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J. Joksimović: In 2022, Serbia will focus on meeting interim and closing benchmarks for rule of law cluster

January 02 2022 | Belgrade

J. Joksimović: In 2022, Serbia will focus on meeting interim and closing benchmarks for rule of law cluster

Minister of European Integration Jadranka Joksimović has said in her interview for euractiv.rs that in 2022, Serbia will work on opening the remaining four clusters in the EU negotiation process, particularly focusing on meeting the interim and closing benchmarks for Cluster 1 related to the rule of law. Joksimović has stated that a successful referendum on constitutional amendments regarding judicial appointments is a key condition for maintaining a good pace of negotiations with the EU. She has also spoken about Serbia’s European integration in 2021, expectations for 2022, challenges on the EU path, IPA 3, IPARD, etc.

How do you assess Serbia’s European integration in 2021?

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 and the EC agreed in June that Cluster 1 – Fundamentals 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 all 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.

What the Serbian Government, and I personally, as the line minister and Chief Negotiator, count as success is the formation of the new negotiating structure, which is completely adjusted to the new methodology. At my proposal, the Government established improved structures – the Coordination for Conducting Negotiations on the Republic of Serbia’s Accession to the European Union and the Team for Support to Negotiations. This enabled us to have an efficient and fully coordinated approach to meeting the benchmarks for clusters, just as the revised negotiation methodology envisages. This was particularly noted and commended in the latest EC Country Report (Progress Report), because this showed that Serbia readily and promptly entered the demanding process of the application of the new accession methodology. Coordinators for each of the six clusters were appointed, which complies with one of the main principles of the new methodology related to a stronger political steering of the process. What is vital in terms of this principle is the dedicated engagement of the President and the Prime Minister in all stages of negotiations with the EU and implementation of necessary internal reforms. In addition, we have innovated the structure of the Ministry of European Integration in line with the new requirements by introducing a new Department for Coordination of the Process of Aligning National Reforms with EU Policies and Instruments for Achieving the Green Deal and Sustainable Development.

All these changes throughout 2021, which, let’s not forget, has been affected by the pandemic crisis in all segments and not just health, have helped us 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.  

As regards development assistance, which I as the National IPA Coordinator have been programming and monitoring for years, the EU has allocated a total of EUR 86 million from IPA 2, through the second part of the 2020 programme for the support to European integration, for the sector of environment and climate change, Regional Energy Efficiency Programme for the Western Balkans and for the support to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

This year, we have particularly worked hard on preparing programmes and projects, which will be financed from the new EU instrument – 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 total 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.  

I would particularly like to point out that in 2020, at my initiative, we formed an intersectoral working group on the application for financing from the European Solidarity Fund for public expenditure incurred in the first four months following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of cooperation among all our institutions, I sent the application after which almost EUR 12 million have been granted to us this year, which is more than some Member States received through this mechanism and which in turn proves our capacities to use these funds.  

I am particularly satisfied with the importance and impact of the EU PRO and Norway for You programmes, which are financed by the European Union and the Kingdom of Norway with the aim of promoting the development of underdeveloped cities and municipalities in Serbia. Owing to these projects, we contributed not only to the improvement of economic and social infrastructure, but also to the improvement of entrepreneurship by providing support to small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs. Thousands of new jobs and the creation of conditions for potential investments contribute to the visibility of this assistance and concrete benefits from the European integration process.

I also count as important success the fact that, following bilateral negotiations with Germany that I coordinated on behalf of the Ministry of European Integration, Serbia was allocated a total of EUR 309 million for bilateral financial and technical assistance in the areas covered by Cluster 4 of the new methodology for the accession to the European Union: energy, transport, environmental protection, trans-European networks, climate change and digitalisation. In that sense, I also signed the Memorandum of Intent regarding cooperation with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in the area of the fight against climate change.

What are your expectations in terms of European integration in 2022?

I expect that we maintain this good pace of the negotiation process during the French and Czech presidencies in 2022. I believe that one of the key conditions for that is a successful referendum on constitutional amendments regarding judicial appointments, by which we would complete the most important, fundamental step in meeting the conditions necessary for strengthening judicial independence. In all public opinion polls conducted in the last decade, our citizens, responding to the question of what they expect and see as the greatest results of the European integration process, have explicitly cited independent judiciary, better access to justice and fairness in society, and successful fight against corruption, in addition to a higher living standard, of course. In that sense, I am convinced that a large number of our citizens will maturely and responsibly recognise the importance of this constitutional amendment, which is important not only for the successful continuation of European integration, but also for fundamental and deep structural changes in our society that most of our citizens look forward to.

Certainly, along with continuing reforms in the rule of law, we will actively work on the opening benchmarks for other clusters. We are currently conducting comprehensive preparations for the opening of Cluster 5 – Resources, agriculture and cohesion. At the moment, two out of five chapters have been opened within Cluster 5: chapter 13 – Fisheries and chapter 33 – Financial and budgetary provisions, while the European Commission assessed that we met both opening benchmarks for chapter 11 – Agriculture and rural development. We are also working on meeting the three opening benchmarks for chapter 12 – Food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy, and on the one opening benchmark for chapter 22 – Regional policy and coordination of structural instruments. Furthermore, we are working on the interim benchmarks for chapters within the already opened clusters, so as to gradually approach the closing benchmarks.

Since the beginning, our negotiation process has been significantly different from others. 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 very fact that throughout this year we have managed to show that Serbia is a responsible EU membership candidate, which properly understands all criteria it needs to fulfil, represents an incentive for further progress, not only to us but to everyone in our region.

What will the Ministry particularly be focusing on in the upcoming year?

One of the most important responsibilities of the Ministry of European Integration and mine as the National IPA Coordinator is to coordinate the planning and programming of international development assistance, primarily of EU development assistance to our country. EU pre-accession funds represent an investment into the future of a candidate country, as well as the future of the EU itself. Our common ultimate goal is to ensure a better quality of life for the Serbian citizens and to reach EU standards. Above all, the conclusion of agreements which are the formal assumption for the realisation of concrete assistance is planned for 2022. Our goal is for projects that we prepare for implementation to contribute to the realisation of our strategic goals in all key sector policies. The novelties brought by IPA 3 are a challenge, as well as an opportunity for a more intensive connection of Serbia and the entire region with the EU, while it also ensures additional support to further reforms in the areas of common interest.

In addition, priorities in line with Serbia’s obligations in the negotiation process and reform processes aimed at achieving a balanced socio-economic development will be financed from IPA 3 and the Western Balkans Investment Framework. Special focus will be placed on the areas of energy, transport, social and digital infrastructure, which demand considerable investments for the purpose of ensuring better connectivity with the WB countries and the EU, as well as on the areas of environmental protection, introduction of digital infrastructure and strengthening healthcare capacities, so as to ensure a better living environment.

Some of those projects are already known to the public, such as the reconstruction and modernisation of the existing tracks and construction of second track in section Belgrade – Mladenovac – Niš, and the reconstruction and modernisation of the existing tracks and construction of second track in section Stalać – Djunis, which are financed with over EUR 80 million in EU grants. This also includes the construction of a single-track bypass railway around Niš, as part of the project of the reconstruction and modernisation of railway line Niš – Dimitrovgrad – Bulgarian border, worth over EUR 34 million in investment grants. I should also mention the project of the introduction of broadband internet in rural areas, for which we received EUR 33.7 million from the EU, and the construction of the new building of the University Children’s Hospital Tiršova 2, worth EUR 35.7 million donated by the EU. There are certainly many other important projects, I’ve only mentioned a few.

What is more, the new IPARD 3 programme is planned for adoption, which will support agriculture and rural development. The plans also include the signing of the Financial Agreement for IPARD for the period 2021–2027, which provides for the EU financial support worth EUR 288 million.

In parallel with these processes, in 2022 we are also planning to prepare and adopt appropriate regulations so that Serbia could continue to successfully use available EU grants. In addition to learning how to manage IPA 3 funds, this will also bring us a step closer to using much larger European structural and investment funds that will become available to us upon accession to the European Union. It is also our obligation, as the institution that manages the work of the Negotiating Group for Chapter 22 – Regional policy and coordination of structural instruments, to work, in cooperation with other institutions at the national and local level, on meeting the preconditions for an effective use of this support.

What challenges do you expect in 2022 in terms of European integration?

As far as we are concerned, as a reliable EU partner and a responsible country in the process of EU accession, we will use all the advantages of the new methodology if it is consistently applied in practice. We will work on the opening of the remaining clusters, particularly focusing on meeting the interim and closing benchmarks for Cluster 1 related to the rule of law, because this is vital for the success of the process. It is a challenge, but also an incentive for the acceleration of reforms.

As regards the dialogue on the normalisation of relations with Pristina, it is not grouped under any of the six 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. Given that the dialogue is at a standstill as a result of Pristina’s years long failure to fulfil its obligations, what we can do and achieve is the complete commitment to regional cooperation and creating a free trade zone and an open region.

As regards the challenges the EU itself is facing, we understand that there are different views within the EU regarding enlargement, but we do not think that the suspension of this process would be strategically fruitful, either for the region or for the EU. It is also important that EU citizens understand the needs and importance of our region on time and that the EU keeps the topic of enlargement high on the agenda. 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.

It is important that priority number 1 of the French presidency “a more sovereign Europe” includes the topic of “clarifying the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, and that France has announced the organisation of the “Conference on the Future of Europe” and the “Conference of the EU and the Western Balkans in the EU” for June 2022.

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. Excellent personal relations between President Aleksandar Vučić and President Emmanuel Macron are an additional indicator of the strengthening of our historical alliances, connection between our two peoples and trust we place in France. 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, because we as an associated country which is in the process of accession have a completely legitimate and natural interest in all matters that shape the EU common policies we are aligning with.