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Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement

Boycott Is Not An Option

As we now seem to slowly emerge out of this crisis, it is more important than ever that all citizens and political actors have full confidence in the integrity of Serbia’s electoral system. It is important that the Serbian authorities build on and fully implement the commitments taken under the inter-party dialogue led by the European Parliament – Olivér Várhelyi

Although the recently adopted Zagreb Declaration refers to the European perspective of the Western Balkans and not to EU enlargement, which was met with a certain degree of disappointment in the region, the European Commissioner for Enlargement assures us that “EU enlargement and the Western Balkans have been a priority since the first day” of the EU Commission’s mandate.

In this interview for CorD Magazine, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi says that support for Serbia during the fight against the coronavirus served as proof of the EU’s commitment to strengthening those ties. Commissioner Várhelyi announces that this autumn will see the presentation of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, with the goal being “to spur long-term recovery and to support the necessary reforms required on the EU path”.

The Commission foresees a doubling in the provision of grants through the Western Balkans Investment Framework, as well as substantially increasing the financial guarantees to support public and private investment in the region, especially in transport and energy links.

Mr Várhelyi, this May marked the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, one of the EU’s fundamental documents. With this in mind, we would like to ask what the EU represents to you?

The European Union is, first and foremost, a reality of peace and freedom. Equality and solidarity. It was a dream 70 years ago when the Schuman Declaration laid the foundations for what we are today. The European Union also means working together to overcome common challenges – and now, more than ever, we can overcome difficulties together that we could not overcome alone. I also firmly believe that the future of the European Union is intertwined with the future of its neighbours and partners. This is why we are present and active across our neighbourhood and around the world, cooperating with partners and providing support.

On the occasion of the EU – Western Balkans online summit, which was hosted by Croatia, there was disappointment in the region due to the lack of an affirmation of the enlargement of the EU contained in the Zagreb Declaration. Should citizens of the Western Balkans be satisfied with the promised “European perspective”?

The Western Balkans belong in the EU. There is no question about this for us. For the Commission and me personally, EU enlargement and the Western Balkans have been a priority since the first day of our mandate. We have already delivered on revising the enlargement methodology to make the process more credible, predictable, dynamic and political. And, most importantly, in March the EU gave the green light for Albania and North Macedonia to start accession negotiations.

Our support to Serbia during the current coronavirus crisis is a further demonstration of our commitment to your country. On its side, Serbia declared EU integration and membership as a national interest and strategic commitment

The EU-Western Balkans Summit was important to discuss concrete cooperation and enhanced engagement between the EU and the Western Balkans. It has tasked the Commission with coming up with a substantial Economic and Investment Plan for the whole region, accelerating their economic development, laying the foundations for integrating them. While the meeting was not an enlargement summit, it is important to recall that EU leaders once again reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The fact that, despite the ongoing pandemic, the leaders of all 27 EU Member States participated in this Summit demonstrates the importance of our relationship with the region.

Olivér Várhelyi an Aleksandar Vucic

The EU is already treating the Western Balkans as privileged partners in its response to COVID-19. No other region has received such substantial support and close involvement, for instance, access to so much financial assistance and so many mechanisms normally used exclusively for EU member states.

In this regard, can you provide precise information as to when North Macedonia and Albania will formally begin opening chapters, or clusters, in their respective negotiations for membership?

This will depend on the date of the first Intergovernmental Conference, which will be convened after the adoption of the negotiating frameworks by the Council. At this stage, there is as yet no specific date. What I can say for sure is that the Commission will forward the frameworks to the Member States in June. I do hope discussions on the negotiation frameworks will proceed smoothly, so we can hold the first Intergovernmental Conference with both countries as soon as possible.

Can you tell us more about the announced economic and investment plan for the Western Balkans and when its implementation will be launched?

The Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans will be presented later this year, in the autumn. The aim will be to spur long-term recovery and support the necessary reforms required on the EU path. The plan will include a substantial investment package for the region, to start closing the development gaps.

The decision adopted by ENTSO-E is an agreement to establish an interconnection between the Kosovo power system and the Continental European system, and it has no impact on other issues. Serbia can still fully benefit from the guarantees obtained under the Dialogue agreement on energy, nothing has changed

The Commission foresees a doubling in the provision of grants through the Western Balkans Investment Framework, as well as substantially increasing financial guarantees to support public and private investment in the region. A strong focus will be placed on transport and energy links, which are crucial for the economic development of both the region and the EU alike.

The Green transition and digital transformation will also play a central role in relaunching and modernising the economies of the Western Balkans. Support will be provided to improve the competitiveness of the economies of the Western Balkans, to better connect them within the region and with the EU, and to help make the Western Balkans fit for the digital age.

How would you describe relations between Serbia and the EU today, at this time when we believe the struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic is coming to an end? Are they better or worse than they were prior to the challenges imposed by this Coronavirus?

The EU remains firmly committed to Serbia’s European path. Serbia started accession negotiations with the EU in January 2014 and, since then, 18 out of 35 negotiation chapters have been opened, two of which have been provisionally closed. I hope to see more chapters being opened and closed this year.

Our support to Serbia during the current coronavirus crisis is a further demonstration of our commitment to your country. On its side, Serbia declared EU integration and membership as a national interest and strategic commitment, and we look forward to Serbia acting in line with this commitment and progressing further on its EU path.

A group of MEPs expressed concern regarding the failure to respect constitutional and human rights in Serbia during the state of emergency. You responded by saying that the situation is being monitored carefully. Can you say how you saw the situation in Serbia?

These are unprecedented times. As an immediate response to the pandemic, many national authorities across the world, including the Serbian government, have taken wide-ranging measures to protect the public health of their citizens.

I have repeatedly encouraged all stakeholders in Montenegro to establish an inclusive dialogue on the Law on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs and on its implementation. I attach great importance to the establishment of a climate conducive to dialogue and call on all sides to display restraint and respect for fundamental rights, including freedom of religion

We have stressed that emergency measures must respect fundamental principles, limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. In this respect, we welcome that the Serbian National Assembly lifted the state of emergency in early May. The conditions for EU accession have not changed. As you are aware, the overall pace of Serbia’s negotiations with the EU also depends on the implementation of reforms in the fundamental area of the rule of law.

What do you think of the assessment of your EP colleague Tanja Fajon, who said that – given the circumstances with the pandemic – it is not the right time for elections to be held in Serbia on 21st June?

MEP Tanja Fajon and her colleague Vladimir Bilčík are doing important work with the inter-party dialogue in Serbia. We visited the country jointly in February to stress the importance of cross-party consensus on electoral reforms.

Then the unprecedented health crisis of COVID-19 hit all of us. As we now seem to be slowly emerging from this crisis, it is more important than ever that all citizens and political actors have full confidence in the integrity of Serbia’s electoral system. As I underlined back in January, it is also very important for all political actors to participate in the elections, being the only credible and democratic way to influence the future of the country.

As for the upcoming elections, they should be held in line with recommendations of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

Olivér Várhelyi

Let me, in particular, underline the role of the media, especially in current circumstances related to the pandemic, in which certain activities might still be restricted, the role of free media, of a level playing field for political players, and the proactive role of media regulators is important.

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In this light, it is important that the Serbian authorities build on and fully implement the commitments taken under the inter-party dialogue led by the European Parliament.
Finally, I believe that conditions need to be put in place for an international observation mission, led by the ODIHR, to monitor the electoral conditions, campaign and conduct. This will be crucial for our monitoring and assessment in the coming months.

Are you, like some of your colleagues from the EU, concerned about the growing tension on Serbia’s political scene and in society?

We are monitoring political developments in Serbia closely. I would call on all sides to exercise restraint, reduce tensions and react with calmness and respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law. It would be a positive step, if – following the elections – the new parliament would continue to engage in the inter-party dialogue facilitated by the European Parliament. The country needs to create a national dialogue and cross-party consensus on EU-related reforms if it wants to enhance its EU accession process.

How would you comment on the decision of part of the opposition not to participate in the elections?

As we have said on a number of occasions – a boycott is not a viable option. I would appeal once again to all political parties and groups in Serbia to reconsider their participation in elections and represent the interests of their constituents. As I said, this is the democratic way to participate in shaping the future of Serbia.

You expressed hope that, following the elections in Serbia, “accelerated work could begin on a solution” for relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Could you state what you consider as a solution to this issue?

The aim of the EU-facilitated dialogue has been, and remains, the conclusion of a sustainable, mutually acceptable and legally binding agreement solving all issues between Serbia and Kosovo once and for all, in accordance with international law, and contributing to the long term peace, stability and security of the region. I will work towards achieving this goal together with High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčak.

At the height of the struggle against the pandemic, a vote took place in ENTSO-E (the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity) that excluded Kosovo from the EMS system, the Electricity Network of Serbia, by which it gained energy independence. Such a decision, which was voted for by representatives of EU member states, contradicts the Brussels Agreement. While calls endure for a reviving of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, do such moves actually serve to strengthen Kosovo’s independence?

ENTSO-E is an independent organisation with a mandate stemming from its members. The decision adopted by ENTSO-E is an agreement to establish an interconnection between the Kosovo power system and the Continental European system, and it has no impact on other issues. Serbia can still fully benefit from the guarantees obtained under the Dialogue agreement on energy; nothing has changed.

The decision is evidence that European partners want to see the energy issue between Serbia and Kosovo resolved, in the wider interest of energy security in Europe. The EU has long worked with the parties on the implementation of the Dialogue agreements on energy. We continue to expect all past Dialogue agreements to be implemented on their own merit. It is still in the hands of the parties to implement the relevant Dialogue provisions in full.

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, in February, you visited Montenegro, where it was reported that you expressed understanding for the stance of citizens who insist that political parties should not try to establish churches. How do you view the new tension between the Montenegrin authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church concerning the disputed Law on Freedom of Religion?

I have repeatedly encouraged all stakeholders in Montenegro to establish an inclusive dialogue on the Law on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs and its implementation. In this context, it is important that the Montenegrin authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church find a mutually acceptable solution. I said this to both sides while in Montenegro. I attach great importance to the establishment of a climate conducive to dialogue and call on all sides to display restraint and respect for fundamental rights, including freedom of religion.

ELECTIONS

It is important that the Serbian authorities build on and fully implement the commitments taken under the inter-party dialogue led by the European Parliament

CHALLENGES

The EU means working together to overcome common challenges – and now, more than ever, we can overcome difficulties together that we could not overcome alone

ENLARGEMENT

For the Commission and me personally, EU enlargement and the Western Balkans have been a priority since the first day of our mandate

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