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Tanja Miščević, European Integration Minister of Serbia

Catching The EU Enlargement Wave

We are ready to start finalising our EU accession, with an absolute focus on the results of the reforms that represent the essence of that process ~ Tanja Miščević

The views of Serbian citizens regarding the European Union have gone through various phases over many years, from enthusiastic embracing to angry rejection of the notion of membership in this alliance of European nations. According to a recent survey conducted by Demostat, an equal number of citizens support and reject EU membership. Under such circumstances, the Serbian press and media were electrified by European Integration Minister Tanja Miščević’s statement that was interpreted by the public as an announcement that Serbia could be ready to join the European Union by 2025. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Miščević explains the steps that the Government of Serbia intends to take and addresses speculation circulating in diplomatic circles around the opening of a new window of opportunity for EU membership, in parallel with preparations to launch the process of sending aid to Ukraine once the war comes to an end.

You recently made a very optimistic observation that Serbia could accede to the EU by 2025. Does this mean that Serbia could fulfil all the requirements of the EU aquis by then or that the will also exists in the EU to dedicate systematic efforts to expanding the Union – a will that hasn’t had a significant presence in previous years?

I presented that which we’re currently working on, and that’s the drafting of the new Programme for harmonisation with EU law – we are currently working on a revision of it and 2025 is defined as the year when we’ll be prepared to implement the systemic rules, which we’ve also been doing until now, but they’ve changed and been innovated in the meantime, plus the ones that we’ve yet to align. That’s not the year of our membership, and I’ve never even calculated it as such, because that’s not dependent on us, rather that’s the year that our institutions have estimated – after two decades of experience – as being the year when it would be possible for us to be ready for membership.

When you made this statement in your discussions with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar, U.S. House of Representatives members Thomas Keen and Robert Aderholt, and other interlocutors from the States, did you receive any indication that such a development of the situation could be possible?

The U.S. strongly supports our European integration process and helps us to reach the required standards, particularly in the areas of the rule of law, the development of democratic institutions and the development of the business environment. But the U.S. is not an EU member and we didn’t even broach the topic of our membership and possible entry date. We certainly discussed the fact that there is very clearly new momentum for enlargement of the Union that Serbia should utilise.

According to one Tanjug report, you see constant amendments to the European legislative framework as one of the obstacles. However, judging by accession progress reports, that certainly wasn’t one of the main obstacles, rather the primary obstacle is relatively slow progress on some of the most important chapters, Cluster 1 in particular. How much progress can really be made on that front over the next three years?

Serbia’s journey to the European Union has lasted for 20 years. And just as we’ve changed throughout that time, so has the European Union. We’ve changed in such a way that we’re also now ready to start finalising our EU accession, with an absolute focus on the results of the reforms that form the essence of that process. All the regulations, firstly systemic ones, that we amend and implement in order to harmonise with the EU, we primarily introduce because they are good for our citizens, economy and society. Those key laws are the backbone of the accession process and when we round off that work, the progress will be very great. That is the case, for instance, with regulations in the area of the rule of law. Constitutional reform in the area of the judiciary, with the adoption of judicial laws, serve to additionally strengthen the independence of judges and prosecutors, providing the legal certainty and economic stability that’s brought by such an organised judicial system. This is a direct benefit for us all, but it indirectly also leads to increased investments in the Serbian economy, higher employment, increased living standards. It is now up to the judiciary to show that it works in the interest of citizens and to be more efficient than it was previously.

We discussed with U.S. officials the fact that there is very clearly new momentum for enlargement of the EU that Serbia should utilise

Another systemic issue is the struggle to combat corruption, and the political will in Serbia is clear and such that this Government’s aim is to adopt the National Strategy for the Struggle Against Corruption for the 2023-2028 period, with a clear action plan covering everything that needs to be done. Serbia also has a functional system in the area of protecting and promoting fundamental rights, human and minority rights and freedoms, which is largely harmonised with the EU acquis, international and European standards and best practices.

Turning to the new laws governing public information and media, and electronic media, they should secure a favourable environment for freedom of information, the flow of ideas and opinions, and the realisation of the public interest. Some tangible aims of those new regulations will include the implementation of the more transparent and fairer co-financing of media content that’s in the public interest, as well as increasing transparency on media ownership and advertising, and strengthening the independence of the media regulator.

None of these reforms are in their infancy, but rather represent a continuation of what Serbia has already been doing for two decades. What is new is that these reforms should now have clear instruments that form the basis to assess the way they’re being implemented.

Many consider that the failure of the countries of the Western Balkans to take advantage of the opportunity to impose the issue of their own EU accession when Europe is interested in possibly admitting Ukraine and Moldova would consign our region to the historical periphery. Is there any basis for such speculation?

Serbia is a country that’s negotiating its membership and we have advanced quite a long way on integration with the EU. There are numerous areas where we’re already harmonised fully with European law and practice. We’ve also implemented the entire reform process in the area of the rule of law in such a way that it has been praised by international institutions, including the European Commission and EU member states.

The Western Balkans simply mustn’t be overlooked or “remain on the periphery” because of the interests of the EU itself, because in recent days we’ve been witnessing just how important it is to have a strong and united Europe.

How do you view the strengthening of links between the EU and Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans beyond the scope of the aquis, i.e., through the connecting of transport routes, the Green Deal and other policies. Do you see it as a long-desired rapprochement, or as an economic connection that will remain at a political distance, without the accepting of the Western Balkans as a new group of EU members?

The strengthening of connections between the EU and Serbia, as well as with the other countries of the Western Balkans, undoubtedly has a positive impact on the region and brings significant advantages. This connection is unfolding on several tracks, in different areas, through numerous processes, initiatives and instruments. One of the instruments, along with the IPA, through which the EU improves the regional approach to solving challenges is the Western Balkans Investment Framework [WBIF], which financially enables the preparing and implementing of strategically relevant projects in the fields of transport, energy, environmental protection and social infrastructure.

This entire framework of financial, legal and political cooperation is easier to understand when we address the domain of tangible examples. A first good example is the reconstruction and construction of the Belgrade-Niš railway, the Niš-Dimitrovgrad railway and the Niš-Brestovac railway, with which we will raise the level of railway safety, quality, reliability and availability, as well as the competitiveness of rail transport, but also better connections between our railway system and those of Hungary, Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

The financial, legal and political framework of cooperation in the Western Balkans and with the EU is easier to understand through tangible examples of the construction of networks of roadways, railways and waterways

Then there’s the construction of Highway E-80, Niš-Pločnik, which represents the first section of the planned Niš-Merdare Highway, with which we will achieve better regional connectivity, save time on travelling and operating costs, increase traffic safety and impact favourably on economic development in an otherwise underdeveloped area. There is also the large project to construct the Serbia-Bulgaria gas interconnector, which will connect the gas networks of Serbia and Bulgaria and thus enable the diversification of energy sources in Serbia and around the Western Balkan region. For us, for Serbia, that means a more secure and stable supply from various gas network systems.

There’s also work on the Trans-Balkan Electricity Corridor, on transmission line interconnectivity between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, which will upgrade the network of existing transmission lines and thus reduce supply interruptions and network losses to a minimum, while simultaneously increasing the stability and reliability of supply.

The time has also come for the very significant and long-planned project Removal of Sunken Vessels, section Prahovo, Danube, which will remove 21 sunken World War II vessels from this waterway, widen the navigable channel and remove the threat of unexploded ordnance, thus improving the navigability of the Danube.

EURO INTEGRATION

The Western Balkans mustn’t be overlooked or remain on the periphery of EU integration, because we are seeing right now how essential it is to have a strong and united Europe

ESTIMATES

I’ve never even calculated 2025 as the year of our membership, because that’s not dependent on us, rather that’s when our institutions estimate it would be possible for us to be ready for membership

CONNECTIVITY

Strengthening connections between the EU and Serbia, and the other Western Balkan countries, undoubtedly has a positive impact on the region and brings significant advantages

Foto: Tanjug