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H.E. Raúl Bartolomé Molina, Ambassador Of The Kingdom Of Spain To Serbia

Laying The Foundations Of Future Cooperation

Spain confirmed its unconditional support to Serbia’s territorial integrity, and also its support to Serbia’s European Union accession negotiations, particularly the opening of Cluster 3, underlining the necessity of Serbia’s alignment to the EU’s common foreign and security policy – Raúl Bartolomé Molina

The Serbian President’s recent visit to Spain ended a fairly long period during which there were no high-level visits between these two countries, which have always had friendly relations. Commenting on the discussions held in Madrid between top Serbian and Spanish officials, ambassador Raúl Bartolomé Molina emphasises the importance of mutual intention “to reinforce those economic relations by the signing of an agreement in that field, which we are beginning to negotiate immediately”. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, the Spanish ambassador also announces the upcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishing of the Department of Iberian studies at the University of Belgrade.

Your Excellency, could you speak about the effects of the Serbian President’s recent visit to Spain?

President Aleksandar Vučić’s 23rd February visit to Madrid was the first visit of a Serbian President to Spain since Boris Tadić’s visit of March 2009. It had been a long time without high-level visits between our two countries, which share so many things in common, even if there have been endless contacts and visits of ministers and other officials during these years. President Vučić’s visit served to strengthen our always friendly relations and lay the foundations of future cooperation in numerous fields, especially on economic, cultural and educational issues. President Vučić met with King Philip VI and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, with whom he had long and fruitful discussions. Both ministers of foreign affairs met separately too, in order to examine bilateral relations and the current international situation.

Spain confirmed its unconditional support to Serbia’s territorial integrity and also its support to Serbia’s European Union accession negotiations, particularly the opening of Cluster 3, which underlines the necessity of Serbia’s alignment to the EU’s common foreign and security policy. As you know, Spain and Serbia have excellent bilateral political relations, as there are no open issues between us, but our economic relations are not at the same level, so President Vučić and Prime Minister Sánchez agreed that we have to reinforce those economic relations through the signing of an agreement in that field, which we are beginning to negotiate immediately. That important agreement will facilitate Spanish investments in Serbia and the presence of more Spanish companies in this country. One remarkable deliverable of the visit was the purchase of two Airbus military transport aircraft by the Serbian Ministry of Defence, and these aircraft will be made at the Airbus factory in Seville.

According to media reports, there was plenty of discussion in Madrid on the strengthening of economic cooperation. What will be in the focus of the bilateral business forum, which has been scheduled for this October?

As I said before, this visit was clearly focused on economic issues, in order to foster Spanish investments in, and trade with, Serbia, which are not at the level they should be according to the volumes of the two economies. We are just now beginning negotiations for a bilateral economic cooperation treaty and the Spanish government will organise a business forum in Belgrade next autumn, under the form of a Multilateral Partnership focused not only on Serbia, but on the entire Balkan region. This Partnership will take place in Belgrade because we consider this country, and this city, as the most relevant in the region and the ones that work, and should work, as the economic motor of the region both before and after its accession to the EU.

This Partnership will take place in Belgrade because we consider this country, and this city, as the most relevant in the region and the ones that work, and should work, as the economic motor of the region both before and after its accession to the EU

Will we then also see a reciprocal visit to Serbia of a top Spanish official?

I know our Head of Government, President Sánchez, has been willing to come for a long time, but the last few years were obviously complex in terms of travelling. He knows the region very well, because he worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina with High Representative Carlos Westendorp in the 1990s. It is not easy to foresee what will happen over the next few months, especially following the unjustifiable Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has obviously had an impact on all domestic and international agendas, but I hope he could pay a visit before the end of 2022. It would be great if he could be present at the autumn business forum.

Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs José Manuel Albares also told Minister Selaković that he is willing to come to Belgrade as soon as possible. The last Spanish foreign minister to visit Belgrade was Josep Borrell in March 2019 and, unfortunately, the covid pandemic prevented last year’s scheduled visit of then minister González Laya.

The increasing cooperation in other fields – the economy, culture, defence or education – may provide a good chance for different ministerial visits through the next few months.

Nevertheless, very recently the President of our High Council for Sports and Secretary of State for Sport, José Manuel Franco, visited Belgrade to attend the Athletics Indoor World Championships. He was amazed by the perfect organisation of the event and very happy to fly back home with two medals.

This is an opportune moment to remind readers that it was almost two decades ago that Spanish King Felipe VI (then in his capacity as prince), personally opened the Cervantes Institute Cultural Centre in Belgrade in 2004. Are you satisfied with the work of this centre and the interest in Spanish culture among Serbian citizens?

Exactly, His Majesty visited Belgrade in 2004, when he was Prince, as you said, to open the Cervantes Institute in the wonderful building in Knez Mihailova.

We are very proud of the work of Cervantes Institute in Belgrade and honoured by the deep interest of the Serbian people in the Spanish language and culture. Since 2004, many interesting cultural activities have been implemented, thousands of students have learnt Spanish with us and many bilateral cooperation projects have contributed to the strengthening of cultural links between Spain and Serbia.

Without any doubt, Cervantes Institute has become part of Belgrade’s very dynamic cultural life, and we can see that in the enormous interest in our activities shown by Serbian people. Nevertheless, the pandemic had a strong impact both on academic and cultural activity. We believe this year will be a blooming one in terms of promotions of Spanish culture in Serbia. In that sense, together with the cultural section of our Embassy, we hope that in 2022 Cervantes Institute may reopen normally to host annual and very much awaited events, such as Spanskimetar – the Spanish Film Festival, with the cooperation of Spanish speaking Embassies in Belgrade. We will also celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Department of Iberian Studies at the University unprecof Belgrade, while we continue supporting the very much-appreciated work of Spanish Studies at the Universities of Kragujevac and Novi Sad, where this year Spanish will happily gain its own department.

Progressive alignment with European foreign policy is a more than relevant step and, undoubtedly, the more and the sooner Serbia is aligned, the better

I would like to highlight the newest project launched by Cervantes, the podcast Moja Spanska Prica. It is a series of interviews with Serbs linked to the cultural sector, who have lived or experienced my country. They bring us very interesting and unknown facts and stories about Spain that I am sure people will love. Famous actor from the popular series La casa de papel (Money Heist), Darko Perić, opens the series by talking, among other things, about a quite unknown episode of our common history: the failed founding of Nova Barcelona in Vojvodina.

The current times are such that more media attention is attracted by news about Serbia signing an agreement to purchase two Airbus military transport planes, which are manufactured in Seville, than by news about culture. In light of the situation in Ukraine, do you believe Europe is on the brink of pacifying this crisis or further stoking the flames of conflict?

As you know, Airbus is a company that Spain, France and Germany participate in, so it is mainly European. In that sense, we welcome the decision of the Serbian authorities to purchase European aircraft, or more concretely, as you say, products manufactured in the beautiful city of Seville.

Regarding Ukraine, EU countries have shown absolute unity and our position is clear: Putin’s Russia has initiated an illegal and outrageous attack against a sovereign country. We believe firmly in diplomacy, but Putin´s barbaric acts have forced the European Union, for the first time ever, to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment that may help the Ukrainian people not to be massacred by this attack. Do not be mistaken: Putin’s Russia is the only one to blame for this terrible and absolutely unjustifiable war.

At the same time, we are strengthening our sanctions against the Kremlin and its collaborator, Lukashenko’s regime.

Moreover, and no less importantly, we welcome with open arms those Ukrainians who have to flee from Putin’s bombs, hoping Moscow stops this outrageous attack soon.

Since Russian action ramped up the conflict in Ukraine, Serbia has seemingly found itself in the special focus of the EU, which is demanding full foreign policy harmonisation, i.e., the imposing of sanctions against Russia. Why would Brussels insist on that at a time when multiple EU member states are announcing that they will exempt themselves from the imposing of sanctions, at least in the area of enabling energy supplies?

As you know, the EU and its member States, together with allies like the U.S., Canada, Japan and others, are trying to convince President Putin to stop his outrageous invasion of Ukraine, which is a democratic and sovereign state. There is absolute consensus and unity among the EU states in this fight. We have mobilised, in an unprecedented way, a huge number of resources to help Ukraine and its people. EU citizens – especially in the bordering countries, but also far from the war, including in Spain – are showing exemplary behaviour, hosting Ukrainian women and families who escaped the horrendous war scenario.

Regarding Serbia, we fully understand its complex situation and traditional neutrality, but this is a historical moment in which one must take sides. This aggression has suddenly changed the international scope and nothing will be as it was several weeks ago. The only objective of the EU and most of the international community is now to stop the war and everything we do serves that objective, including international sanctions. We expect Serbia will align with all measures adopted by the EU, since Serbia is a candidate country. I repeat that Spain fully believes that Serbia’s future relies on the EU, not in a sort of no man’s land, and that can be perfectly consistent with its neutral military status.

The crisis in Ukraine is being monitored in Serbia with a view to the rhetoric on territorial integrity of both the East and the West. Judging by the messages relayed via media outlets following the Madrid meeting between the Serbian President and the Spanish Prime Minister, it seems that your country will not change its stance regarding the issue of Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence?

No, we will not change our stance, our position regarding Kosovo is the same, and very well known by everyone. It has absolutely nothing to do with Ukraine being under attack and, honestly, it is hard for me to see any kind of parallelism.

You may criticise the EU for a lot of things, but the goals it has achieved throughout its history are so huge that the Europe that we know today is completely different and much better than before. That’s why Serbia must pursue its integration process without any doubt

Two contrasting messages have been directed towards the Western Balkans from the EU in recent weeks. The first suggests that the crisis in Ukraine will serve to accelerate the process of integrating this region into the EU; while the second warns that the conflict in Ukraine could expand to encompass the Western Balkans. In your opinion, which of these scenarios is more realistic?

Although the Western Balkans share a European perspective, it is true and undeniable that within the European Union there are differences between some member states that are more enthusiastic about enlargement than others. Spain, as you know, is one of the countries that is most firmly committed to enlargement and fully supports Serbia in its reforms in order to reach EU standards and become a member of the EU family.

Progressive alignment with European foreign policy is a more than relevant step and, undoubtedly, the more and the sooner Serbia is aligned, the better. That being said, I sincerely hope that this war brutally started by Russia, firstly, ends soon and, secondly, does not negatively affect the integration process of Serbia and other Western Balkan countries.

Having spent almost three years serving as Spain’s ambassador to both Serbia and Montenegro, you stated in one interview that the region’s key problem is the insistence on highlighting the differences between the peoples instead of what unites us. Given the most recent experience, do you believe this is only a local phenomenon, or is it also a European and global one?

Of course, it is not a local phenomenon. We have seen over these last years an increase in the number of political forces almost everywhere that are trying to insist on differences among people and expanding nationalist rhetoric that’s very dangerous to international stability. The EU was designed to avoid that, to unite the European people, with all their peculiarities, in a common project of political stability and economic prosperity. Its motto is “Unity in diversity”. You may criticise the EU for a lot of things, but the goals it has achieved throughout its history are so huge that the Europe that we know today is completely different and much better than before. That’s why Serbia must pursue its integration process without any doubt. I am totally convinced that most political forces and authorities in this country, as well as most of the Serbian people, are conscious of this.

COOPERATION

Increasing cooperation in the fields of the economy, culture, defence or education may provide a good chance for different ministerial visits over the next few months

UKRAINE

Regarding Ukraine, EU countries have shown absolute unity and our position is clear: Putin’s Russia has initiated an illegal and outrageous attack against a sovereign country

EU

Spain fully believes that Serbia’s future relies on the EU, not in a sort of no man’s land, and that can be perfectly consistent with its neutral military status

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