It is not for me to judge arguments of different parties – the EU is not involved and does not finance the lithium projects in Serbia. So, it is up to Serbia to assess the risks and benefits and make decisions. All in all, we consider it to be a positive that citizens take environmental issues, the protection of rivers and biodiversity seriously, and we think that decisions should only be taken after careful consideration of the impacts ~ Emanuele Giaufret
The Head of the EU Delegation to Serbia sees environmental protection and the struggle against pollution and climate change as one of the great challenges facing Serbia, particularly after the opening of Cluster 4 of accession negotiations with the EU. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret adds strengthening the rule of law, continuing judicial reform, combating organised crime and overcoming the legacy of the past through the strengthening of good neighbourly relations to the list of challenges.
Your Excellency, with your term in Serbia having begun recently, what would you consider the biggest challenges facing our country?
Serbia faces the challenges that are also facing the world. Covid-19 is, of course, one of these. We are in it together and will get out of the crisis together. Since the start of the pandemic, the EU has continuously been on the side of Serbia, supporting its fight against the virusand attempts to recude its impact on the health of people and the society: we have brought masks, respirators, tests, vaccines; delivered triage containers, ambulances and mobile vehicles to facilitate vaccination in remote areas; and we’ve financed 200 additional personnel to reinforce the country’s healthcare system. This gives me an opportunity to reiterate our encouragement for people to vaccinate: there is no better protection!
The environment and climate change are also a major challenge, globally but also in Serbia, which is confronted by a high level of air pollution, river pollution and threats to biodiversity. It is thus of great importance to implement the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans in practice. Over the past 15 years, the EU has donated more than 450 million euros to build wastewater treatment plants, protect endangered plant and animal species, and to reduce air pollution, but a lot of political action also needs to be taken. Here the EU also does its best to stimulate the process further, and we’ve now done so by opening accession negotiation cluster number 4, which also deals – among other topics – with energy and the environment. We believe that the EU accession negotiation process can bring the best available standards to Serbia, and this will be supported through a wide range of concrete projects to improve environmental protection.
Over the past 15 years, the EU has donated more than 450 million euros to build wastewater treatment plants, protect endangered plant and animal species, and to reduce air pollution, but a lot of political action also needs to be taken
This, of course, also goes for other sectors, such as the rule of law, which is crucial. Serbia needs to have an independent judiciary to combat organised crime and corruption. Finally, there is still a need to overcome the legacy of the past and continue fostering good neighbourly relations.
We are on the threshold of the calling of elections at the presidential, parliamentary and Belgrade levels, with representatives of the European Parliament having previously participated in the interparty dialogue on free and fair election conditions. Having monitored the atmosphere and associated legislative activity, do you believe that the upcoming elections will be fair and that they will be held in an atmosphere of democracy?
Democracy is never to be taken for granted and the European Union is very attentive when it comes to protecting and enhancing it within Europe and all around the world. We have taken stock of the state of democracy in Serbia in our annual report and have identified a number of recommendations, which include countering hate speech, in particular from politicians; making space for political dialogue; improving cooperation with civil society, to make it a partner for reforms; improving the media environment…
On elections – I cannot give an assessment before they take place. Current and former members of the European Parliament have indeed engaged proactively as co-facilitators of the Interparty Dialogue. The IPD enhanced fruitful exchanges between politicians and parties and resulted in a set of 16 measures to improve the electoral framework in Serbia, notably on access to media during elections and increasing trust in the conducting of elections. These concrete measures came on top of the recommendations of the ODHIR, and the EU expects Serbia to implement the measures of the IPD and the recommendations of the ODHIR to ensure the conditions required for inclusive and transparent election processes, where all parties and candidates can compete on a level-playing field. This is important to strengthen democratic institutions and I’m glad that some steps have been taken in that respect.
The European Commission’s latest Progress Report on Serbia, the first that you’ve been tasked with presenting in Belgrade, has marked progress achieved in the area of media freedom. On the other hand, however, both domestic and international media/journalists’ associations cite the applying of undue pressure, threats and even attacks against journalists. How do you view the state of affairs?
Freedom of expression and media is one of the European Union’s fundamental values and a crucial element of Serbia’s EU accession process. It is an area in which the EU is very engaged. You correctly stated that, after several years during which we expressed concerns for the lack of progress, the European Commission noted some limited progress last year, notably due to the start of the implementation of the media strategy and associated action plan. More needs to be done to ensure a pluralistic media scene and reinforce freedom of expression. It is now more than a year since the start of implementation of the media strategy and action plan – which are good documents written in an inclusive and transparent way – and they need to be implemented in a timely manner and with respect for both their letter and spirit. That includes amending the law on Public Information and Media, notably to make public financing of media fairer and more transparent, and amending the Law on Electronic Media to reinforce the independence of REM and improve its functioning, as well as the implementing of these amended laws.
The safety and security of journalists is also crucial to ensure that freedom of expression can be exercised without hindrance. Journalists must be able to do their job free of any threat of violence, harassment and intimidation, thus ensuring that citizens have access to all information. Efforts have been made by the government to track and reinforce the response to attacks, threats and pressures, but cases remain too high.
Over recent weeks we’ve seen cases of verbal attacks against journalists relayed in important media outlets with a national audience. This is concerning because it puts journalists in danger and reinforces the polarisation of the media, political parties and society. With elections approaching, we see the risk of such abuses increasing, and this should be avoided.
We need to modernise and link the entire region and overcome the past while continuing to work on a European future for the Western Balkans. But we can only do that with its leaders
Citizens of Serbia voted in favour of changing the Constitution, in its part concerning the judiciary. In the argument FOR and AGAINST the proposed amendments to the Constitution, it could’ve been heard that the Constitution has had to be changed as an obligation towards the EU. How would you comment on this claim?
These constitutional amendments are aimed at reinforcing the independence of the judiciary. The referendum was not about pleasing the EU, but about citizens benefiting from a more independent and fairer judicial system. This is good for citizens and good for the rule of Law and thus, naturally, also good for Serbia’s accession path.
The referendum and constitutional changes are not the end of the process. A number of laws need to be amended to ensure the effective implementation of these constitutional amendments. We welcome the Serbian Government’s intention to continue involving the Venice Commission in subsequent steps.
Following a two-year standstill, Serbia has finally opened new EU accession negotiation chapters, i.e., a new cluster. Do you think this marks new enthusiasm for enlargement from within the EU or is it merely a symbolic move that will be followed by a new, longer standstill?
By opening Cluster 4, the EU sent a strong message: when reforms advance, the enlargement process progresses. Serbia received an acknowledgement of the progress it has made in sectors on the environment transport and energy, and on its chosen direction for the further development of the economy. This is the reality: Serbia met the opening benchmarks for the cluster. The basics have been done and now the opening of negotiations in a cluster of chapters means substantial negotiations can commence in these areas. The benchmarks are now higher, and Serbia is now expected to move much closer to EU standards and practices, notably on environmental protection. It also means better coordination and political steering at the national and local levels.
Cluster 4 is at the heart of all economies. Environmental protection and the sustainable development of energy and transport sectors, in line with EU legislation and climate objectives, will bring new investments, increase employment and boost the local market and SMEs. And this is good news for citizens who rightfully show more and more concern for the protection of the environment and the fight against climate change. And it’s good news because the EU has the world’s top standards in this area.
Given that the EU and Serbia have started negotiations on Chapter 27, related to the environment, could you comment on what a public debate on the exploitation of lithium, conducted in accordance with European Union standards, would look like in Serbia?
Cluster 4 was opened in December 2021, so indeed negotiations – about the depth and pace of reforms, transposition and capacity for the country to enforce legislation – will start soon. In response to your question, note that under existing Serbian law, public consultations have to be organised by the authorities and this would have to be done in an inclusive way, engaging all stakeholders. The standards described under Chapter 27 provide good guidance for the government and provide the best possibility for both the citizens and the government.
You personally spoke with activists who are concerned about the consequences of lithium mining in Serbia, which – according to expert assessments – could have a devastating impact on large swathes of the territories of Central and Western Serbia. What do you think of the arguments presented to you?
It is not for me to judge the arguments of different parties – the EU is not involved and does not finance such lithium projects in Serbia. So, it is up to Serbia to assess the risks and benefits and make decisions accordingly. All in all, we consider it to be a positive that citizens are taking environmental issues, the protection of rivers and biodiversity, seriously and we think that decisions should be taken only after careful consideration of the impacts.
What I can say is that there are different lithium mining projects in the EU, which are being seriously looked out by different countries and local communities, because lithium is an important natural resource that can have a positive socioeconomic impact, here in Serbia too.
Our only request – within the EU but also in Serbia, as it is negotiating to enter the EU – is that the development of any such project must respect the highest environmental standards, i.e., those that we apply in the European Union.
Environmental protection and the sustainable development of energy and transport sectors, in line with EU legislation and climate objectives, will bring new investments, increase employment and boost the local market and SMEs
The EU has been investing enormously – in terms of expertise, political engagement and financially – to support Serbia’s transition to a greened economy and society: over the past 15 years, the EU has donated over 450 million euros to Serbia for environmental protection alone, which provided for wastewater treatment facilities and water supply systems in several municipalities across Serbia, programmes for the protection of biodiversity, the installing of air pollution measurement stations, as well as ash disposal systems at the Nikola Tesla Thermal Power Plant, among other infrastructure projects. In the energy sector, 830 million euros have already been donated to Serbia since 2000 to improve the energy supply and its efficiency, renewable energy and the harmonisation of legislation, while an additional 100 million is in the pipeline for next year.
So, for us, it is extremely important that Serbia continues to converge on EU standards, and this is what we will be monitoring and supporting during negotiations on Chapter 27.
The Serbian Government says that it is ready for the opening of another cluster during the first half of this year. What will the EU’s green lighting of this cluster depend on the most?
In its last annual report on Serbia, the European Commission said clearly that it supports the opening of Cluster 3, on competitiveness and growth, and Cluster 4, on the green agenda and sustainable connectivity. Cluster 4 was just opened and now the European Commission continues to support the opening of Cluster 3. But this is ultimately for EU Member States to decide on, unanimously.
And it is very clear that – besides the policies of the particular cluster – what the EU and its Member States look at are the fundamentals, i.e., the rule of law: the independence and efficiency of the judiciary (it will be important to see how the constitutional changes are implemented); the fight against corruption and organised crime, which should show a solid track record; the implementation of the media strategy, the handling of war crimes etc. The conducting of elections and how the ODIHR recommendations and IPD measures were implemented will also likely be crucial.
What do you expect of the French Presidency of the EU and the Conference on the Western Balkans that’s been announced by President Macron?
This is good news from Paris. This reconfirms the EU’s commitment to the EU aspirations of the Western Balkans and constitutes a good continuation of the Slovenian Presidency. We have momentum: Serbia has the support of all EU Member States to accelerate its EU accession. We all know that Serbia can bring a lot to the EU family: with its strong identity, its creativity, its energy, we will be stronger in confronting the challenges of today and tomorrow and building a better, sustainable and prosperous future for Europe. We are now counting on Serbia to accelerate its efforts to meet the EU.
The Open Balkan initiative currently doesn’t include Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. The claim in Sarajevo is that this initiative only serves to expand Serbia’s influence, while the view in Podgorica is that it distracts from EU membership talks. Are there any justifiable grounds for such assessments?
We encourage an initiative that includes everyone in the Western Balkans: this is how the greatest benefits will come. The Western Balkan leaders need to make progress on the implementation of the Common Regional Market, established at the Sofia Summit in 2020, with the constructive engagement of all parties. This is important to realise the full potential of regional integration, to make the best possible use of the investments under the Economic and Investment Plan and to better link the entire region to the EU’s Single Market.
You’ve stated that there is no alternative to dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and that both parties must fulfil all of their commitments, including the formation of the Community of Serb Municipalities. However, this was explicitly rejected in a recent statement made by Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. If this is the case, what could form the basis of further talks?
This comment still stands. There is no alternative to dialogue. And this is very much in line with my previous comments. We need to modernise and link the entire region and overcome the past while continuing to work on a European future for the Western Balkans. But we can only do that with its leaders.
I’m an optimist and am convinced that progress if possible. High Representative Borell just reiterated again in December, in the presence of PM Kurti, the need for the full implementation of all agreements – including the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities.
Freedom of expression and media is one of the European Union’s fundamental values and a crucial element of Serbia’s EU accession process
The referendum and constitutional changes are not the end of the process. A number of laws need to be amended to ensure the effective implementation of these constitutional amendments
It is extremely important that Serbia continues to converge on EU standards, and this is what we will be monitoring and supporting during negotiations on Chapter 27