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Jadranka Joksimović: Serbia has recorded a good result in the process this year like no other country

December 30 2021 | Belgrade

Jadranka Joksimović: Serbia has recorded a good result in the process this year like no other country

Minister of European Integration Jadranka Joksimović speaks for 24sedam about the results achieved this year and future plans

Serbia is one step closer to the EU after opening Cluster 4 in accession negotiations. What can we be happy about and what remains as a stumbling stone in the European integration process? 

What specifically has been achieved in the EU negotiations so far, in terms of opened chapters, i.e. clusters according to the new methodology? 

 

In 2021, the new EU enlargement methodology has been applied to Serbia’s accession negotiations, and both we and the EU can be satisfied with the results. The process is significantly more dynamic with more concrete results on both sides. After two Intergovernmental Conferences held this year, one in June during the Portuguese EU Council presidency and one in December during the Slovenian EU Council presidency, Serbia has recorded a good result like no other country in the process. At our initiative, the EU Member States agreed in June that Cluster 1 – Fundamentals (covering a total of five chapters which had been previously opened under the old methodology) could be noted as opened; this cluster is the most important one for the process, as the fulfilment of the conditions for the opening of other thematic clusters depends on the progress in this cluster. Then in December, at the Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels, we managed to open Cluster 4 – Green Agenda and sustainable connectivity, which means that the EU Member States valorised all the results of Serbia’s hard and energetic work, primarily regarding the reforms in the rule of law, as well as the reforms under Cluster 4. This cluster covers four negotiation chapters, which had not been opened before and which include demanding and vital public policies: Chapter 14 – Transport policy, Chapter 15 – Energy, Chapter 21– Trans-European networks, and Chapter 27 – Environment and climate change, where we successfully met all the opening benchmarks. Furthermore, this year, which, let’s not forget, has been affected by the pandemic crisis in all segments and not just health, we have managed to meet the opening benchmarks for another cluster, Cluster 3 – Competitiveness and inclusive growth, which covers eight chapters and which the EC also recommended for opening in its Annual Report. 

This year has been important for the EU itself regarding the enlargement policy, since it acted according to the principles it defined under the new methodology and recognised the progress Serbia made, confirming the credibility of its own positions regarding the European integration of our country, and, I hope soon, of others from the Western Balkans, too. 

Since the beginning, our negotiation process has been significantly different from any previous ones, even under the old methodology. We were the first country which started the negotiation process under very complex and rigorous rules, unlike any other candidate country before. Namely, while all previous candidates had opened chapters when they were technically prepared in that area, our negotiations were subject to the principle of first gaining a positive report in the rule of law area and achieving progress in the dialogue on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina before being allowed to open any of the chapters. The new methodology has only strengthened these criteria and brought the cluster approach, and we have successfully and actively adjusted, which has yielded results.

What are Serbia’s obligations now that it has opened Cluster 4? 

Having opened Cluster 4, Serbia is now more deeply connected with all EU standards regarding the Green Agenda and sustainable connectivity. By opening a total of four chapters within this cluster, we will gain better access to the sector policy and financial instruments for projects related to environment. We have already started implementing some of those projects financed by the European Union. Let me name just a few really large projects – the reconstruction of the Belgrade–Niš railway section of Corridor 10 and the construction of the Niš–Merdare section of the motorway, for which the EU allocated huge grants. Of course, there are many more important projects related to restoring a healthy environment, energy efficiency, digitalisation, etc.  

Our obligation is not to be silent observers of changes happening around us, but to work together with our strategic partners from the EU and use the financial assistance that will be made available to us, so as to tackle the burning issues faced by the entire world in terms of environmental protection, fight against climate change, energy situation and functioning of transport. This is what EU citizens, as well as our citizens, recognise as a topic that is vital for the health, environmental and energy security of future generations, but also as a new chance for a huge leap towards a revitalized approach to economic growth and development. We are ready and determined to enter the current of change, ensuring, of course, as everyone else in the EU and around the world, that the energy security of our country is preserved during the transitional period until the climate neutrality of the European continent is achieved and until the full transition to renewable energy sources. 

Furthermore, the opening of Cluster 4 in the conditions of the pandemic, which has not died down for almost two years, shows how much we are dedicated to this process and that we wouldn’t have been able to open this cluster if we hadn’t conducted a whole series of activities within the process of improving the rule of law, as well as environment, infrastructure, energy and digitalisation. This year, we have particularly worked hard on preparing programmes and projects from these areas, which will be financed from the new EU investment – IPA 3, under the new seven-year perspective 2021–2027, as well as from the Western Balkans Investment Framework. In August and November this year, we submitted a package of proposals for the first two years of the new financial perspective. In late 2021, seven projects were supported within the Western Balkans Investment Framework in the amount of almost EUR 220 million, and they are related to transport, energy, digital and social infrastructure, which proves our continuous engagement in timely preparing complex and expensive infrastructure projects.


You have stated that, with the new methodology, Serbia is moving faster towards the EU. Do you expect that some of the chapters will be closed in 2022?  

The initiative for revising the enlargement methodology, which was launched in November 2019, was aimed at achieving a more credible process, which would have better predictability, dynamism and stronger political steering. Those were the main principles based on which, in February 2020, the European Commission adopted a new, enhanced methodological concept of enlargement that grouped 35 negotiation chapters into six negotiation clusters according to the similarity of policies they cover. 

As far as we are concerned, as a reliable EU partner and a credible state in the process of EU accession, we will use all the advantages of the new methodology if it is consistently applied in practice. Under the demanding principles of the new methodology, negotiation chapters are no longer individually opened or closed, but only entire clusters are opened and closed, which is favourable for achieving an expectedly better dynamism. What is important is that we are fully prepared and that we have correctly understood the way of application of the new methodology and, accordingly, have timely undertaken steps towards improving the political steering of the process. In addition, by reorganising the negotiating structure, I have raised the capacity for meeting all the criteria and benchmarks within the negotiation clusters, which has been recognised and welcomed in the latest European Commission’s report on the progress of our country. 

Under negotiation chapter 35, the European Union requires Serbia to achieve a comprehensive normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. What are your assessments regarding this chapter, given that progress is impossible without the progress in this area?  

The dialogue on the normalisation of relations is the foundation of this negotiation chapter, which monitors the implementation of reached agreements. Under the new methodology, it is not grouped under any of the six negotiation clusters, but under the overall balance clause from the EU negotiating framework, it has the same importance as chapters 23 and 24 covered by Cluster 1 – Fundamentals. However, the dialogue is at a standstill as a result of Pristina’s years long failure to fulfil its obligations. Pristina does not want to fulfil its part of the obligations, it is obstructing and negating the Brussels Agreement, and is conducting activities that undermine stability and jeopardise trade and the free movement of people, goods and services. On the other hand, we are fully committed to regional cooperation and creating a free trade zone and an open region. However, I think that the EU has correctly recognised the cause of this standstill.


The Brdo EU–Western Balkans Summit ended without the adoption of the timeframe for the WB region’s accession to the EU. You have stated that this did not call Serbia’s EU path into question. Why do you think the EU is not ready to set a timeframe for the accession negotiations with WB countries? 

I think that is a completely wrong interpretation. So, the new methodology does not envisage any “package” for the accession of WB countries, we are all in significantly different stages of the process, so there is no point in determining one single date for the accession of everyone together, but what could potentially be determined is the year when the last country of the region would be accepted. 

Serbia is part of Europe, and there is nothing more natural than for it to become part of the European Union. We have common values, we share a common history, many of our citizens live and work in the European Union. What is more, since its creation, the European Union has shown a tendency of enlargement, striving to reach its natural borders. We understand that there are different views within the EU, but we do not think that the suspension of enlargement would be strategically wise, either for the region or for the EU. However, it is obvious that there are huge differences among the Member States and that the reconciliation of the positions regarding the matter is not always easy. If Serbia joined the EU tomorrow, it would not be among the weakest members, while some member states would not be able to accede today if they had the same criteria as Serbia to fulfil. 

Our goal is for our citizens to feel all the benefits of membership, for our economy to equally participate in the EU market, and for Serbia to use the many funds available to the Member States. In that regard, we are not losing sight of our strategic goal and we expect the same from the EU. Serbia’s membership in the European Union is a mutual goal, so it is expected that both sides will approach that goal strategically and that we will not lose another year because at some point we would focus on other topics or become convinced that the process can successfully end without a constant and clear political support. You must have a vision of how you want to implement all measures that will lead you to your goal and you must dedicate resources to it – this does not necessarily imply economic measures, but attention in the form of political support, which we need in this process. 

In this regard, the President, the Prime Minister and I as the line minister and Chief Negotiator have been working very hard on raising the level of strategic communication with our partners in the EU, because Serbia is a credible partner to the European Union and we have demonstrated that in practice. During the pandemic, we have also shown that we can help the EU Member States a lot, as well as the region, both in crisis management and in creating a common European response, as well as in improving cooperation on various EU sector policies.


Has the European integration of WB countries now been placed higher on the EU agenda, after a long time?  

The success that Serbia has achieved this year in European integration and the “breaking of the ice” in the application of the new methodology are certainly significant steps for the region as whole and for the individual WB countries that are waiting for the beginning of official negotiations, for whose sake the old methodology was changed. In addition to significant results in reforms, Serbia factually enabled the new methodology to finally come to life in practice, by being the example of commitment, organisation and coordination. This is the result which should be important for others in the region, too, regardless of the fact that this year none of them has achieved any significant results in the process of European integration.  

In that regard, it is important that the “number one” priority of the six-month French presidency starting from 1 January 2022, called “a more sovereign Europe”, includes the topic of “clarifying the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, and that the Conference on the Future of Europe and the Conference of the EU and the Western Balkans in the EU have been announced for June next year. 

The dedication of France, as a founding member state of the EU, together with Germany, and the initiative of President Emmanuel Macron to advance the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU, is vital for our neighbours and Serbia’s European integration process. As its reliable partner and friend, Serbia will support France in the implementation of all priorities during its EU Council presidency. We as the Government, I as the Chief Negotiator and Minister of European Integration, and the citizens of Serbia, are ready to take part in all debates concerning the future of the EU.  

Which European countries are the greatest partners on Serbia’s road to the EU? 

Since 2000, Serbia has received support from the European Commission in the total amount of over EUR 4 billion in grants for the purpose of implementing political, economic, legislative and institutional reforms. These funds have been provided from several instruments of EU assistance, particularly from the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance that we have been using since 2007 (IPA 1 2007–2013 and IPA 2 2014–2020). It is also important to mention the Western Balkans Investment Framework, which since its foundation in 2009 has been promoting social and economic development and the EU accession process across the Western Balkans, through providing funds and technical assistance for strategically important investments. So far, almost EUR 370 million in grants has been provided through this instrument, which covers both technical assistance and investments, while loans related to WBIF projects have amounted to EUR 2.6 billion. The Regional Housing Programme is a similar instrument whose primary goal is to ensure housing solutions for refugee families from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina which reside in the Republic of Serbia and whose housing issue has not yet been resolved. Since 2014, over EUR 130 million in grants has been allocated through this programme, coming mainly from IPA as well as from other donors. 

In addition to these key instruments, since 2005, Serbia has participated in EU programmes which offer a chance for us to get acquainted with EU policies in certain areas, such as Horizon 2020 (for support in the area of science, research and innovation), COSME (for support to entrepreneurship and SMEs), EaSI – the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (programme in the area of labour, employment and social policy), etc. It is also important to note that, in the past seven years, Serbia has had a chance to use the resources from other EU funds, such as the EU Solidarity Fund after the 2014 floods and for the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and the MADAD Fund, from which we received support for the implementation of measures for resolving the issues caused by the migrant crisis. 

The money for all these funds and instruments of assistance is provided mainly by the EU taxpayers, i.e. EU Member States. However, in addition to the joint assistance these states, i.e. EU citizens, have provided to Serbia, European countries have also provided considerable individual, bilateral development assistance in the past 20 years. Germany, Italy, Sweden, as well as Switzerland and Norway as non-EU members, have provided assistance to the Republic of Serbia worth almost EUR 2.8 billion during the same period, both in the form of grants and soft loans. Bilateral development assistance has largely followed the same priorities also funded from the aforementioned EU instruments of pre-accession assistance, relating to the implementation of reforms and investment in all areas important for Serbia’s accession to the European Union.


What are the most common explanations and reasons given by those who strive to postpone our accession to the Union?  

There are Member States that are constantly cautious about the idea of enlargement, and they’ve had this attitude before, during the previous waves of enlargement. It is no secret that the EU itself faces a number of crises, where common positions are difficult to reach. In some EU Member States, there is a prevailing perception that new Member States are more of a burden to the bloc than an added value. We are really trying to change that perception and not become a “second rate” Member State upon accession, but a full-fledged partner to others. That is why our question is not only what the EU can do for Serbia but also what Serbia can do at this stage to contribute to greater resilience, competitiveness, stability, and development of the European continent. The reservoirs of our resilience as a society and state have indisputably been recognised, as the crises have been coming one after another in recent years, from the migrant crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Citizens’ orientation towards Serbia’s accession to the EU is indisputable, evidenced also by numerous public opinion polls. Do you think that Serbian citizens may understand the messages coming from the EU as stalling, and could this result in their reduced support to EU integration? 

According to our survey conducted in August this year, Serbia’s membership in the European Union is supported by more than a half of citizens – 57 %. As much as 83 % of the respondents (10 % more than in the 2019 survey) support the reforms leading to EU membership, which implies that there is a realistic public opinion that Serbia must change primarily for its own sake and for the welfare of its citizens, not just in order to join the Union. 

Bearing in mind all elements of the enlargement policy, including both the positive ones and those that we can influence through our work, and the overall wider political context (COVID-19 pandemic crisis, transition to the new negotiation methodology, and the previously launched debate in the EU about its own future and about the new model of the enlargement policy, as well as migration policy and economic developments in the EU), the approach of the Serbian Government in communicating the accession process is fully in line with the messages of our European partners – that it is crucial that citizens’ expectations are realistic and focused on the benefits this process can offer even prior to Serbia’s accession to the Union. The huge support in itself does not mean much if it is not grounded in reality, and our results show that Serbian citizens understand very well the benefits of the accession process and that they assess them objectively, where more than a half supports them. 

We have upcoming elections at all levels scheduled for April next year. What are your expectations regarding the Serbian Progressive Party, as one of its founders?  

Our election platform is simple and clear – an overview of everything we have achieved in synergy between the President and the Government, and more importantly, the continuation of a responsible policy and further concrete plans for the country’s development and progress. Through a long-term and responsible macroeconomic policy, we have ensured the resilience of our economy during the greatest crisis in Europe, which has resulted in stability and higher living standard of our citizens, efficient and timely response to the pandemic – procurement of everything necessary for the protection of our citizens, as well as in terms of vaccination and treatment, for which everyone in the EU has commended us. Large infrastructure investments that have intertwined Serbia with roads and motorways, energy security of our citizens at a time when the world faces a huge crisis, investments and launching of large environmental projects and ideas, investments in culture and art which are essential for the progress of society, reform and improvement of education, building the reputation of our country in the world and considerable progress in European integration – all these are some of the results as well as the basis for the roadmap of the years to come. This roadmap will contain even more mature investments and vision of a Serbia which follows the change, which strengthens institutions and democracy, and where our citizens get a better and encouraging framework for life and work, for a higher living standard for starting a family, for new types of education and learning. I believe the citizens will recognise this and place trust in our president and our party.

The election race has begun. The President of Serbia and of the SNS, Aleksandar Vučić, promotes the results of the Government every day, while the opposition is trying to win the voters over in the street. What kind of campaign do you expect? 

Everyone in the political arena chooses their own way to present themselves to citizens. I am amazed home some people from the current opposition, who were in power for over a decade, do not recognise the maturity and demanding criteria of the Serbian citizens who, instead of an uncontrolled noise and rage aimed at one man, primarily President Vučić as a prominent and influential political figure on our political scene and within the SNS, expect ideas, vision and programme for a number of ongoing social issues, which will also shape the future of generations to come. It would be better for our society if there was a healthy competition of ideas and political ideologies, but it is obvious that those who wasted 12 years of this country and citizens, in terms of development and progress, have become barren of ideas and answers they offer for serious social issues.

Do you think our society has truly progressed in terms of gender equality? How much do women in public office in Serbia – and this government has the largest number of women so far – change this picture and how important is it for women in public office to send a message that the “weaker sex” is actually equal with the “stronger sex”? 

The Serbian Government is really committed to improving the living and working conditions of women through a broad social dialogue on key issues of gender equality and gender identity. 
Almost half of the current composition of the Serbian Government are women, and we proudly promote this fact, which is not a matter of desirable statistics but of our genuine commitment to reach and even surpass the gender standards set by developed democratic societies.  Today, we can be satisfied as women have greater representation in social and political life, there is a great number of women in business and many other professions that were once unattainable.  
Positive changes are there to encourage us to continue down this road, because the work is certainly not done. Nonetheless, the statistics and everyday examples show that there is a long way ahead of us, and I mean all of us, because equality concerns everyone – both men and women.


  

What are your wishes for the upcoming 2022? 

They are always the same – health, harmony and professional success to my nearest and dearest. 

What would you wish to the readers of 24sedam and all Serbian citizens?  

I wish everyone sound health, family union and tolerance, energy to work and create, and social responsibility so that we could all progress together.