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J. Joksimović: There are conditions to open at least one cluster in June

June 06 2021 | Belgrade

J. Joksimović: There are conditions to open at least one cluster in June

The Negotiating Position for Chapter 15 – Energy, which has been a great challenge for us, will be adopted tomorrow at the Serbian Government session and immediately submitted to the EU

The latest semi-annual report of the European Commission clearly shows that Serbia has made significant progress in numerous areas covered by chapters 23 and 24, particularly bearing in mind the aggravating social and economic circumstances that have marked the previous period and have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as noted by Jadranka Joksimović, the Minister of European Integration, in her interview for ‘Politika’, commenting on the document that has just been made public.

She explains that this is the Non-paper, i.e. the semi-annual report on interim benchmarks for chapters 23 and 24, covered by cluster 1 – Fundamentals under the new methodology.
It is important because, based on the findings on achieved progress in the rule of law, the member states will decide on further support to concrete steps in Serbia’s accession negotiations, primarily on the holding of the political Intergovernmental Conference and potential opening of clusters by the end of this month.

“What is, nonetheless, vital with regard to our readiness for the continuation of negotiations is the fact that we have, in a short time, managed to complete all necessary procedures for the full preparation of two entire clusters: 3 – Inclusive growth and competitiveness and 4 – Green Agenda, digitalisation and sustainable connectivity. We have achieved that owing to hard, coordinated and joint work of the new negotiation structure, which I initiated and conceived as the Minister of European Integration and Chief Negotiator and which the Government adopted, and the work of all line ministers and highest political officials. We have appointed coordinators for all six clusters from the ranks of state secretaries and assistant line ministers, whereby we have increased the political responsibility for the implementation of obligations stemming from the negotiations. What is particularly important is the active engagement of President Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, as required by the new EU enlargement methodology, which provides for a stronger political steering of the process, especially in the area of the rule of law”, says Jadranka Joksimović. 

European Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi says that, in the previous months, Serbia has taken important steps in the process of EU reforms in all areas, but that it also needs to deliver tangible results within clusters 3 and 4, which are closest to opening.

In this sense, I would like to point out that cluster 3 covers eight negotiation chapters, of which five have already been opened (17 – Economic and monetary policy, 20 – Entrepreneurship and industrial policy, 25 – Science and research, 26 – Education and culture, and 28 – Customs union). In the last two months, the Serbian Government has completed its work on the remaining negotiating positions for chapter 10 – Information society and media, 16 – Taxation, and 19 – Social policy and employment, which have been sent to the competent bodies of the European Commission. Thus we have fulfilled all our obligations with regard to the opening of this cluster. I expect that Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations and Commissioner Várhelyi’s team will invite the member states that have not yet given consent to OBAR (i.e. the Opening Benchmarks Assessment Reports for Negotiating Positions 16 and 19) to do so, so that the Commission would also accelerate its procedures and show determination, readiness and capacity to start actively using the possibilities offered by the new methodology.

In the informal semi-annual report of the European Commission, chapter 23 was assessed in a balanced way, with a factual overview of results, while in the areas covered by chapter 24, we have traditionally good assessments, particularly with regard to migration. 

What remains to be done in cluster 4?  

We will also be ready to open this cluster which covers four chapters. Chapters 14 – Transport policy, 21 – Trans-European Networks, 27 – Environment and climate change have been “under consideration” in the EU Council Working Party on Enlargement for a long time. The Negotiating Position for Chapter 15 – Energy, which has been a great challenge for us, will be adopted on Monday at the Serbian Government session and immediately submitted to the EU. In a very short time, we have managed to adopt two extremely demanding action plans, which are required for the opening of chapter 15 – the Action Plan for Required Oil Reserves and a comprehensive Action Plan for Unbundling in the Gas Sector. All the abovementioned activities have completely gone through all formal procedures in the Serbian Government and the National Assembly before the line committees and the National Convention, which gathers stakeholders from the civil sector.

The report notes that “Serbia needs to further accelerate reforms in the key areas of the judiciary and notably judicial independence, the fight against corruption and organised crime, media freedom, and handling of war crimes”. This has been required in practically all reports. Are you worried by such assessments? 

There are certainly parts of this semi-annual informal report that offer more critical conclusions and assessments, such as the handling of war crimes, while other areas that have recorded delays mostly saw repeated sentences from the previous reports. Namely, the relaunching of the process of constitutional reforms of the Government after the formation of the new composition of the National Assembly in 2020 was noted and positively assessed. Overall, it can be said that chapter 23 was assessed in a balanced way, with a factual overview of results, which, in the pandemic circumstances, is a significant result. With regard to the fight against corruption, compared to the previous reports, it can be said that there are no particularly negative assessments. In the areas covered by chapter 24, we have traditionally good assessments, particularly in the area of migration, where the report emphasised the improvement of Serbia’s early warning, preparedness and crisis management mechanism in cooperation with the European Asylum Support Office. Cooperation with Interpol and Europol is established and is functioning well, according to the non-paper. 

It is stated that the non-paper presents factual developments in the areas covered by chapters 23 and 24, but that it does not provide an assessment of the impact of these developments on the rule of law situation in Serbia, because “It will take time to be able to assess whether a number of very recent initiatives - dating from the arrival of the new government, - translate, as intended, into tangible improvements to the status quo”. Which initiatives should soon yield “tangible improvement”? Can Serbia truly accelerate these reforms? 

The report precisely provides an overview of developments in all areas, while also following and noting Serbia’s efforts in meeting the recommendations of the EC Annual Report, in this case, of the last report for 2020. These recommendations are conceived in a way that they should be achieved within 12–18 months from the publishing of the Annual Report. These are all demanding areas where implementation can really be gradual, but it is important to maintain the continuity of measure implementation. This leads to fundamental sustainability and quality of the application of the adopted, and that is precisely what we are doing.

One of the recommendations calls for Serbia to further strengthen the environment for the exercise of freedom of expression. How will you achieve that?

With regard to the part on the freedom of expression, for which we have previously been more severely criticised, the report notes that the action plans for the implementation of the Media Strategy have been adopted and that they have started being implemented in an inclusive and transparent way. Two working groups have been formed, one on the implementation of the media strategy, the other on the safety of journalists. The report even goes a step further, which we welcome, and notes that the Serbian President himself publicly called for the attacks to stop and for the issue of journalists’ safety to be addressed at the highest level. Media freedoms imply an active understanding and commitment of all structures and levels of government to create an enabling environment for media freedom, as well as all for media outlets and journalists to genuinely and consistently apply their part of the ethics and professional code in their work.

This report will be the basis for the EU member states’ decision on potential opening of clusters in June. Do you expect a positive decision?

The report is generally positive and balanced, which I believe will allow for the holding of the Intergovernmental Conference in June and the start of the application of the new methodology. This is particularly important as Serbia will be the first country to which the new methodology will be applied in practice, for which we are fully ready. So, we have entered the continuation of the negotiation process fully institutionally prepared, organised, politically strengthened and determined to continue the process under the new methodology. Therefore, I expect that both the EC and the member states will start applying the new methodology as agreed, and that, in the process of mutual understanding of the gravity and importance of the enlargement policy, this will lead to the acceleration of the pace of Serbia’s accession negotiations.

What is particularly important is the active engagement of President Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, as required by the new EU enlargement methodology, which provides for a stronger political steering of the process, especially in the area of the rule of law.

So, you are optimistic?

There are many elements for a positive decision on the holding of the Intergovernmental Conference and on the opening of at least one cluster, if there is will on part of the member states and the European Commission to accelerate their sometimes complex and long procedures, analyses and preparations of all positions and consents. It wouldn’t be good if procedures were the reason for the delay in cluster opening, but what is important is that we as a government in synergy with President Vučić have renewed the impetus of reforms and clear commitment to the continuation of the process, that we have reorganised ourselves according to the new methodology and prepared for two entire clusters in a short time. In any case, this year has already shown that as a government, we have renewed the pace of the reforms and commitment to the accession process. Therefore, we expect this to be followed by progress in the process, in line with the new methodology’s principle of credibility. 

Source: Politika