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Vladimir Bilčik, MEP, European Parliament Rapporteur For Serbia

Clear Message To Serbia

I have not heard or seen any indications that any of the five non-recognising countries would shift from their current position. What I have seen is agreement among the 27 member states that the only way forward is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and a commitment to the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, on the basis of a comprehensive and legally-binding agreement ~ Vladimir Bilčik

MEP Vladimir Bilčik, who currently serves as European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia, says that he wasn’t pleased with some parts of the recently adopted EP Resolution on the common foreign and security policy that relate to Serbia, but that real, detailed analysis can be found in his own report, which has just been released. Commenting on the harsh tones directed towards Serbia from the EP, Bilčik reiterates in this CorD Magazine interview that, under the conditions of war in Europe, Serbia is expected to make a clear choice, while he also confirms that the EP is not calling for the freezing of Serbia’s European integration process.

You visited Belgrade in late January, with local media reporting that you are renewing the political dialogue in Serbia that was first launched in 2019. Given that there have been two election cycles since then, what is that dialogue focused on now?

We are ready to continue the EP facilitated Inter-Party Dialogue (IPD), which has been taking place in Serbia since 2019, and this is going to be a new phase of the IPD. We are pleased that Speaker Orlić and the new Serbian National Assembly are ready to engage. We are very much ready to help all relevant legal forces improve the work and quality of democracy and democratic institutions. We will discuss the exact focus of this next phase of the dialogue with our partners: Speaker Orlić, of course, and all relevant parliamentary groups, both among the government and the opposition. At the moment I can’t tell you what the exact focus will be, since this will be subject of our discussion, especially on Friday [27th January 2023].

My personal hope is that we can be helpful in facilitating a parliamentary dialogue that can help improve democratic institutions, especially the Parliament and Parliamentary democracy, the quality of the discussion, but we will also touch on a number of areas and a number of conditions that are necessary for democracy in Serbia, including the overall public and media environment and all conditions necessary for a free and fair campaign in the run up to the next elections. Based on public announcements, we expect that the next elections to be held sometime next year. But, again, the exact focus of the dialogue will be discussed with the authorities in Belgrade, because we are just co-facilitators between the EP and the National Assembly and we co-facilitate dialogue among the political parties, together with speaker Orlić and the leadership of the National Assembly.

Your latest trip to Belgrade came after the release of the European Parliament Resolution on the implementation of the common foreign and security policy. According to the tone of the part that relates to Serbia, it is certainly one of the harshest documents you’ve adopted, which practically propose freezing Serbia’s European integration process if the country fails to impose sanctions against Russia. Given that you are the rapporteur for Serbia, are you in full agreement with the evaluation included in the document?

I was not pleased with some of the lastminute amendments that made it into the European Parliament resolution of 18 January 2023 on the implementation of the common foreign and security policy – annual report 2022, because this is a comprehensive report on the state of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union. It is absolutely appropriate to treat the Serbia situation and the relationship between Serbia and EU in a separate report. This would be the EP’s 2022 Report on Serbia, which is the Report that I am in charge of and that has just been published. That Report will focus primarily on the relationship between Belgrade and Brussels, and the state of the accession process. I was not pleased with last-minute amendments to the common foreign and security policy 2022 annual report.

It has been clear for years that Serbia’s progress will be determined by three things. First are reforms in the area of the rule of law linked to structural democratic changes in the country. Second is progress on the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Third is the commitment to aligning with the foreign and security policy

I know that a number of my colleagues weren’t pleased with this either, including rapporteur David McAllister, because this was really a comprehensive report covering many different aspects of CFSP. We can never do justice to the complexity of the situation in any member state or third country when we’re treated with a few specific references in a comprehensive report like this one. I just want to make everyone aware of the context here, and I think this is extremely important to keep in mind. Having said this, I also want to highlight that nowhere in this report is there any mention of the word ‘’freeze’’. There is no mention of freezing accession negotiations. My public reaction on this EP report was that this is a clear signal to everyone in Serbia who is serious about the European path and European integration that we expect and want Serbia to work with us in all areas, and any progress on the EU path will be determined by the progress of Serbia. This is Serbia’s choice in key policy areas, key policy reforms, including, of course, the CFSP policyand alignment with the EU in this area, which unfortunately has been consistently low; the lowest among all candidate countries in the Western Balkans, and especially low since the Russia launched its brutal aggression against Ukraine.

The resolution failed to acknowledge Serbia’s UN voting, in which it declared its opposition to the aggression and the undermining of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the same way as other EU members, but also other gestures made by Belgrade that serve to condemn the war and support the citizens of Ukraine. Why is this overlooked while insisting on mandatory full alignment with the common foreign and security policy, despite the rules of accession negotiations not requiring this of the membership candidate country at this stage?

Nothing is overlooked. I have explained that this was a particular reference to Serbia in a much bigger report (Serbia was mentioned in two paragraphs from 177) on a broad global situation with respect to the common foreign and security policy. If you read my draft report on Serbia that has just been released,, you will also see very clear references to Serbia’s voting in the UN. Nothing is overlooked, and nothing will be overlooked. But let’s be also very clear: this is not about gestures, this is not about some symbols or occasional lip service, this is about a strategic choice. We have war back in Europe; this war was started by Russia’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine. That war continues and the entire EU and all of the EU membership candidate countries, with the exception of Serbia, have aligned with the same restrictive measures.

In that sense, this is a strategic choice, and I think that everyone is aware of Serbia’s position in the UN and other international organisations. But what counts the most when it comes to Serbia’s EU accession is Serbia’s commitment to the EU’s positions, and here, unfortunately, there has not been a promising trend. There has been a real divergence, and in this case a strategic divergence, because this is a question of war and peace. Simply put, it is a question of whether you are with us or not. Serbia has made a choice and continues to make a choice that clearly differentiates it from other countries.

That is well noted and, of course, that choice has important consequences for any further progress in the EU accession process. This is also something that is not only mentioned in the document from the European Parliament, but is also clear in the latest report of the European Commission, which was published last autumn, last October, and it’s also very clear from EU member states. I think there is absolute consistency in this.

It has been clear for years that Serbia’s progress will be determined by three things. First are reforms in the area of the rule of law linked to structural democratic changes in the country. Second is progress on the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Third is the commitment to aligning with the foreign and security policy. Since that progress has not been forthcoming, especially in this game-changing moment for security in Europe, then there are, of course, many question marks about Serbia’s position and commitment. In that sense, the ball is very much in Belgrade’s court. We see all the signals, we see all positions in all international organisations, but the key question is whether Serbia is ready to work with us in the EU? The EU is ready to work with Serbia and has been doing so. I think this is something that has to be made very, very clear when we discuss any such references in EU documents.

Serbia’s foreign minister dubbed this Resolution hypocritical. You were asked by Ivica Dačić in the European Parliament the extent to which you are in alignment with international law when you express your views with regard to Kosovo and Serbia’s own territorial integrity?

I take note of all the public comments about the resolutions we adopt, but these are important political signals that will reflect not only the positions of individual MEPs, but also reflect discussion, the mood and the positions of member states. I would like to underline that MEPs ultimately come from all 27 member states. Their positions are serious. The European Parliament has always stood by, and will continue to stand by, the principles of the rule of law, including international law. I would hope that we have a constructive conversation that leads to convergence, because we want to see Serbia on board with us. This is the signal we are sending. We are trying to reach out, to agree on the basis of a common understanding of our common destiny. But that has to take place on the basis of common principles and common positions, particularly when European peace is brutally attacked by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

If you read my Report,all relevant assessments of the situation regarding the Belgrade – Pristina Dialogue are there, including the call to establish the Community of Serbian Municipalities, which is a longstanding commitment dating back to the last decade. It also contains condemnations of the tension and violence, including the shootings in Kosovo on Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve

Our position is clear: we remain very much ready to shake the hands of all of those in Serbia who want to work with us, and we are ready to continue discussing how we can move on together. That’s because when I look at the map of Europe, and I look at the situation in Europe and the situation in Serbia, I see no other choice for Serbia than the European choice. I understand that this requires important decisions by political leaders in the country, and these decisions have important consequences. But what is at stake in Europe is the European future of everyone.I come from a country that made a strategic choice in the 1990s, and this has been a gamechanger for the quality of our lives, for the quality of our public institutions, for the quality of democracy, for the quality of living standards of all people in Slovakia. I hope that Serbs and everyone else living in Serbia can have the same future. This also, of course, depends on the kinds of decisions and the kinds of positions that political leaders in Serbia take. We are ready, we are patient and we are engaging. There is yet more very clear proof in the fact that me and Matjaž Nemec [Slovenian MEP] are travelling to Belgrade this week.

According to the assessment of you and your colleagues, the only threat to peace and obstacle to dialogue with Pristina is located in Belgrade. These views differ markedly from the assessments of other EU officials, including special envoy Miroslav Lajčák, who have noted for years that Pristina refuses to formalise the Community of Serbian Municipalities stipulated under the Brussels Dialogue. How do you see that?

I would suggest that you please read all relevant documents. If you read my Report,all relevant assessments of the situation regarding the Belgrade – Pristina Dialogue are there, including the call to establish the Community of Serbian Municipalities, which is a longstanding commitment dating back to the last decade. It also contains condemnations of the tension and violence, including the shootings in Kosovo on Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve. Once again, please consult relevant documents, don’t make hasty conclusions on the basis of one resolution that deals with much larger issues. The position of the EP is very much aligned with the position of Miroslav Lajčák and the High Representative, who have been engaged in facilitating this Dialogue. It’s very much aligned with the position of the European Council. We also express full support for the work of Miroslav Lajčák and there is no divergence here. This is certainly the case on the basis of the relevant documents. For me, the most relevant document is the EP Report on Serbia.

Your own report is somehow not as harsh. You note Serbia’s progress even when it comes to voting in the UN with regard to the war in Ukraine. How should one understand the differences between your report and the aforementioned resolution?

I have compiled a complex report on the situation in Serbia and the relationship between Belgrade and Brussels. The Resolution (European Parliament resolution of 18 January 2023 on the implementation of the common foreign and security policy – annual report 2022) that has been discussed in Serbia so much in recent days is a resolution that addresses much wider issues concerning the common foreign and security policy in a very broad sense. Such a resolution can never do justice to individual references, to individual countries, including Serbia.

In that sense, please let us move on from discussing the resolution that did not deal with Serbia specifically, let’s discuss the resolution that is now up for discussion, and will be discussed by the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee in February, which will be amended, eventually negotiated, and voted on by the Foreign Affairs Committee this spring, and also in the plenary of the European Parliament.

This will be a relevant document. I think we need to have discussions of our relationship on the basis of relevant processes, relevant procedures and relevant documents. Yes, the EP is a political body, at times individual members of that House want to highlight certain issues with respect to specific countries, but there is only one position of the House towards candidate countries that is expressed in a complex way. Those are the regular, annualreports by standing Rapporterus that are drafted and published every year. One such report has just been drafted, and will be discussed and voted on. Let us focus on what is relevant here.

You advocate in favour of the forming of the Community of Serb Municipalities, while that is being decisively rejected by Pristina. Where can an exit to this deadlock be found?

Dialogue, negotiations, agreement. It is very simple. That has been the recipe in past years, it’s the recipe for the next few days, weeks and months. I’ve been encouraged by some recent signals. In Belgrade in particular, there has been a great willingness to reach some mutual understanding, and I hope that the same mutual understanding can be also reached with respect to the authorities in Pristina. The ball is in the hands of both, and yes, I do appreciate the constructive tone and position we see from Belgrade at the moment. Let us hope that lasts andas I said, dialogue, talking, negotiating and, ultimately, agreeing is the only way forward. There is no alternative here. I feel and sense that this year could be the year that could see some historic breakthroughs in this situation.

Because the status quo is unsustainable. We’ve already seen mounting tension and a number of individual shootings in Kosovo in recent weeks. A European future for the region as a whole is only meaningful if there is peace, clarity and understanding of the responsibilities of all sides when it comes to resolving issues of the past and moving ahead towards the European future.

In contrast to other EU institutions that use a special mark for Kosovo to imply its unresolved status, the European Parliament uses the wording Republic of Kosovo, while it also supports Kosovo’s membership candidacy and calls for the abolishing of visas. What did Pristina do to qualify for such high marks?

I understand that symbols are extremely important in politics, but this has been a longstanding practice in the EP; this is not a new situation. I’m sure that you and many others in Serbia have noticed that. In that sense, the EP is a political body and is using the kinds of symbols in the sort of political communication it has been using for years. It also means that we fully respect all the competences of the relevant actors, including EU member states, and the principles of international law. We also very much respect the decisions made by other institutions. Here I have to most clearly disagree with the statement that the EP has a position that differs to that of other institutions, because it is, and has been for years, the European Commission that has advocated for visa liberalisation with Kosovo. Finally, there has been agreement on this in the Council of Ministers, which is composed of all 27 member states, including those that have not officially recognised Kosovo.

I have compiled a complex report on the situation in Serbia and the relationship between Belgrade and Brussels. The Resolution (EP resolution of 18 Jan 2023 – annual report 2022) that has been discussed in Serbia so much in recent days is a resolution that addresses much wider issues concerning the common foreign and security policy in a very broad sense. Such a resolution can never do justice to individual references, to individual countries, including Serbia

All these countries have agreed on the principles according to which visas can be liberalised for all people in Kosovo. In that sense, the EP has supported a position that was presented/suggested by the Commission, has been agreed by the member states, and has now received the stamp of approval of the EP. So, this is the reality. The EP has really been only one of the consensual institutions in this regard. And, quite frankly, this has been in line with what all the five countries that don’t recognise Kosovo have been saying inside the EU. Whilst we do not recognise Kosovo, we recognise and support the European future and European integration for the entire Western Balkan region, for all the people in the Western Balkans. In that sense, any clarity of the rules and conditions, guiding for instance the free movement of people, which is one of the basic freedoms of the EU, is a welcome step. It should be see as a supporting step for everyone in the region who’s keen to see the European future of the region. This concerns all people living in Kosovo, all nationalities living in Kosovo, including Serbs. I view this as an important step forward for the European future of the region, and the European future of the region as a whole. It has always been a priority among all governments of the region, including the one sitting in Belgrade.

Do you expect your own Slovakia, as well as other EU member states that don’t currently recognise Kosovo’s independence, to respond positively to the Resolution’s call for them to change their stance regarding Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence?

I have not heard or seen any indications that any of the five non-recognising countries would shift from their current position. What I have seen is agreement among the 27 member states that the only way forward is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and a commitment to the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, on the basis of a comprehensive and legally-binding agreement. This is a key issue. I understand that the majority of MEPs are calling for recognition by these five countries. That’s only natural, since 22 out of the 27 member states have recognised and continue to recognise Kosovo and the authorities in Pristina.

This majority is reflected in the make-up of the European Parliament. In that sense, the majority of MEPs comes from countries that are representing the recognising countries. It should come as no surprise to anyone who understands political dynamics inside the EU, and also inside the EP. It’s also true that it is the sole prerogative and sole competence of the member states to decide when and under what conditions they will recognise any third country, and this continues to be the case.

The European Parliament is also calling on Serbia to continue reforms aimed at strengthening democracy and the judiciary. What do you consider as being the key challenges in those areas?

I think they are the same as we have mentioned, and we have highlighted them over the past few years in previous reports. In the area of democracy, there are also number of issues that have been outstanding since the OSCE conclusions of the last 2020 and 2022 elections. There is great room for improvement when it comes to conditions for political competition, for free and fair elections, conditions for a truly independent and free media environment. This is extremely important for journalists across Serbia to be able to feel safe and secure, and also free to do their job independently of any political or financial influence. There is a long way to go here: in improving institutions of democracy, parliamentary democracy, elections, as well as the standing and position of the media.

That’s one aspect that’s been in focus for years now, and will continue to be in focus. I think this is also going to be an important and integral part of our discussions as we engage in the Inter-Party Dialogue with our partners in the Serbian National Assembly. On the judiciary and judicial changes, we note very strongly and welcome that Serbia has adopted some important changes through constitutional amendments, which were also adopted in a referendum. This is an important step forward, but what now needs to happen is fully-fledged work on these reforms, and their subsequent delivery and implementation. A lot of expert work has been done, consultations have taken place, including with the Venice Commission, following some positive opinions. It’s good news that Serbia has a working government committed to continuing the EU path, and that commitment also includes important reforms in the area of justice and the rule of law. I hope that this can provide good impetus to deliver on these this year, because much work has already been done on the basis of constitutional amendments. However, work now needs to be translated into specific institutional changes, and this is something we will both encourage and monitor closely.

EP RESOLUTION

Let’s be very clear: this is not about gestures, this is not about some symbols or occasional lip service, this is about a strategic choice

INTERNATIONAL LAW

The EP has always stood by, and will continue to stand by, the principles of the rule of law, including international law. I would hope that we have a constructive conversation that leads to convergence

RECOGNITION

Whilst we do not recognise Kosovo, we recognise and support the European future and European integration for the entire Western Balkan region, for all the people in the Western Balkans

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