on the rule of law, which the European Commission should publish by June, will objectively assess the progress we have achieved 

It has been a year since the adoption of the decision on the new methodology, and we still do not know anything specifically about the way in which it will be applied. Is this slower work on the new methodology exclusively related to the problems with the pandemic or are there are any further uncertainties within the EU about its application?

There are particular uncertainties with regard to the countries that are already in the negotiation process, i.e. Serbia and Montenegro, because, in that case, it is necessary to define specific criteria for valorising the previously achieved progress. For instance, in our case: we have opened 18 out of 35 chapters; now all that should be valorised so that we are not put at a disadvantage in any way, since we are not starting the process from the beginning.

Are you certain that in our case the new methodology will imply faster accession negotiations? Since it also implies a more efficient blocking of further negotiations if a member state is not satisfied with the actions of a given candidate country.

The point lies in a stronger political steering of the process and its greater credibility, on both sides – the candidates and the EU. The countries of the region are expected to demonstrate greater commitment to the European path, and on the other hand, this new procedure also obliges the EU to allow faster progress of candidate countries on their own merits, providing them greater access to EU funds and other instruments of EU common policies. One of the goals of the new methodology is to make the negotiations more predictable, using the mechanism of positive and negative conditioning through preventive and corrective measures. Corrective measures are already part of the existing Negotiating Framework and they are very strict, and it has been stressed since the very beginning that there will be no changes in the negotiating framework established with Serbia, because it is the only fair move. Ever since the negotiations with the EU began in January 2014, we have conducted them under criteria that have already been quite strict. In that sense, the new methodology is not a novelty for us, because our experience tells us that only progress in the rule of law, and in our case – in the Belgrade–Pristina dialogue, implies progress in negotiations. Under such demanding conditions and having indisputably achieved progress, we have so far opened more than a half of the negotiation chapters.

How will the political commitment of the Serbian Government and Government ministers to reforms necessary for the acceleration of European integration be assessed?

One of the strategic goals of this Government is the acceleration of reforms necessary for EU membership. And every Government minister and ministry have their own part of reform activities they must actively implement. We have shown that the EU can count on Serbia, as a country that has the capacity for partnership with the EU, for sustainability and resilience. This resilience of our country to protect all its citizens, as well as to help others in the neighbourhood, is recognised both in the EU and in our region. As regards the way our commitment will be acknowledged by the EU, we expect that the first such format be the political Intergovernmental Conference with an open and active strategic and political dialogue on expectations and plans.

The Ministry of European Integration is already dealing with organisational adaptation to the new methodology. Will the Negotiating Team retain its current form? You as the line minister are the Chief Negotiator, but who will be the Head of the Negotiating Team?

I have timely initiated the process of necessary adaptations, because I am not twiddling my thumbs, sitting and lamenting over the past, but we are making proactive steps in all areas. We are the only country in the region that formed a special Ministry of European Integration back in 2017, in response to the need for stronger strategic communication with European partners. The Minister of European Integration is the Chief Negotiator, authorised by a Government decision to conduct negotiations with EU institutions and member states, exchange opinions and determine draft agreements in Serbia’s EU accession process. For the purpose of achieving stronger political steering of the process and linking accession negotiations with the implementation of the SAA which have so far been separate, as provided for in the new methodology, the negotiating structure itself will be divided according to clusters. Negotiating groups have mainly worked independently, and now they will be interrelated within one cluster. The Negotiating Team will be coherent and will have cluster coordinators and team members, precisely for the sake of strengthening the political steering of the process. 

Source: Politika