New Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has reaffirmed that the future of this region lies in the European Union. And we want to see an acceleration of the accession process. You can count on our continued full support ~ Nikolaus Lutterotti
On the eve of the adoption of the European Commission’s annual report, which has proposed the opening of two new clusters in Serbia’s EU accession negotiations, the Austrian ambassador reiterated that the speed of opening chapters depends on the speed of reforms implemented in the candidate country.
The final decision, which should be brought by the 27 EU members by the end of this year, will be influenced by the assessment of whether substantial progress has been achieved in the field of the rule of law, says Austrian Ambassador to Serbia H.E. Nikolaus Lutterotti in this CorD interview.
Your Excellency, given the latest developments on the Austrian political scene, could you explain to us what is meant by the “temporary resignation” of chancellor Sebastian Kurz?
On 11th October, the new Austrian Chancellor, Mr Alexander Schallenberg, was sworn in by President Alexander van der Bellen. And so was the new foreign minister, Michael Linhart. The coalition government will continue working on the basis of the existing government programme. As far as Austria’s foreign policy is concerned, you can expect continuity. In his very first speech before parliament, Chancellor Schallenberg stressed explicitly the government’s continued focus towards the Western Balkans and the need to realise the region’s EU prospects. The first visit of new Foreign Minister Michael Linhart led him to Bosnia-Herzegovina, a very clear sign of how dear and important not only Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also the whole region, is to us in Austria.
The recent revelation of Reuters news agency, citing diplomatic circles, that there is no longer pan-EU agreement on enlargement to include the Western Balkans reverberated massively around the region. Do you believe there could be a scenario that sees the permanent suspending of the enlargement process?
Frankly, I don’t see how a suspending of the enlargement process would be in the interest of the EU; it is also not in the interest of the candidate countries. The EU recently reaffirmed at the highest level that the future of the Balkans lies in the European Union. The visit of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to the region was also a clear signal of the strategic importance of this region to the EU. But the enlargement process also requires a clear and unequivocal commitment from the countries of the region to adhere to the values, rules and standards upon which the European Union is founded.
Candidate countries need to undertake and implement EU reforms. The more tangible and credible the improvements, the faster the accession process will move forward. Austria has a very clear view on enlargement. That was reaffirmed by the new Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg: the future of the region lies in the European Union, as full members. And we want to see an acceleration of the accession process. You can count on our continued full support.
The EU decided on an Economic and Investment Plan amounting to 30 billion euros and EU member states agreed on the IPA III programme, which will provide funds totalling 1.1 billion euros over the next two and a half months, until the end of 2021
How do you view the recent Slovenian proposal that EU enlargement to encompass the entire Western Balkans be accelerated and completed by 2030? How would you comment on the recent EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Slovenia?
We are grateful to the Slovenian Presidency of the EU for the enormous efforts and focus they have devoted to the EU accession process. We also believe that there is a need to send a clear message to the region that the enlargement process is not a never-ending process. Hence, we believe that it would be useful to have a clear timeline.
Regarding the Brdo Summit, we believe that it provided a strong signal of the strategic importance that the region represents for the EU and for the EU’s commitment to the enlargement process. Moreover, if you read the Brdo declaration, it becomes evident that the EU is by far the region’s closest partner, largest investor and principal donor. The EU decided on an Economic and Investment Plan amounting to 30 billion euros and EU member states agreed on the IPA III programme, which will provide funds totalling 1.1 billion euros over the next two and a half months, until the end of 2021.
The EU has supported the Western Balkans resolutely in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences, with 3.3 billion euros to date. The Brdo Summit also reflected the broad spectrum of areas of cooperation and support: implementation of the Green Agenda; enhancing the market integration of the Western Balkans with the EU Single Market; expanding connectivity; improving transport through the “green lanes”; lowering roaming costs between the EU and the Western Balkans; an innovation agenda; and deepening cooperation in the area of the Common and Foreign Security Policy.
Despite support from countries like Austria, Serbia is not advancing in the EU integration process, as can be seen in the decisions of the European Council not to open any new negotiating chapters over the course of the past two years. What do you think are the reasons for this deadlock?
The opening of new clusters depends on the progress of EU-related reforms. Besides the introduction of respective legislation, it is equally important to implement the reforms adopted. In the past years, there was no unanimity among EU member states on opening new chapters, also because of the assessment that reforms were insufficient, in particular when it comes to reforms related to the rule of law.
Do you share the concerns of some of your colleagues who cite the situation in the field of the rule of law and democracy as being among the reasons for the EU’s decision not to open new accession negotiation chapters with Serbia?
The EU accession process requires credible reforms in the area of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, including the fight against corruption, ensuring the safety of journalists and media freedom. Progress on these socalled fundamental issues, as covered by chapters 23 and 24, are crucial for each EUMS to assess whether to agree to opening new negotiating clusters or not. If Serbia continues its work and implements some of the reform efforts exerted in past months in the field of the rule of law, I am quite optimistic that it will lead to the opening of a new cluster.
How do you see the latest developments in relations between Belgrade and Priština?
The latest developments once more showed how important the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština is in order to build trust and normalise relations for the benefit of the people.
The Brussels agreements need to be fully implemented. We trust in the efforts of Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák and give him our full support.
Former chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said that Serbia is Austria’s most important economic partner in the region. How much has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on our mutual economic exchange?
Before the pandemic, trade between our two countries was developing very positively. With a trade exchange of 1.5 billion euros representing an all-time high in 2019. After a decline in 2020, trade is picking up again considerably this year. Austria continues to be the second biggest investor in Serbia. More than 400 Austrian companies are active in the country and provide over 22,000 jobs. Most of these companies have been in Serbia for a long time and pursue a long-term strategy. I was therefore not surprised that Austrian investors remained in Serbia throughout the pandemic.
A few days ago, a delegation of Austrian businesspeople from Carinthia visited Serbia with the aim of expanding existing business opportunities here and exploring new ones. The Austrian Embassy will engage more intensely in the coming months to support the expansion of our economic relations and the recovery of our economies. The Austrian government, together with the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, has initiated a global economic outreach programme. The programme, called “ReFocus Austria”, aims to promote Austrian businesses and focuses on the core competencies of Austria’s economy: renewable energy, e-mobility, sustainability, digital transformation, infrastructure, urban technology and tourism.
The “ReFocus Austria” programme aims to promote Austrian businesses and focuses on the core competencies of Austria’s economy: renewable energy, e-mobility, sustainability, digital transformation, infrastructure, urban technology and tourism
Media recently reported on concerns from Germany and some other EU member states regarding alleged problems with regard to visa-free travel in Serbia and Albania. Do you believe the situation could result in the suspension of visa liberalisation?
Illegal migration remains one of the biggest challenges for the European Union, but also for us in Austria. There is a need to cooperate very closely and coordinate our response to this challenge, as we have done in the past. This includes the issue of visa-free travel into the region.
In a September interview for the Italian media, then chancellor Kurz said that approximately 8,000 refugees arrived in Austria via the so-called Balkan route in 2021. What is this alarming statement meant to convey?
It is crucial to remain vigilant and pay close attention to the development of migratory flows. We have witnessed an upsurge in illegal migration to Austria in 2021, mostly via the Eastern Mediterranean route. We have very close and good bilateral cooperation between Austria and Serbia, but also the other countries of the region, in the area of migration, particularly through the Joint Cooperation Platform headquartered in Vienna. A contingent of nine Austrian police officers is working alongside the Serbian border police on the border between Serbia and North Macedonia.
How is implementation unfolding when it comes to the donation of a million vaccine doses against COVID-19 that Austria is set to send to the Western Balkans by year’s end. Which countries will receive these vaccines?
So far, Austria has donated and delivered 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was carried out in August. We are in constant contact with all countries of the region to assess the needs and requirements according to their vaccination strategies and priorities for the distribution of the remaining 500,000 doses.
In his very first speech before parliament, Chancellor Schallenberg stressed explicitly the government’s continued focus towards the Western Balkans and the need to realise the region’s EU prospects
|THE BRDO SUMMIT|
If you read the Brdo declaration, it becomes evident that the EU is by far the region’s closest partner, largest investor and principal donor
After a decline in 2020, trade is picking up again considerably this year. Austria continues to be the second biggest investor in Serbia