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Olivér Várhelyi / European Commissioner For Neighbourhood And Enlargement

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Federica Cattoi, First Secretary, Head Of The Consulate, Head Of The Media, Political Affairs Officer, Embassy Of Italy To Serbia

Progress Eagerly Awaited By All

Serbia needs steady progress in the area of the rule of law, both in the interest of its citizens and as a standard asset required to become a full EU member state. If the necessary requirements continue to be fulfilled, I am positive that 2021 will be a better year for Serbia

As she comes to the end of her mandate in Serbia, we asked Federica Cattoi, First Secretary and Head of the Consulate, Head of the Media, and Political Affairs Officer at the Embassy of Italy in Belgrade, how she perceives relations between Serbia and Italy. Her answer can be summed up in one sentence: there is an “osmotic process of friendship” in politics, culture and emergency services between the two countries, insists our interlocutor.

One of the last meetings you had in Serbia was with the Parliamentary Friendship Group with Italy. How much can such groups contribute to fostering friendship between the two countries?

– It was an honour to take part in that meeting, as well as many others over these past three and a half years that I’ve spent in Serbia. Participating in a session with the Parliamentary Friendship Group was a chance to get to the heart of democracy in this country, and to feel the connection with Italy from the inside of the National Assembly.

Parliamentary diplomacy consists of a real modality of relations between countries, as meetings between bodies elected by their respective peoples. As for Italy and Serbia, I recall that over the last few years several members of the Italian Parliament have visited the Serbian Authorities under various circumstances, and during all those times I witnessed a tremendously vibrant environment of closeness, as well as the development of reciprocal opportunities.

One of the messages you’ve had for Serbian MPs was that, despite Serbia not having opened any chapters last year, it should remain focused on the rule of law, especially in the field of justice, as well as reforms related to these areas. Given the current state of the EU accession process, would you say that 2021 will be a better year in terms of the progress achieved?

– Last year’s combination of events wasn’t favourable to Serbia, given the COVID pandemic. This crisis was also a circumstance that slowed things down with further developments in methodology on the European side.

Independently, when it comes to how this new European approach will influence the accession process, without also considering the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, one thing remains clear: Serbia needs steady progress in the area of the rule of law (justice, media, fundamental rights) in the interest of its citizens and as a standard asset required to become a full EU member state.

I don’t think this is all just about European procedures: it is about substance. Serbia has achieved a lot of goals in the last few years, and much progress has been made. If the necessary requirements continue to be fulfilled, I’m positive that 2021 will be a better year for Serbia.

Given your position as the head of the embassy’s press office, how would you describe the current state of media freedom in Serbia and media reforms?

– Much has already been said about the need for Serbia to increase its efforts in the fields of media and freedom of expression.

Thanks to the job that I’ve been lucky enough to do during these last few years, I’m able to add some specific aspects.

Having had the chance to talk with many journalists, media representatives and civil society organisations, I realised that Serbia has a history of its school of journalism: this is a legacy that should not be wasted; a professionalism that could contribute to the entire media environment.

Making improvements in the media sector also depends on several elements: it is certainly about reforms, and increasing transparency on media management, but it is not only about procedures. It is also about deepening the political culture on a wider spectrum: curiosity and the attitude of public opinion are important to ensuring a more actively engaged, involved and interested society.

When you look over your time in Serbia, how would you describe the cooperation you’ve had with various Serbian interlocutors and the efforts they’ve exerted in pursuing EU accession?

– Like many of my current colleagues and predecessors here, I experienced very good cooperation with my Serbian counterparts. Most of the time that commitment was more than about assisting Serbia, rather it was a case of trying to reach a goal together, which is why traditional cooperation here has often been at that very high level of effectiveness.

During these years that I followed Serbia’s process of negotiating to join the European Union, from Belgrade’s perspective, Serbia made progress, and Italy was involved in several bilateral or multilateral (EU/OSCE) projects pertaining to justice, the rule of law and police cooperation.

This commitment shouldn’t stop, but rather should intensify, in order for Serbia to forge a democratic culture aligned, also with the reforms and changes progressively implemented.

Living here in Serbia during the pandemic was the ultimate experience for me, which finally brought us together and now makes it harder for me to leave

A lot of diplomatic cooperation took place online during the previous period. How did this impact on your work and your professional ambitions, given that this is your last year in Serbia?

– It was very unfortunate indeed to spend this last year mainly with “online” communication.

This was the modality that was exploited everywhere in the world, in order to stay safe and protect others.

Serbia nonetheless demonstrated that it is able to react quickly, with a very well organised vaccination campaign, while “in person” meetings and activities began earlier here compared to most other countries.

Although under unprecedented circumstances, the work level intensified and connections grew stronger. Living here in Serbia during the pandemic was the ultimate experience for me, which finally brought us together and now makes it harder for me to leave.

Which messages did you want to communicate with the general public, and how much you have relied on social networks?

– When the COVID crisis began in Italy, we communicated a lot towards Italian citizens living in Serbia, to Serbian citizens travelling to Italy and everyone interested in frequent movements between Italy and Serbia. Social media helped us to share information faster, thus enabling us to better assist the public.

We then continued in this direction. Consular and visa services never stopped, but we relied on different modalities of assistance according to higher or lower level of contagions in the country, in the best interest of everyone.

We also received messages through the same online modality: the “solidarity concert” of the Novi Sad orchestra for what was happening in Italy, held in April 2020, moved us all. Much of our communication was therefore focused on thanking the Serbian Government and the whole Serbian population for their assistance and donations, as well as when it was reciprocated with help from the Italian side in the next epidemiological wave.

How have your personal relations with Serbia and Belgrade evolved over time? What would be the best things to remember?

– I was personally caught by the human connection between the Serbian and Italian populations, and by how easy it is to meet and get acquainted. However, this is probably what every Italian feels like in Serbia: that we are at home again. Like we use to say, it’s not that Italian and Serbian cultures are very similar to each other, but rather that there is such a history of closeness between them that it became an “osmotic process of friendship”.