H.E. Johannes Eigner, Austrian Ambassador To Serbia

Remembering History – Creating The Future

If the leaders of France and Germany can meet for a joint commemoration (The end of World War I), it shouldn’t seem strange for Serbia and Austria to do the same. We already showed in 2014 that it is perfectly possible to address such a seemingly controversial subject in a joint approach with our Serbian counterparts when we organised an Austrian-Serbian exhibition under the slogan “remembering history – creating the future” - Ambassador Johannes Eigner

Austrian Ambassador to Serbia H.E. Johannes Eigner believes that the joint commemoration of the centenary of the end of World War I, which Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has been invited to attend, is in line with the spirit of cooperation in Europe and good bilateral relations between Austria and Serbia.Now approaching the end of his posting in Belgrade, Ambassador Eigner estimates that the statement of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on possible EU accession around 2025 has given Serbia a good point of orientation, but he notes that the pace of progress in membership negotiations will depend essentially on Serbia’s willingness to reform in all areas – from justice and security, via the dialogue with Pristina to environmental protection.

Having travelled throughout Serbia a lot during his time in the country, Ambassador Eigner concludes that the level of environmental pollution in some places is so great that it can be considered a sin. That is why he has urged citizens to not only view their “homeland” in the abstract, but rather to show loyalty and preserve that which is tangible – forests or rivers. Now in the last year of his mandate, he enjoys the works of David Albahari, which he reads in Serbian, and announces an interesting programme at the upcoming Belgrade International Book Fair, the guest countries of which are Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Your Excellency, Austria is facing extraordinary parliamentary elections. Do you consider that the danger of populism and the radicalisation of the stance towards the EU is now reduced, given the results of recent elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany?

– My reading of the results of those elections – in as far as they are really comparable – is as follows: voters are, by and large, disenchanted with traditional parties, in particular the “grand old” ones. They want change, a different style of doing politics, but without hazardous experiments, especially regarding the European project. In my view, it was the Brexit vote in particular, and its still widely unclear consequences, that had and has a sobering effect on many who would otherwise have been inclined to believe that one might be better off without the EU.

Austria has in recent months found itself among the countries advocating for an end to Turkey’s European integration process. Why is the voice of Vienna so strong on this issue?

– From the very beginning of this negotiating process, back in 2005, Austria had some interrogations regarding Turkey’s readiness and ability to join the Union, as well as the Union’s readiness and ability to accept a country of that size and with such specificities. Those interrogations are, by the way, also clearly reflected in the negotiating framework. Developments in Turkey that have taken place since, and in particular after last year’s attempted coup, have done nothing to reduce that kind of scepticism, quite to the contrary.

For the EU, and for countries like Austria in particular, it is important to reach agreement with Turkey on border control in order to prevent an excessive influx of migrants and refugees. Does the radicalisation of relations with Turkey threaten this agreement?

– To date we have not observed that this agreement, which benefits both sides, might fall victim to the overall souring of EU-Turkey relations.

I think it is premature to speak about an “EU announced Multi-Speed Europe reform process”. What we have right now is a series of proposals, or rather suggestions, for indeed far-reaching EU reforms, notably those put forward by President Juncker and President Macron

Given that you are familiar with EU mechanisms from within, having worked at one point in the EU Enlargement Directorate, how do you view the EU’s announced Multi-Speed Europe reform process and how do you see the role and place of Austria in that process?

– I think it is premature to speak about an “EU announced Multi-Speed Europe reform process”. What we have right now is a series of proposals, or rather suggestions, for indeed far-reaching EU reforms, notably those put forward by President Juncker and President Macron. We are in the midst of a debate about how wide and deep such reforms should go, including the issue of “multi-speed” approaches (or “géometrie variable”, which otherwise is not new to the EU). Austria is, of course, participating and will strive to contribute to an outcome that is more than the smallest common denominator in and for a Union that is right now rather divided on many issues.

How should European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement that Serbia and Montenegro could become EU members around 2025 be interpreted, but also the explanation of Johannes Hahn that it could be “sooner, but also later”?

– The date mentioned by President Juncker gives, I believe, a very useful and welcome orientation, not more and not less. And judging from the reactions of Serbian officials, I have the impression that Serbia can live quite well with this tentative target. The actual concrete date of accession depends, of course, on the speed of fulfilling all requirements, hence on Serbia’s readiness, but also on factors like the ratification process required in all member states. So, Commissioner Hahn sort of stated the obvious.

You have noted on several occasions that it is very important for Serbia’s advancement in EU membership negotiations that progress is made in the areas of justice, civil liberties and security, which relate to chapters 23 and 24 in the accession negotiations. How do you see the current state of affairs in these areas?

– There is undoubtedly a consciousness, by and large, of the importance those two chapters have for successfully concluding the accession negotiations and, even more importantly, for a successful and lasting transformation of the state and the society. Does the same clear determination apply for essential and often far-reaching legal and institutional changes and their unreserved implementation? The answer is a mixed one, considering both the complexity of the task and the inertia of the system.

I still enjoy reading, currently works by David Albahari, but since my term here is slowly coming to an end, I have unfortunately no more opportunity to devote myself to another translation. But I am very grateful that I was in a position not only to consume Serbian literature in its original form, but also to transfer an outstanding work of this literature to German-speaking readers

When it comes to Serbia’s obligations, the normalisation of relations with Kosovo is still considered crucial. What do you expect of the socalled ‘internal dialogue’ called for by President Vučić?

– We have yet to see the materialisation of this announced dialogue, but I fully agree with the way Foreign minister Ivica Dačić described this challenge, namely as “our test of maturity” (“naš ispit zrelosti”). It is a test for the senses of reality and compromise, which are much needed both in Serbia and Kosovo in order to attain the kind of normalisation required for either side to successfully conclude its European journey.

During his recent visit to Serbia, Austrian Vice-Chancellor and Federal Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter invited Prime Minister Brnabić to participate in a joint ceremony between Austria and Serbia to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I next year. This invitation will seem strange to many, given that the two countries were on opposing sides in the Great War. How do you view this proposal?

– I would say very much to the contrary – it would be strange if a hundred years later such an invitation were not possible. If the leaders of France and Germany can meet for a joint commemoration, why should something similar seem strange for Serbia and Austria? We already showed in 2014 that it is perfectly possible to address such a seemingly controversial subject in a joint approach with our Serbian counterparts when we organised an Austrian-Serbian exhibition under the slogan “remembering history – creating the future” .

As someone who enjoys travelling around Serbia, you have stated that you are bothered by the high level of environmental pollution. Do you believe the EU accession process can change the image of Serbia as a country that fails to take care where waste is dumped, which you even called “a sin” in one interview?

– The EU accession process will certainly require placing much more emphasis on the protection of the environment and will help to create the necessary legal, institutional and financial framework to do that. But I sincerely believe that only Serbia itself can change that image, or rather, only a different mind-set of everyone will change that image: that one doesn’t live in an abstract “homeland” that one is very proud of, but rather in a tangible country with landscapes, woods and rivers, whose beauty is worthy of being cherished.

Considering that you are a lover of literature, the upcoming Belgrade Book Fair will certainly be a real treat for you – particularly given that this year Austria is a joint guest of honour country, along with Germany and Switzerland. What are you preparing for the fair?

– It is a fortunate coincidence that in my last year in Belgrade I have the chance to follow and partly also participate in this outstanding event. We have, together with our colleagues from Germany and Switzerland, prepared a rich and multi-faceted programme for old and young, for “professionals” and for “amateurs”. We want this book fair to be, as you said, a treat for everybody!

You read Serbian literature in Cyrillic and have even translated the work of NIN Award-winner Filip David into German. What are you working on currently?

– I still enjoy reading, currently works by David Albahari, but since my term here is slowly coming to an end, I have unfortunately no more opportunity to devote myself to another translation. But I am very grateful that I was in a position not only to consume Serbian literature in its original form, but also to transfer an outstanding work of this literature to German-speaking readers.