The European political community is by no means an alternative to European Union membership. Its aim is to set up an area of solidarity and cooperation in the fields of security, energy, common investments and transport between EU member states and non-member states that share the same values ~ Pierre Cochard
Relations between the EU and Serbia haven’t been reduced to just the issue of sanctions against Russia, i.e., foreign policy alignment, says French Ambassador Pierre Cochard in this CorD Magazine interview. He reminds us of the strong ties between Serbia and the EU in the economic domain, the Union’s support to Serbia’s reform processes, and cooperation in the areas of culture and education. However, Ambassador Cochard still emphasises that “progressive alignment with the EU’s common foreign policy is a clear accession prerequisite”, and that it becomes particularly important during times of war and crisis as confirmation that Serbia is remaining “consistent with its European choice”.
Your Excellency, France has completed two election cycles, at both the presidential and parliamentary levels. Considering President Emmanuel Macron’s new mandate and the results of June’s parliamentary elections, what will France’s priorities be, particularly on the European front?
– France will remain committed to strengthening the EU’s strategic autonomy and supporting more efficient decision-making processes. We want to respond to the unprecedented challenges we have been facing so far – pandemics, war, food security and climate – while preserving political, economic and social values that characterise the EU. To this end, President Macron shall uphold the priorities he outlined during his previous mandate. We promote greater political and security integration of the EU, and this has already been underway since the March 2022 adoption of a common strategic compass. The EU shall strengthen its defence capabilities, inter alia by investing in new industrial sectors. We want to accelerate the ecological transition towards carbon neutrality and work towards better strategic independence, including in the fields of health and food supply.
We will continue to promote EU enlargement, while at the same time reforming our own decisionmaking process and initiating a reflection on our current treaties. With 27 or 33 member states, the EU cannot function as it did 60 years ago, with six member states. This would ultimately benefit new member states, who would have a better say in a reformed system.
Speaking at the end of France’s latest six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU, President Macron again sought to generate interest among the public in the EU and the Western Balkans in the idea of a ‘European political community’, which would enable non-EU members to forge some kind of alliance with the 27 member states. This has prompted many in this region to wonder whether the proposal is yet more evidence that EU enlargement is not a realistic option, at least in the near future. Is the proposed ‘European political community’ a veritable “consolation prize” for the Western Balkans?
– The concept of European political community is by no means an alternative to membership in the European Union. Its aim is to set up an area of solidarity and cooperation in the fields of security, energy, common investments and transport between EU member states and non-member states that share the same values. This shall not prejudge the future or their pace of accession. One should bear in mind that this idea emerged in the context of the tragic return of war to our continent. It responds first and foremost to the will of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to join the European Union. While Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate country status on 23rd June, the overall accession process requires lengthy reforms. In the meantime, we call for other forms of cooperation and solidarity in today’s dire context, and the European Political Community is a response to that.
This being said, it would only be advantageous for the Western Balkan states to join this community, as well as for countries that are part of the “European family” but have decided to quit the EU or stand aside. This is not a “waiting room” or an alternative to the EU, as I have already heard, rather a loose organisation with high-level political steering, distinct in scope and framework from the OSCE or the Council of Europe, and distinct from the ongoing integration process.
With the proposed community in mind, what would France’s position be on the recent proposal of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis that all Western Balkan countries be admitted to the EU by 2033?
– France is fully in favour of a rapid accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union. Not only do we share many common challenges, but the region is also geographically intertwined with the EU. This is a win-win situation and France exerted all of its diplomatic efforts for North Macedonia and Albania to start their long-awaited accession process.
Regarding the pace of negotiations, we do not advocate setting a date. Once a country is formally an EU candidate country, the speed of the integration process depends first and foremost on the reforms it carries out and its political will to implement them
Regarding the pace of negotiations, we do not advocate setting a date. Once a country is formally an EU candidate country, the speed of the integration process depends first and foremost on the reforms it carries out and its political will to implement them. The criteria are the same for all, defined during the 1990s. I must admit they are demanding, particularly in the area of the rule of law, which unites all member states in one political entity. Negotiations can speed up significantly if reforms are carried out.
You have spoken publicly often about the need for Serbia to fully align with the EU’s common foreign policy and impose sanctions against Russia. Has the relationship between the EU and Serbia now been reduced primarily to this issue?
– Thankfully, the relationship between the EU and Serbia is not reduced to this issue. Today, the EU remains Serbia’s main economic partner and accounts for around 60% of its trade. Many reforms have been carried out in the fields of the economy, security and border management, as well as health and education. I also commend the constitutional reform in the field of Justice, which shall pave the way – provided it is implemented effectively — to improved transparency and rule of law.
Serbia is already included in the EU in many ways: we have an agreement on the free movement of people, as short-term visas are not required for Serbian travel to the EU and vice versa. Serbia is part of a common education space that facilitates the recognition of diplomas and student mobility. It takes part in EU peacekeeping operations abroad. It benefits from very substantial EU funds in support of the accession process.
However, progressive alignment with the EU’s common foreign policy is a clear accession prerequisite, and has been from the very start. In times of war and tragedy on our continent, it is even more important and urgent, as unity is absolutely needed to safeguard the international order and – in the present case – stop the Russian aggressor from committing atrocities in Ukraine.
Ultimately, it is not only and not mainly a question of “alignment”. We just expect Serbia to be consistent with its European choice and, apart from condemning an unprovoked aggressive war against Ukraine, which Serbia did, to draw all necessary conclusions from the unacceptable threat to European values and European security posed by the current Russian regime.
Would you accept Serbia’s argument that it needs to be exempt from sanctions if it is to preserve energy and economic stability, as has been accepted in Hungary’s case?
– Allow me to specify: Hungary voted in favour of all EU measures taken against Russian authorities. It, however, did benefit – together with other EU member states – from specific adaptations, considering the need to preserve its energy and economic stability during a necessary transition phase towards energy diversification.
Likewise, the interests of Serbia were fully taken into account in April, as it was exempted from EU sanctions against Russian oil companies operating abroad. NIS, which is majority-owned by Gazprom, could continue importing the crude oil transiting Croatia. We are working with Serbia on the diversification of its energy sources: a new gas interconnector with Bulgaria is under construction, financed by EU funds, and we are in the process of launching a new initiative to build another connector for Serbia in cooperation with North Macedonia, for a better connection with Greece.
More generally, the EU has committed to respond to the challenges of acceding states by supporting their energy transition, but also – in the shorter run – by inviting them to join a common gas purchase platform that is being set up for all EU member and future member states.
You have stated on multiple occasions that you believe in Serbia’s EU future. Does France also support the stance – presented in Belgrade recently by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – that it is essential to achieving membership that Serbia recognise the independence of Kosovo?
– France supports the complete normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, within the framework of the Brussels Agreement. This should take the form of a legally-binding agreement that is acceptable to both parties, in line with international and EU standards.
It seems early to define which form this will take exactly – it shall be discussed constructively between the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina, with the support of Special EU Representative Miroslav Lajčak. France calls for this dialogue to continue at a faster pace. The agreement struck on 21st June in the field of energy is a crucial step forward, which we commend.
I hope this will provide more impetus to the dialogue, which has been at a virtual standstill for too long.
The previous years have been marked by activities aimed at advancing economic relations between France and Serbia, with the Belgrade Airport concession and the contract to construct the city’s urban metro system representing the two biggest projects. Have these two projects essentially brought the two countries closer together in terms of business?
– Thanks to two major projects signed in 2017 and 2018 (Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport with Vinci Airports; Vinča solid waste treatment facility with Suez Environment), our bilateral economic relations have entered a new phase and France has become one of the main foreign investors in Serbia, with 2010-2020 FDI stock of €1.3 billion.
These two infrastructure projects also include many other French and Serbian companies that employ people locally and contribute to transferring our knowhow to the Serbian economy. They are Public-Private Partnerships awarded in the form of 25-year concessions, which is still rare in Serbia and the region and could serve as a model for other regional infrastructure projects.
Another major project to come is, as you mentioned, the Belgrade Metro, which involves many French companies (Egis Rail for the studies, Alstom for the transport system or RATP Dev for the management and operation of the network) and has received significant financial support from France. French companies collaborate with their Serbian counterparts in the fields of training and technology transfer.
This cooperation fosters our economic ties, as Serbia is now better known to French investors and companies. Our bilateral trade reached €1.2 billion in 2021, while approximately 120 French companies operate in the country.
What are the current priorities of the French Development Agency, AFD, which established its presence in Serbia three years ago with the aim of increasing French engagement in the country?
– The mandate of AFD in the Western Balkans aims to support key reforms and investments to facilitate the implementation of the Green Deal and uphold EU standards. It focuses on projects that have a positive environmental outcome and social impact. To this end, it launched a fruitful dialogue with the Serbian authorities and the private sector which resulted – in less than two years – in financial support of more than €400 million to benefit public policies and infrastructure modernisation programmes.
Serbia is now better known to French investors and companies. Our bilateral trade reached €1.2 billion in 2021, while approximately 120 French companies operate in the country
AFD focuses on the transport and mobility sector (modernisation of the railway sector, urban mobility and local connectivity projects), solid waste infrastructures throughout Serbia and support for climate change policies. It has committed to invest at a comparable pace in the coming years. In this spirit, many new projects are currently under preparation, in the fields of energy and water management – areas in which France has demonstrated significant expertise worldwide.
Speaking on the occasion of a recent meeting with representatives of French companies in the country, Serbian PM Ana Brnabić said that investments in the field of environmental protection, energy and green transition have the greatest potential for further cooperation. Are there French companies interested in making such investments in Serbia?
– The answer is yes. Environmental protection and green infrastructure are part of our trademark and a priority of French businesses abroad. There is strong political will in France to support public incentives in this field worldwide. French companies are already active in these sectors in Serbia, such as Veolia, which I already mentioned, or Suez Environment in the field of water.
In the energy sector, French companies like EDF and Schneider Electric are working on a smart grid project together with Serbian operator EDS. Likewise, EDF visited recently Serbia at the request of the Serbian authorities to discuss potential new collaboration in the field of nuclear energy. Other French groups also promote renewable energy projects (wind, solar and geothermal) and regularly come to Serbia.
You announced the promotion of cooperation in the fields of culture, education and science as being among your priorities in Serbia, as well as encouraging the studying of the French language. You also spoke about this recently with students of the bilingual department of a school in Pirot. How can these priorities be achieved?
– In the field of culture, we have been supporting Novi Sad European Capital of Culture, with activities ranging from a contemporary circus or Street Art, to comics. In the field of education, we promote several new programmes and initiatives, such as “Study in France – Work in Serbia”, the Serbian-French Innovation Forum, Playing Narratives (a training programme for young videogame creators) and “IT makes SciENSE”. We continue to promote French language proficiency thanks to seven bilingual sections in Serbian schools, but also – since 2020 – a larger network called Volim Francuski, which benefits around 50 secondary schools and more than 10,000 pupils. Our cooperation with Serbia is intended to function in a synergistic way. For instance, the French Film Festival held annually in Belgrade introduces new achievements of French cinematography to the Serbian public, while simultaneously promoting the French language.
Belgrade’s Institut Français, formerly the French Cultural Centre in Belgrade, is one of the mainstays of cooperation in the field of culture, but has also represented a recognisable centre at the heart of Belgrade for more than 70 years. Are the plans and scope of the Institute’s activities in the Serbian capital changing and evolving?
– The French Institute of Serbia, in Belgrade, is indeed located in a very recognisable city centre building. We have been modernising our premises over the past few years and intend to pursue new digital equipment in 2023. Our branch in Niš is the only European foreign institute to actively cooperate with local authorities throughout Southern Serbia. The new premises of the French Institute of Novi Sad, inaugurated on 22nd June, also symbolise our ambitions.
Our plans and scope remain large, as we want to reach our public across the whole of Serbia, not only in Belgrade, Niš and Novi Sad. That’s why we cooperate with many municipalities and local cultural centres, in order to bring them French culture and opportunities. This takes forms such as touring exhibitions or festivals, but also partnerships with schools and universities inter alia.
France supports the complete normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, within the framework of the Brussels Agreement
Our bilateral economic relations have entered a new phase and France has become one of the main foreign investors in Serbia, with 2010-2020 FDI stock of €1.3 billion
The mandate of AFD in the Western Balkans aims to support key reforms and investments to facilitate the implementation of the Green Deal and uphold EU standards