This visit of President Macron comes 18 years after President Chirac was the first foreign Head of State to visit Serbia after the democratic transition of 5th October 2000. Preparing this visit has already contributed to strengthening political ties between our two countries on topics of mutual interest – Frederic Mondoloni

The month of July marks two important junctures in relations between France and Serbia. The first was supposed to be a Paris meeting between European leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel with the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo. Despite great expectations that the French president and German chancellor would succeed in unblocking the dialogue on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, which had fallen into a deadlock after the decision of the Kosovo authorities to impose import duties on goods from Central Serbia, the meeting wasn’t held.

In this interview for CorD Magazine, French Ambassador H.E. Frederic Mondoloni insists that the meeting has not been cancelled, but rather postponed, while he adds that the French and Germans are continuing to seek modalities for it to be held. On the other hand, much is expected of the visit of the French president to Serbia. The French ambassador confirms that the visit will be used to address all current issues, from political, economic and cultural, to reminders of the traditional alliance and friendship of the two nations that was affirmed during World War I.

Your Excellency, how do you comment on the fact that the long-anticipated meeting in Paris, aimed at reviving the dialogue between the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, was cancelled?

– The priority of France regarding the political situation of the Balkans is to ensure peace, stability and steady progress of the countries of this region towards the EU, with economic and social benefits for the population. In this regard, we would like to insist on the fact that the Paris meeting was not cancelled, but postponed to another date that is still to be determined. With our German partner, we hope this meeting will contribute to creating conditions for a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, in support of the EU-facilitated process.

Can President Macron and Chancellor Merkel “save” the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, as was recently reported by the media?

– Only two parties can save the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina: it is precisely Belgrade and Pristina. France, Germany, the EU and other partners can provide contributions to make this work easier, but in the end, no agreement will be possible without the strong political will of both parties. If France and Germany can play such a facilitating role, we will gladly provide this contribution.

You said in one of your statements to the media that France does not set “red lines” when it comes to dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina? Does this mean that the idea of border correction may be considered?

– Our position is clear: no solution to the issue of Kosovo can be adopted and implemented without the full agreement of both parties. This implies that both parties are able to obtain support from their public opinions as well. In this regard, France does not wish to set red lines before discussions start delving deep into the substance: if the parties manage to reach an agreement, the international community must support that. However, although not setting red lines, France will not deliver blank cheques, as another very important concern for us is that the agreement that must be reached has to carry all precautionary measures in order to avoid adverse consequences for the rest of the region.

This visit of our President comes 18 years after President Chirac was the first foreign Head of State to visit Serbia after the democratic transition of 5th October 2000

The current situation is such that Pristina is refusing to revoke tariffs on goods from central Serbia? How do you see the fact that Pristina is ignoring calls from the EU?

– This is a situation I clearly regret: this tax represents a unilateral move by Pristina that is not constructive and which has resulted in halting the dialogue. In this regard, I reiterate France’s position – which is that this tax must be revoked, so that a constructive dialogue can restart and reach a compromised solution that’s satisfactory to both parties.

The recently published European Commission progress report on Serbia recommends “urgent” progress towards a legally binding agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. Such an agreement is seen as “crucial” for the continuous progress of Serbia on the path to EU accession. Do you think it is realistic to expect such an agreement soon?

– The sooner the conditions will be created for dialogue, the sooner this process will restart. And the sooner dialogue restarts, the sooner we may see an agreement reached between Belgrade and Pristina. This issue is indeed important for Serbia’s EU accession, but – however important – it must not result in forgetting that many topics are also important, such as reforms on the rule of law, for example.

Does such a formulation mean that the opening of negotiating chapters in the future will depend on the continuation of the dialogue? What is the position of France?

– Opening chapters implies that Serbia is technically ready to do so – and I note that this is the case on a number of them. Then, opening chapters also implies improvements on the main issues identified by the previous EU progress reports from the past years – especially Kosovo and the rule of law. I will also point out that opening chapters is positive, but what is ultimately necessary is to close them – which implies active work to live up to the acquis.

In addition to the aforementioned, what are the most important notes from the European Commission’s annual progress report for Serbia, from your perspective?

– The EU progress report has pointed out Serbia’s positive results in the macroeconomic area: debt has been reduced significantly, both as public deficits and in terms of unemployment rates. These are really positive achievements, with a tangible impact for the Serbian population, and this deserves to be put forward.

The report also describes areas in which more action must be taken and in which tangible progress in practise needs to be reached. Here I’m referring to topics like media freedom, the fight against corruption and organised crime, improvement in the functioning of institutions (especially the national assembly). We certainly don’t underestimate the difficulty of the task, and France stands ready to provide Serbia with any kind of support that could prove useful in these areas.

Does EU enlargement remain on the agenda of European leaders following May’s European Parliament elections? What will be the position of French MEPs, first of all, those who come from President Macron’s movement, who significantly enhanced the ALDE parliamentary group?

– France has a coherent position on enlargement: we wish for EU reforms to make its own internal functioning more robust, before opening its doors to new member states. I know this was sometimes presented as “closing the doors” to candidate countries, while it is in fact the opposite: carrying out the reform process in the candidate states (including Serbia) will still take time regarding the complexity of several reforms.

Serbia must continue its efforts to reform: this process will come in parallel with the reform of the EU and, if Serbia is fast enough, this will allow its accession at the same time as the completion of the reform of the EU. I also insist on another aspect: a fully reformed EU will be better prepared to welcome Serbia, which will be beneficial to both parties.

The protests of the yellow vests movement postponed the visit of President Macron to Serbia last year. What do you expect from the visit, which has been scheduled for 16th July?

– This visit of our President comes 18 years after President Chirac was the first foreign Head of State to visit Serbia after the democratic transition of 5th October 2000. Preparing this visit has already contributed to strengthening political ties between our two countries on topics of mutual interest.

This visit illustrates the importance of Serbia to France and the renewed dynamism of French-Serbian relations. It will surely represent a strong basis for further developing our relations in the future, in the political, economic and cultural areas – especially thanks to the signing of a number of contracts and agreements.

Opening chapters also implies improvements on the main issues identified by the previous EU progress reports from the past years – especially Kosovo and the rule of law. I will also point out that opening chapters is positive, but what is ultimately necessary is to close them – which implies active work to live up to the acquis

In addition to the aforementioned political topics, what will be on the agenda of the visit?

– The visit will represent a great occasion to address the main bilateral and regional political topics, as you rightly point out. But it will also be a landmark event for our economic relations: after major French investors arrived in 2017-2018, like Suez or Vinci, the two Presidents will discuss ways to further deepen economic relations, attract more French investors and sign new contracts – here I have in mind investments like the Belgrade metro system, which France has been working on for several years, or contracts in the fields of defence and energy, for example.

Furthermore, the visit will be an occasion to address the cultural aspects of our relations. We will celebrate the memory of our friendship in arms in the First World War in 1918, with the inauguration of the Monument to France, but we will also sign a number of agreements in the fields of sport, education and arts.

How likely is it that, during President Macron’s visit, a decision could be taken on whether French companies will build a metro in Belgrade, as was recently stated by the Serbian finance minister?

– As you know, France has been very active on this topic for a number of years. It was mentioned in the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2011. The French companies involved have significant experience in carrying out this kind of project and are perfectly able to meet the requirements of the Serbian authorities – as EGIS already realised the pre-feasibility study. We hope that this Presidential visit will be a way to further deepen our cooperation on this project.

You said that you were unpleasantly surprised by the reaction of some media to the fire at the historical Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. How did you understand the government’s decision to help the renovation of this significant monument?

– I make a clear distinction between some negative comments, which came from a limited number of outlets well-known for this kind of behaviour, and the vast majority of the Serbian population expressing sympathy for France and the French people. I could quote dozens of kind messages we received from Serbian citizens expressing sorrow after this terrible fire.

In this regard, I think the Serbian authorities reflected both this feeling in the population and the shared willingness to bring our two countries ever closer together. I would like to use this opportunity to, once again, thank the Serbian authorities and the Serbian people for this contribution to the restoration of Notre-Dame.

I know this is a significant effort for Serbia and I will also note that Serbia was the very first State in the world to make such a donation. This, I think, is a very positive message regarding our willingness to make our relations increasingly robust.

After celebrating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the misunderstanding in the protocol for the President of Serbia, for which you apologised publicly, and after inappropriate comments from part of the public following the accident in Paris, what would you say today about the state of relations between Serbia and France?

– I regret that such an incident took place. France had been working for more than 18 months to prepare the celebration of this centenary, both in Paris and Belgrade: we know what price was paid by Serbia in the First World War and that Serbia was also one of our closest allies during this difficult period of our history.

In this regard, I understand why many people had such a negative feeling about this mistake in the protocol. However, we are now working on the preparation of the Presidential visit in Belgrade, in a context in which we celebrate both the centenary of the end of World War I and the 180th anniversary of the re-establishment of our diplomatic relations.

I say “re-establishment” because these relations first existed in the Middle Ages: only a very small number of states can boast of having such an old and rich joint history. This coming presidential visit will then be a way to illustrate our willingness to build on this past friendship to create a future of which we could also be proud. This is our task, to work to bolster our relations, and we are determined to carry it out.

Interview is published in July issue of CorD Magazine