The reasons Serbia wants to be a member of the EU have not changed due to the migrant crisis that has shaken the European Union. “There has been a crisis in the European Union before and it would not be a good idea for us to wait for it to pass,” says Jadranka Joksimović, Minister without portfolio responsible for European Integration in the Government of the Republic of Serbia.
Here Minister Joksimović talks about bilateral relations between Serbia and Greece, which put the crisis in this country to the test; the valuable assistance of this country in Serbia’s European integration process, and the Serbian government’s priorities in the context of negotiating chapters 23 and 24.
When speaking of bilateral relations, Minister Joksimović emphasises traditionally friendly relations between the two countries, Greece’s unconditional support for Serbia’s process of European integration, its political stance towards the Kosovo issue and the expert assistance of Greece in harmonising legislation with the EU acquis.
Concerning the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, Minister Joksimović says that the impact of such circumstances has a temporary negative effect on the economic relations between the two countries, but at the same token seeks further efforts from both sides to find new avenues and models of cooperation which may weather current obstacles.
She also notes that Greek businesses and banks are important players in the Serbian market. “We should not forget the fact that Greece has been one of the biggest investors in Serbia in the last 15 years,” says Joksimović.
When speaking about the migrant crisis, to which both Greece and Serbia are exposed, Minister Joksimović says that Serbia fully supports a comprehensive common European solution, which is the only approach that may yield a sustainable response to the given circumstances.
Greece strongly supports our country’s European integration road. In which areas is this Greek support most important?
Greece is one of the EU countries that supports Serbia’s process of European integration without any conditions whatsoever. We do not have any open bilateral issues. Greece is one of the five member states that have not recognised the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo.
Support from Greece on our EU path, which is primarily reflected in the exchange of experience, is tangible and valuable. On several occasions, Greece has also been our important partner: having recently completed a project which improved the efficiency and transparency of the work of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, as well as its capacity for harmonising legislation with the EU acquis.
Likewise, we also have ongoing expert assistance for the State Council of the Prosecution and the High Judicial Council in the implementation of existing laws. The total value of these Twinning contracts amounts to €5.3 million, and the Greek government – via the Hellenic Plan for the Economic Reconstruction of the Balkans – supported the construction of two sections of Corridor 10, with a total of €16 million. Greek colleagues relayed to us their experience and know-how in establishing the professional services of the Ombudsman and then helped at the central level, but also in local governments, to strengthen the capacity for air quality management.
In your assessment of today’s overall relations between Greece and Serbia, how much are they conditioned by the crisis this country is going through?
The two countries are characterised by traditionally friendly relations and that will form the basis of future economic and political relations between the two countries.
The tough economic situation in Greece in recent years has had a negative impact on overall economic relations between Greece and Serbia, especially in the segment related to investments in our country. However, regardless of this, we should seek new and additional models of economic cooperation between Greek and Serbian companies, under the given circumstances and limitations.
We should not forget the fact that Greece has been one of the biggest investors in Serbia in the last 15 years, both during the privatisation process and through greenfield investments, but also through investments in the banking sector.
There has been much debate about the possibilities of the migrant crisis that is afflicting Greece and all other countries on the Balkan route in terms of both the political and economic impact on the functioning of the EU and its priorities, which will undoubtedly have a chain reaction of consequences on the region. What do you expect in this regard?
Serbia advocates in favour of a comprehensive common European solution to the migrant crisis. Our position remains unchanged on this point. We believe that only a common approach can lead to a solution and we welcome all efforts being taken that lead towards such a solution. The EU has repeatedly praised the Serbian policy on the migrant crisis, which is highlighted in the European Parliament’s recently adopted resolution on Serbia. That document praised the constructive approach of Serbia, which is dubbed an essential and reliable partner of the EU in the Balkans.
In this sense, as PM Vučić has stressed repeatedly, Serbia will not raise a fence but will have to protect its interests if all other European countries close their borders. Serbia will monitor what is happening in the countries of the region and the wider environment, with the expectation that an agreement on how to resolve the migrant crisis will be reached within the EU.
We also expect that, following the influx of new migrants, the EU will provide adequate financial assistance to which it has already committed. In this regard, it was decided to grant us additional resources from the Madad Fund, which will see its mandate expanded to operate on the Western Balkans when it comes to aid for Syrian refugees.
In your opinion, how much could a temporarily extended freeze on the Schengen Agreement impact on Serbia?
Strengthened border controls between the Member States do not mean the mutual introduction of visas, or, importantly for Serbia, the return of the visa regime for candidate countries that have enjoyed visa regime liberalisation. As you know, our citizens can – with regular documents and in accordance with the Schengen rules on the movement of persons – move freely and reside in the EU Member States for up to 90 consecutive days. So, Schengen rules have not been suspended.
Greece is one of the EU countries that support the European integration process of Serbia without any conditions, and a country whose experience is valuable to us
Given that we are very present in discussions with our European counterparts, that awareness of the importance of Schengen exists and that measures for the protection of internal borders are directed primarily towards improving security within the EU and the member states themselves. Confirming that things are progressing with small but common steps is the fact that the EU Member States agreed, precisely for the sake of security, to introduce a new form of control on external borders in the form of patrols of a border and coastal guards.
The abolition of the Schengen zone would cause massive economic damage to EU member states. We should not forget that the Schengen Agreement is one of the EU’s greatest achievements.
It’s been over a decade since the Thessaloniki Summit, after which it was expected that Serbia would become a candidate relatively quickly and then a full member of the Union. But this initiative was only recently restored with the launching of the Berlin initiative. How optimistic are you today when it comes to the pace of Serbia’s EU integration?
The accession process is a demanding and long-term process. In order to properly understand the process, we need to know what the objectively established criteria are that form part of the acquis, but also the overall context of international relations at a time when the candidate begins negotiations or is in the middle of them. In the process of integration, there is a clear principle of conditionality, the same for all, these are the standards that the candidate is expected to implement. Of course, there are political circumstances that are mitigating or aggravating. Some countries, thanks to some favourable international circumstances for them, have even become members even though they were not prepared for that.
It is in our national interest to use the process of EU accession to implement the reform process in full, end the transition process and secure conditions whereby our citizens will be equal to the citizens of the EU in all respects. After all, these are the basic preconditions for creating an organised, modern, and functionally effective country with a strong economy, while European integration only represents the framework that provides extra dynamism to that process. The reasons Serbia wants to be a member of the EU have not changed due to the migrant crisis. There has been a crisis in the European Union before and it would not be a good idea for us to wait for it to pass. We are working actively to fulfil our commitments and implement standards in many areas of society, and we expect the European Union to evaluate that adequately.
Chapters 23 and 24, which relate to justice and the judiciary and should be opened soon, are those in which we have achieved relatively little progress to date. What will be the government’s key activities in this field, particularly bearing in mind that this is an area that interests the business sector?
Chapters 23 and 24 do not apply only to the judiciary, but also to the fight against corruption, human and minority rights, asylum, migration and fight against organised crime. The EU positively assessed our legislative and institutional framework for the protection of human rights and Serbia’s commitment during the adoption of the Action Plan for National Minorities, which will provide for further improvement in the exercising of minority rights. Progress has also been made in the fight against corruption and organised crime, and all of these activities impact on the creation of a better economic environment.
We should not forget the fact that Greece has been one of the biggest investors in Serbia in the last 15 years. Therefore, despite the existing restrictions, we should look for new and additional models of economic cooperation
The main goal of the Serbian government, the judiciary and all other regulatory authorities is a consistent implementation of measures and deadlines set out in the plan for the fight against corruption, contained in the Action Plan for Chapter 23. I would emphasise that one of the first measures that will be achieved in this area in the future is the adoption of the Strategy for the Investigation of Financial Crime, which will be another mechanism to implement the policy of zero tolerance towards corruption. According to the reports of all relevant international institutions, Serbia has made progress in terms of improving the business environment and the further opening of membership negotiation chapters will be an opportunity to further improve this area.
We are often criticised for bringing good laws that are harmonised with the EU and are then not applied – and that is also a common complaint of the international business community in Serbia. When will we see in the application of European regulations in everyday life?
Given the regular dialogue maintained with the business community in Serbia, which is one of the partners in the society which provide expert support in the negotiation process with the European Union, we are aware that more needs to be done for our business conditions to be at the level of Europe. It is precisely in this context that a Memorandum of Cooperation was recently signed between the Office for European Integration and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, the umbrella association for Serbian economy, which envisages joint activities of the Office and the Chamber in the aim of ensuring the most effective possible preparation of the business community of Serbia for the future single market of the EU.
Of course, remarks that to some extent there is a delay in the application of the regulations are not without foundation, and the Government is making significant efforts to implement, without exception, is in line with the plans. Yet the process of harmonization of legislation is lengthy, and in addition to drafting the legislation also consists of building institutions for their implementation and building capacity for the subsequent judicial control over the legality of work of the state administration. This approach has already brought real changes in Serbia and the citizens can feel them, but often are not aware that these changes are the result of harmonization with EU regulations.