There is no doubt that the Western Balkans and EU enlargement will remain high on Germany’s agenda. Whoever becomes the next Chancellor will certainly have a significant interest in democratic, prosperous and stable Western Balkan countries that are part of the European family and will be part of the EU as soon as possible ~ Thomas Schieb
Angela Merkel’s stepping down from the political scene was followed closely in Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans, with attention that reflected the common belief that this German Chancellor has had a decisive influence on the policy pursued in this region by the European Union.
With assurances that Germany will remain committed to the EU enlargement process, regardless of who becomes the new chancellor, German Ambassador.
Thomas Schieb insists that “the speed of enlargement remains in the hands of the respective countries. When you deliver on reforms, the EU will also deliver,” says Schieb in this interview.
Your Excellency, departing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has chosen the Western Balkans as the last region that she will visit prior to concluding her professional career. What kinds of messages do you think should be drawn from that fact?
To start with, I’d like to say how grateful we were for the very warm welcome Chancellor Merkel received in Belgrade. With her trip to Belgrade and Tirana, Chancellor Merkel once again underlined the great significance that the German government attaches to Serbia, the region as a whole and its EU integration. In Belgrade, she had excellent talks with the President about all relevant issues.
Chancellor Merkel also exchanged views with civil society representatives from all Western Balkan countries. She then met all six heads of government in Tirana. She underlined the great importance that the Berlin Process, launched by Germany in 2014, continues to bear fruit. Serbia and the region will remain high on our agenda.
To what extent will Chancellor Merkel’s final visit to Serbia and the messages she gave be binding for her successor? Do you expect new developments in German relations with Belgrade?
A trademark of German foreign policy is continuity. There is no doubt that the
Western Balkans and EU enlargement will remain high on Germany’s agenda. Whoever the next Chancellor will be, whether Armin Laschet or Olaf Scholz, they will certainly have a significant interest in democratic, prospering and stable Western Balkans countries that are part of the European family and will be part of the EU as soon as possible. The speed of enlargement remains in the hands of the respective countries. When you deliver on reforms, the EU will also deliver.
Whoever the next Chancellor will be, whether Armin Laschet or Olaf Scholz, they will certainly have a significant interest in democratic, prospering and stable Western Balkans countries that are part of the European family and will be part of the EU as soon as possible
Federal elections were held in Germany at the end of September, marking an historic change of chancellor, with the departure of Angela Merkel. However, you have noted that there will be no major changes to German foreign policy. Do you nonetheless expect some new directions in terms of the topics or policies that will be prioritised?
Indeed, Germany elected a new Bundestag on 26th September. This heralded the end of an era in a way, as Angela Merkel will leave office after 16 years – only Helmut Kohl served for a similarly long period. But, as I said before, I don’t expect any major changes in Germany’s foreign policy. In principle, all political parties that have a realistic chance to form a new government agree that European integration is of key importance, as are the transatlantic partnership, the promotion of multilateralism and an international rules-based order. One issue that will certainly be an even higher priority for every new government is the fight against climate change.
During Chancellor Merkel’s visit, we once again heard that Germany supports Serbia’s EU integration path. However, the fact remains that Germany and other EU member states don’t currently support the resumption of the opening of EU accession negotiation chapters, i.e., clusters. Why is that?
Germany is, and will remain, a strong supporter of Serbia’s EU accession. Our position is clear: clusters can and will be opened contingent on reform progress, particularly in the area of the rule of law. It is true that Serbia has delivered on some relevant opening benchmarks, but there was not enough time for the EU to assess that before the June conference. I am quite optimistic for December. I strongly encourage all relevant stakeholders to remain committed to the reform path.
Should the current European integration deadlock be attributed to a lack of results in the dialogue with Priština or the poor assessment of the situation in Serbia with regard to the rule of law?
Both areas are relevant for EU integration. Justice reform, progress with other relevant legislation and – even more importantly – the implementation of laws in the rule of law, e.g., with regard to the fight against corruption and for the improving of media freedom – are key elements for the progress of accession talks.
You’ve spoken about the excellent cooperation between Germany and Serbia on the economic front. How would you explain the continuous interest in investing in Serbia among German investors, despite Serbia’s slow progress on EU accession?
Since the year 2000, German companies have invested approximately 3.1 billion euros in the country and created around 70,000 jobs. This is impressive indeed.
The “quality” of German investments is also improving, i.e., German companies are investing more and more long-term, helping to transfer knowhow and technology, as well as fostering innovation potentials, generating higher ‘added value’ in Serbia. The close proximity to the European Union, the availability of a skilled workforce and an environment that’s generally supportive of foreign direct investments are among the main factors contributing to Serbia’s attractiveness as a destination for investments by German companies. Moreover, those German companies that are already present in Serbia are satisfied – according to the annual survey of the German-Serbian Chamber of Commerce, AHK, around 90% of its members would invest in Serbia again.
It is true that Serbia has delivered on some relevant opening benchmarks, but there was not enough time for the EU to assess that before the June conference. I am quite optimistic for December
At the same time, it is important to note that reforms to foster competition and improve the provision of public services, as well transparency and legal security, will further contribute to promoting a strong and competitive private sector in this country. Sustainable economic growth in Serbia, based on a strong private sector, is crucial when it comes to making Serbia’s economy fit for EU accession. Investors are very well aware of this and they are counting on Serbia’s path towards the EU.
How would you assess the regional initiative that was recently renamed Open Balkans?
The Berlin Process, initiated by Germany in 2014, aims at improving regional cooperation among the WB6 countries and thereby facilitating their path towards EU accession. One concrete endeavour is to create a Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans, thus boosting economic relations among the WB6 countries. At the last Berlin Process summit meeting in July, leaders of the Western Balkans reconfirmed their commitment to this important project. The Open Balkan initiative, in our understanding, provides an important impulse to ongoing efforts to realise the regional economic integration of all WB6 countries. It is very important that any regional initiative is inclusive, i.e., open to all WB6 countries.
What do you expect from the Bosnia-Herzegovina mission of your countryman Christian Schmidt?
Since its establishment, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) has contributed substantially to peace and stability in B-H. And yet, challenges remain. The OHR still has an important role to play in maintaining stability and security in the country, and to ensure the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Given the experience and expertise of new High Representative Christian Schmidt, I expect that he will keep Bosnia-Herzegovina high on the international agenda. Besides that, he will focus on achieving progress in the implementation of the 5+2 Agenda, which is a precondition for the successful completion of the mission of the OHR – also with a view to speeding up the country’s journey “from Dayton to Brussels”.
Elections will also be held in Serbia next year. Do you believe that the interparty dialogue will prove successful and provide conditions for free and fair elections, preventing another opposition boycott of the elections?
Plurality of opinions is obviously very important in every democracy. A parliament should reflect the opinions of its citizens and allow for constructive political debates. We therefore hope that the interparty dialogue, which is facilitated by the European Parliament, can contribute to providing the conditions for free and fair elections and, thus, the participation of opposition parties in the elections.
One of the key elements of this dialogue, which also includes the participation of representatives of the European Parliament, is media freedom. Do you think the current situation in the Serbian media can ensure the fair representation of all participants in the elections?
We share the assessment of the EU Commission that more needs to be done to ensure media freedom in Serbia. The goal must be to enable an environment in which freedom of expression can be exercised without hindrance. This includes journalists being able to work without threats, media laws being fully implemented, the independence of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media being strengthened and transparency in media ownership increased.
Germany is, and will remain, a strong supporter of Serbia’s EU accession. Our position is clear: clusters can and will be opened contingent on reform progress, particularly in the area of the rule of law
Since the year 2000, German companies have invested approximately 3.1 billion euros in the country and created around 70,000 jobs. This is impressive indeed
The Open Balkan initiative, in our understanding, provides an important impulse to ongoing efforts to realise the regional economic integration of all WB6 countries