The EU is not in a position to demand that Serbia recognises Kosovo since the several Member States have not recognised the independence of Kosovo. I would, therefore, say that, in order to enter the EU, Belgrade and Pristina should fully normalise their relations. The recognition of Kosovo is but one option to reach this goal. When it comes to France, any comprehensive, mutually acceptable option that leads to regional stability is acceptable – Jean-Louis Falconi
With the first anniversary of his term in Serbia approaching, the French ambassador says that his goal is to bring Serbia closer to France by opening a new phase in bilateral cooperation, based on the historical friendship that developed during World War I. According to Ambassador Jean-Louis Falconi, speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, Paris is ready to provide support in all areas – from the dialogue with Pristina and the European integration process to the development of projects for the long-awaited Belgrade metro.
Your Excellency, you spent just two months of your first year in Serbia resident in Belgrade before the lockdown due to the struggle against Covid-19 – a fact that you’ve written about very often on social networks. From today’s perspective, how do you see the struggle against the pandemic, which also hit France hard?
Since I arrived in September 2019, I had a good six months of “normal life”, during which I was acquainted with my counterparts and started discovering Serbia. From today’s perspective, I would say that the Coronavirus crisis took almost every country in the world by surprise and created health, economic and social shock. The last pandemic of these world proportions dates back to 1918-1920 – the “Spanish flu” – and the world back then was in no way comparable to ours.
As we all know, our biggest issue at first was to produce enough safety kits and “flatten the epidemiological curve” to unburden our health systems.
I am, however, impressed with the capacity of our societies and citizens to adjust to social distancing, work from home and the use of new technologies, even for international summits. I would also like to hail the capacity of people and communities to unify and show solidarity, even at the grassroots level. From this point of view, the ways to tackle the health challenges are comparable between Serbia and France.
This being said, the challenge is now to find a good balance between preserving the health of citizens and boosting the economy. This is the toughest call for authorities. The EU provided an unprecedented protective shield for its citizens.
Given that you are educated as an economist and have worked in the area of finance in both the French administration and the EU Directorate, do you believe that the world is entering an economic crisis following the Coronavirus pandemic?
The world has certainly entered a deep economic crisis. It is still difficult to understand how deep it is and what our capacity to overcome it is. According to the IMF, all countries in the world are now confronted by the unknown. According to the IMF, the spectacular amount of €7,000bn was mobilised, around the world, to counter the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Overall, the IMF foresees a 5.2% drop in global GDP.
This being said, the situation will obviously depend on the leading economic sectors of each country, the strength of their economy, their dependence on external markets. The situation will also vary from sector to sector within the same country. Restaurants, real estate, industries, small businesses and commercial activities, which rely on people-to-people contacts, will undoubtedly be impacted, while many services and the IT world will find new resources for development. All in all, this crisis will certainly deepen inequalities, while generating deep poverty in already fragile countries. But I am certain that the world’s stability would benefit from coordinated, cooperative and multilateral answers. Believing that one could gain over the other would be a blind and short-term vision.
The Western Balkans will be the first beneficiaries of EU solidarity outside the EU itself. The EU, EU member states and financial institutions are the biggest donors to Serbia, with over €3bn in non-refundable aid to Serbia during the past 20 years
Do you believe that the EU’s measures, which include a large financial aid package for member states and the countries of the Western Balkan region, will be sufficient to ensure economic difficulties don’t escalate into a large-scale crisis?
At these moments we deeply appreciate being part of the EU. Several economic sectors are deeply impacted in France, such as tourism, industry, culture and gastronomy. Measures are being taken by French authorities to support firms and independent workers.EU solidarity is more than welcome in this context. €540bn was deployed on EU budgets in support of the economies of member states.
The Central European Bank shall also repurchase the debt of Eurozone companies up to the €1,350bn, within the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, which is a very big push for these companies.
Last but not least, the EU Commission proposed a new recovery and resilience facility of 560 billion euros, including a grant facility of 310 billion euros, on the basis of a very innovative proposal from France and Germany, and 250 billion euros available in loans in order to boost economic reforms and private investments. We hope an agreement will be reached in July, between the 27 EU member states.
The Western Balkans will be the first beneficiaries of EU solidarity outside the EU itself. The EU, EU member states and financial institutions are the biggest donors to Serbia, with over €3bn in non-refundable aid to Serbia during the past 20 years. To tackle the Coronavirus crisis alone, the EU Commission answered Serbia’s call for help, providing €93bn in short and long term help. This is by far the largest foreign aid to this country. Will this be enough? I don’t know, but this aid is very significant and comes in addition to efforts already undertaken by the Serbian Government.
At the height of the struggle against Covid-19, the footage was broadcast from France and Italy showing the removal of EU flags from public places, due to citizens reportedly being dissatisfied with the lack of pan-EU solidarity. The first aid to arrive in Serbia actually came from China. Do you believe that the pandemic has led to lasting changes in the positions of the EU, China and even the U.S. on the global scene?
Some footage was reported, here and there – but actually not in France – of people removing EU flags from public places, but this needs to be put into context: the unknown that we entered into created fear and panic, particularly at the beginning of the crisis, multiplied by the attraction of social media for sensational images.
Let us stick to facts. China was the first country hit by the Covid-19 epidemic, in December. Back then, EU countries, including France, sent aid and equipment to Wuhan. By 1st February 12 tonnes of equipment had been sent to China by EU member states. When Europe was hit in its turn, it needed to organise itself urgently to confront the situation domestically.
In March, China had at the time more knowledge, the experience of the crisis and more resources, allowing the country to send immediate help and we are all thankful for that. China was reactive in early March and sent aircraft to Serbia, which is a good thing. The first European aid started arriving only a week later, despite the EU being in the midst of a sanitary crisis, and it was massive. Serbian citizens need to be informed of the full story. If they are, it is difficult to infer from that any lasting change in international support to Serbia.
No one can be forced to sit at the table… There are no quick fixes, but I believe the halted dialogue can resume at a good pace. A consensual agreement would be in the interest of both parties, frozen conflicts are a source of low-key instability and mistrust.
Inhabitants of the Western Balkans are wondering whether the idea of expanding the EU to encompass this region would materialize at all. In this context, they are slightly worried by the EU’s messages, such as the latest one contained in the Zagreb Declaration that mentions the ‘prospects’ of membership but not enlargement specifically. Do they have a reason for suspicion?
The idea of expanding the EU to encompass the region is viable; it remains an EU objective since the Zagreb summit in 2000 and the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, provided the authorities are willing, locally, to take on board the necessary reforms. A promise was made in Thessaloniki in 2003, the EU and EU member states actively support the Western Balkans in its reforms, with funding, advisors and experts.
In Serbia, considerable efforts were exerted in the sphere of the economy, finance and norms. At the same time, there is still a lot to undertake in terms of the rule of law, freedom of media, the fight against corruption, independence of the judiciary and institutional processes. Efforts to improve the legislation are appreciable, but the EU also focuses on the implementation of the measures taken.
In parallel, the EU is undertaking reforms to become strategically more independent, stronger and more relevant, both internally and on the international scene. This will remain to the benefit of Serbia when it enters the EU and is certainly not aimed at preventing or delaying the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU.
You have stated that EU membership candidates must meet all the preconditions and that there will be no lowering of the criteria. When it comes to Serbia, the most common question is whether the country can become a member state if it doesn’t recognise Kosovo’s independence?
Technically speaking, the EU is not in a position to set such a precondition, since the several Member States have not recognised the independence of Kosovo. I would, therefore, say that, in order to enter the EU, Belgrade and Pristina should fully normalise their relations. The recognition of Kosovo is but one option to reach this goal. When it comes to France, any comprehensive, mutually acceptable option that leads to regional stability is acceptable. As a matter of fact, entering the EU with unsolved internal or regional issues is not possible. The EU’s DNA is based on reconciliation between neighbours.
Although Miroslav Lajčak, the EU’s envoy for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, allegedly stated in one address to European diplomats that reaching an agreement is a matter of months away and not years, there is still actually no dialogue, nor does its renewal appear to be on the horizon. How would you comment on this?
No one can be forced to sit at the table. Until now, the authorities in Pristina were bogged down in a post-electoral political crisis and there are new recent developments. Let’s focus on the positive: the Hoti-led government was approved on 6th June and lifted reciprocal measures the same day, which is very significant. There are no quick fixes, but I believe that at some point, the halted dialogue can resume at a good pace. A consensual agreement would be in the interest of both parties, frozen conflicts are a source of low-key instability and mistrust.
Miroslav Lajčak is a seasoned diplomat who is profoundly dedicated to his tasks. He spoke to all of the stakeholders in Belgrade and Pristina, in order to have a comprehensive vision of the situation. Of anyone, I believe he is the right person to facilitate the dialogue and find a compromise. The EU has a special role to conduct this dialogue and EU leaders entrusted him with this mission. I take it as a positive signal that he believes he can accomplish it. But everyone knows that the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina can only happen with the consent of the parties themselves, with the full support of the international community at large.
Is Paris still interested in hosting a meeting between leaders from Belgrade and Pristina aimed at reviving the dialogue?
Paris is indeed interested in hosting such a meeting, in the wake of the Berlin Summit which took place in April 2019. French and German ministers of foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maas, reiterated their commitment to facilitate the EU-led dialogue in a joint article published in Belgrade and Pristina on 23rd May. German Ambassador Thomas Schieb and I also conveyed this message to Marko Đurić, director of the Office for Kosovo, in May.
How do you view the assessment of Nathalie Loiseau, a former French minister for European affairs and current MEP, and her colleagues from the ALDE group, who stated that it would not be possible for elections in Serbia to be fair and democratic due to “unbalanced media reporting and increased pressure on individuals” who are critical of the government?
The fact that Nathalie Loiseau and fellow European MPs co-signed a letter on the electoral conditions in Serbia shows their interest in Serbia and its political path. It also shows the keen interest of European elected representatives in the rule of law, in particular in countries seeking to join the EU. Media pluralism, but also hate speech, insults and defamation in the press are still an issue in Serbia, and this was noticeable in the pre-electoral process. An inter-party dialogue was facilitated last autumn by the European Parliament and is hopefully set to resume after the elections.
In one interview in which you spoke of your plans as ambassador, you said that relations between France and Serbia should not be based solely on history and the memory of the fraternal links from World War I. What is required in order for you to be able to, as you stated, “open up this region” towards the French?
Our brotherhood in arms, a century ago, remains one of the foundations of our friendship today. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and the sacrifices made then are still vividly remembered. But we should also build our future. This was President Macron’s main message to Serbia when he visited Belgrade a year ago, on 15th and 16th July 2019. He pledged a renewed political engagement of France alongside Serbia, including on its European path.
Our political dialogue is back on track: in April 2018, Jean-Yves le Drian was the first French minister of foreign affairs to visit Serbia in eight years. President Macron’s visit was the first presidential visit in … 18 years. This visit opened a new scope for cooperation, with the signing of about 20 agreements. Such events are mediated and contribute to revitalising our bilateral relations at all levels.
Paris is ready to provide support in all areas – from the dialogue with Pristina and the European integration process, to the development of projects for the long-awaited Belgrade metro.
Stronger economic ties shall also contribute to bringing our countries closer together. Our economic relations have not reached their full potential but represented €1bn in 2019, which is twice as much as in 2012. There are about 120 French companies in Serbia: this means a lot for the French business community. Most of these companies are happy about their conditions in Serbia and publicise that at home, thus attracting other companies.
French businesses are engaged in very significant projects, such as the Vinča waste management project, or the management of the Belgrade Airport. Last but not least, the French Agency for Development, which supports urban and sustainable infrastructure projects, has been engaged in the Balkans since September 2019, its regional HQ being based in Belgrade.
People-to-people contacts are also a very powerful way to bring two countries together. French is not considered as a “business language”, like English or German, but 110,000 children and adults are learning it. Let’s hope that, as economic ties grow, more youngsters will turn to French. French tourists find a greater interest in Serbia than before. 35,500 French tourists visited Serbia in 2019, which is 7,000 more than in the previous year.
Following the visit to Serbia of French President Emmanuel Macron, it seemed that bilateral political and economic relations would gain new momentum. How do we stand today; is this process again losing pace?
The momentum is very much still here. Since my arrival, several ministers and parliamentarians came to meet their counterparts in Belgrade, to establish or deepen cooperation. The atmosphere and energy is very positive. Many projects are underway, despite the Covid-19 crisis, which suspended all of our activities from March to May. Life is gradually coming back, but the pandemic is not fully behind us. Most of the administrations in France still partially work from home. We’ll therefore have to be a little patient before organising new ministerial visits.
You’ve inherited one question from a large number of your predecessors as French ambassador. We asked all of them if the French will build a metro rail system in Belgrade? Do you know the answer?
It’s a long story indeed, but I’m confident the Belgrade metro will ultimately see the light of day. In May I signed with the Serbian government an agreement according to which French experts and companies immediately start the feasibility study for the metro of Belgrade and finalise it in 2021. France is very dedicated to this project, for which my government donated €8.3 million to Serbia.
How would you comment on the fact that companies from China, Turkey, the U.S., Russia and Azerbaijan are more heavily engaged in major infrastructure projects in Serbia than French companies?
I do not have particular comments to make. Serbia is on the EU path, but that shouldn’t stop it from diversifying its economic partnerships. This being said, I can only speak of what I know: France has technology and knowhow. It promotes EU standards, which are secure, sustainable and long-lasting.
The challenge is now to find a good balance between preserving the health of citizens and boosting the economy
The EU Commission answered Serbia’s call for help, providing €93bn in short and long term help
It’s a long story indeed, but I’m confident the Belgrade metro will ultimately see the light of day.