Serbia is a country that matters a lot to France, at both the regional and international levels. It is an EU candidate country, which we support actively, and a major player in the Balkans. We also have common challenges, such as regional peace and stability; the normalisation of relations with Pristina and the fight against organised crime and terrorism. At the end of the day, what impacts Serbia, either positively or negatively, impacts us, and vice versa ~ Jean-Louis Falconi
During the time of the global lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a noticeable intensifying of direct communication between the presidents of France and Serbia. Strengthening economic cooperation, supporting Serbia’s European integration process, and particularly resolving the “Kosovo knot”, were high on the agenda of President Emmanuel Macron. Despite the reinvigorating of relations with Serbia, France is not taking sides, says Ambassador Jean-Louis Falconi in this CorD interview. He adds that Paris supports Miroslav Lajčak, as the EU envoy for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and that, together with Germany, France is exerting diplomatic efforts to help advance the dialogue.
The ambassador notes that these efforts imply a constant dialogue with partners in Belgrade, but also talks with the authorities in Pristina.
Your Excellency, this is the second consecutive year in which you are commemorating Bastille Day under changed conditions, due to the COVID- 19 pandemic. Taking into consideration the latest data, could it be said that France has got the virus “under control”?
It is too early to say that the virus is “under control”, as nobody knows the impact of new strains of the virus. What I can affirm, nonetheless, is that the number of new cases and fatalities fell very significantly since last winter. In November 2020, the weekly average number of cases peaked at about 54,000 per day (for a population of 67 million). This figure fell, but then peaked again in April 2021, where the weekly average was about 35,000 cases per day.
Today, thanks to the vaccination campaign, the seven-day average for new cases is about 2,700. This trend can also be noticed by comparing the percentage of positive COVID tests: it increased to 15% in April and now stands at slightly above 1%. This being said, we should remain very cautious as long as new cases appear, so some measures have remained in force to limit the propagation of the virus. The vaccination campaign is now very effective, after a difficult start, and today more than 47% of French residents have received at least one dose.
Many alleged non-papers have circulated in the Western Balkans during previous weeks. They seem to serve as a “test” of public opinion, but the authors and their ultimate goals are unknown, which can be very destabilising for the region
Despite the COVID pandemic having hampered traditional diplomatic communications markedly, relations between France and Serbia have been extremely dynamic over the past two years. Presidents Macron and Vučić even met twice during that time, on the last occasion in February. How would you explain this situation?
French-Serbian bilateral relations have indeed been very dynamic during the past two years. After President Emmanuel Macron came to Serbia for an official visit in July 2019, President Aleksandar Vučić visited France twice for bilateral talks, in July 2020 and February 2021. This shows how important meetings in person are for both leaders, although they also spoke on the phone several times.
After July 2020, French and Serbian delegations met in person whenever they could catch a “window of opportunity” in the midst of the pandemic. Franck Riester, Minister of Trade and Economic Attractiveness, visited Belgrade in November 2020, where he signed an important agreement on economic cooperation. A Serbian ministerial delegation visited Paris and Lyon a few months later to discuss the Belgrade Metro rolling stock, which will be constructed by French company Alstom. We also have dynamic cooperation in the field of security and defence, backed by a Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2011. We held a strategic dialogue in June, as soon as the sanitary situation improved in Paris. Less than three weeks later, the Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, General François Lecointre, paid a visit to Serbia, which was an all-time première.
This is easy to explain. Serbia is a country that matters a lot to France, at both the regional and international levels. It is an EU candidate country, which we support actively, and a major player in the Balkans. We also have common challenges, such as regional peace and stability, the normalisation of relations with Pristina and the fight against organised crime and terrorism. At the end of the day, what impacts Serbia, either positively or negatively, impacts us, and vice versa. Let me also add that our bilateral relations also have an historical background. Frenchmen and Serbs fought together during World War I, during and after which many Serbs, including youngsters and pupils, moved to France to live. This created human ties and friendships through generations, which I regularly see even today.
The more frequent meetings between the two presidents formed the basis to conclude that Serbia is beginning to receive some special support from France on current issues, and of course on the dialogue with Priština. However, you stated unequivocally in one interview that “there is no game of alliances” that would deviate from the already familiar positions of the EU. What does that mean exactly?
This means that France is dedicated to supporting the EU-led Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, but without any political bias or “alliance”. EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčak is primarily in charge of this, but France, along with Germany, also dedicates diplomatic resources to the success of this dialogue. From where I stand, I can confirm that there are good quality discussions going on with the authorities in Belgrade on the matter, in a spirit of trust and respect, but there are also bilateral talks with the authorities in Pristina, of course.
A solution to the “Kosovo knot” is high on the agenda of President Macron, who is personally committed as a dialogue facilitator, along with his diplomatic staff. In this regard, our role is not to take sides but to try to get an overview of the field of possibilities for each party, to see where they overlap and build on this to reach a comprehensive agreement. Ultimately, the exact terms shall not be “dictated” by external players, as I sometimes read in the press, but defined and agreed upon by the parties themselves. There is undoubtedly interest in resolving this issue for the future of citizens in both Serbia and Kosovo.
No agreement was found among EU member states on opening a cluster during the IGC in June, although Serbia has resolutely thrown itself into the new methodology and adapted its negotiation structures accordingly
France is nevertheless credited with authoring at least one document, a famous non-paper that relates to Kosovo. It allegedly proposes a special status be granted to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, as well as autonomy for Serbs living in the north?
France never wrote such a non-paper. Many alleged non-papers have circulated in the Western Balkans during previous weeks. They seem to serve as a “test” of public opinion, but the authors and their ultimate goals are unknown, which can be very destabilising for the region.
Regarding the ongoing dialogue on Kosovo, France calls for the full implementation of the Brussels Agreement, including the agreement on the Community of Serb Municipalities. When it comes to the content of such an agreement, I want to stress once again that France has no “red lines” and will not hinder any solution based on compromise, as long as it respects international law and is agreed upon by the parties themselves.
Will France support the recent proposal of the four countries of the Visegrad Group to involve the Western Balkan countries more directly in discourse on the future of the EU?
Initially, the conference on the future of Europe was designed for EU citizens, who witnessed the course of the political, social and economic entity in which they live. This is an innovative format in which anyone can organise or take part in debates on different topics and give their say. The idea, which was put forward by French President Macron at the beginning of his mandate, was to give a voice to EU citizens at a time when they experienced some kind of fatigue.
When the idea came up, populism was on the rise and, during that time, Brexit cast a doubt on the original real sense of the European project. Brussels institutions, which are complex in nature, were growing further away from the day-to-day realities of a substantial part of the population. In this context, there was an urge to engage citizens directly in internal debates on the economy, international security, the environment, digitalisation, social welfare and the kind of Europe they want to see in the near future. The aim is to give them a bigger role in shaping policies and ambitions. At the same time, these debates should contribute to some awareness building on the EU project itself, i.e., what it has brought to date in terms of values, welfare, ecology, international influence etc. One tends to forget this when one resides in this political environment permanently.
I have always personally argued in favour of the inclusion of Western Balkan candidate countries in these debates (authorities and civil society), as was done with the Convention on the future of Europe in 2001. This being said, the digital platform that was launched in April 2021 is absolutely not limited to EU citizens. Civil societies in the Western Balkans can take part in debates online, contribute to them and organise conferences. I encourage that in Serbia, considering its ongoing trajectory towards EU integration and the fact that this process should not be a solely “top down” project. The French Embassy and the French institute have been promoting such debates and encouraging the use of the “futurEU” digital platform.
How would you comment on the momentum lost in Serbia’s European integration process, which has not seen a single accession negotiation chapter opened for more than 18 months?
No agreement was found among EU member states on opening a cluster during the IGC in June, although Serbia has resolutely thrown itself into the new methodology and adapted its negotiation structures accordingly. I can understand that this causes frustration, especially within the Europhile community in Serbia. But the momentum is not lost and I like to think that this is just a phase, before the EU-accession procedure accelerates significantly. This is the only development we can wish for.
As a matter of fact, Serbia made very noticeable progress in the fields of the economy, higher education, the fight against terrorism… New initiatives are also being launched in the field of the environment and energy efficiency, which we highly welcome considering the challenge it represents in the region and globally.
However, this process is demanding in all spheres, in particular what we call “the fundamentals”, i.e., democracy and rule of law, the fight against corruption etc. They are the DNA of the EU political project, in particular freedom of Justice, the good functioning of institutions, media freedom and pluralism, to name but a few. The two previous country reports of the European Commission noted little to very limited progress in this field, and I must admit that I witnessed a “gap year” in 2020 in terms of reforms. This explains, to a large extent, why no chapters have been opened lately.
Having spent quite a long time in EU institutions during my diplomatic career, I do want to stress that accession processes can accelerate notably. Serbian authorities have initiated reforms in the Rule of Law area, including initiating a long-awaited Constitution amendment procedure, in order to reform the judiciary. Other efforts are underway and we appreciate the good quality of the dialogue with the Serbian authorities, who keep us updated.
Ultimately, however, these reforms shouldn’t be assessed solely in the light of legislation, but also in the light of their implementation and the political will to change the environment in which citizens live. There is room for improvement until the end of this year, of course. In addition, the 2022 elections should serve to illustrate the good functioning of democracy, as well as political and media pluralism.
I hope that the European Parliament mediated inter-party dialogue will create some consensus over pre-electoral conditions, devoid of pressures on voters, with – inter alia – good access to information thanks to media pluralism. That would be a remarkable change within the country, but also for its EU accession aspirations.
Having spent quite a long time in EU institutions during my diplomatic career, I do want to stress that accession processes can accelerate notably
Discussions on bolstering economic cooperation between Serbia and France have actually intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. What can be expected of the bilateral cooperation agreement on projects for improving energy efficiency and launching construction of the Belgrade metro rail system?
Our economic presence is indeed growing in Serbia, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The two projects that French companies won in 2017 and 2018, i.e., the modernisation of waste management in Vinča (Suez) and the modernisation of Belgrade Airport (Vinci) are progressing well and being implemented despite the constraints caused by the pandemic.
Moreover, the intergovernmental agreement signed in November on, inter alia, the Belgrade metro, is undoubtedly an important milestone for 2020-2021. As already mentioned, French company Alstom will construct the metro’s rolling stock. Its technology is recognised worldwide; it is a sure and effective means of transport that should decongest traffic in Belgrade, improve air quality to a certain extent and allow quicker commute times. The technology brought by Alstom will also guarantee good energy efficiency, in line with European norms. The other project included in the Intergovernmental agreement is the supply of a smart grid by Serbian-based company Schneider Electric for new operator Elektrodistribucija Srbija, which will reduce losses on low and medium voltage electricity transmission networks, thanks to an integrated IT solution allowing a high level of energy efficiency.
Another milestone was the approval and signature, with French Development Agency, AFD, of two loans in partnership with the World Bank, totalling 101 million euros for the AFD part, to modernise the railway sector – with core investments in and around Belgrade (Prokop station, suburban tunnels, Belgrade-Pančevo line) – and to support Serbia’s reform agenda on climate change. The AFD partnership with the World Bank on these two key operations allows the promoting of a consistent approach and the mobilising of greater technical and financial support for these projects together. But this is only the beginning: building on this positive dynamic established with the Serbian authorities, AFD plans to commit between 200-250 million euros annually in Serbia, with a focus on environmental investments and policy reforms in support of Serbia’s EU accession process.
Such economic projects and financial support make a lot of sense to us, as the environment has become a very pressing and challenging issue in the Western Balkans, where national and local stakeholders are eager to cooperate with international financial institutions. From this perspective, AFD will continue and scale up its support to Serbia’s green agenda and the implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, signed in 2015.
French experts on rural development visited Serbia recently. What kinds of benefits are farmers provided by the LEADER project?
LEADER is the French acronym for “links between rural economic development actors”. The programme aims to develop rural areas by bringing together different stakeholders from the civil society, the private sector – such as farmers – and the public sector, to design and implement a local rural development strategy. These stakeholders work together in what we call Local Action Groups (LAGs), in a bottom-up approach to development.
The LEADER methodology has had a very positive impact on rural development in France. Farmers can either be part of a local action group or benefit from it, by presenting projects funded by these clusters of stakeholders. For example, they can suggest the creation of a shop to sell local products, a tasting room for wine produced locally, or they can launch a boating school etc.
This programme is part of the EU Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance for Rural Development (IPARD), but it has yet to be accredited in Serbia. However, several LEADER-like initiatives were created in 2021 and are already promising.
The local action group of Ketena Mundi and the upcoming Tri Morava group partnered with the community of Maremne Adour Côte Sud, located beside the Atlantic Ocean in France, and are already designing new projects with the support of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. We are ready to promote such initiatives at a larger scale, together with the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture and the EU Delegation.
France is dedicated to supporting the EU-led Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, but without any political bias or “alliance”DIALOGUE
A solution to the “Kosovo knot” is high on the agenda of President Macron, who is personally committed as a dialogue facilitator, along with his diplomatic staff
France has no “red lines” and will not hinder any solution based on compromise, as long as it respects international law and is agreed upon by the parties themselves