The European perspective of the Western Balkans has not been brought into question, insists German Ambassador to Serbia H.E. Axel Dittmann, despite political turbulence within the EU and announcements of comprehensive reforms that must be carried out prior to any further enlargement of the Union. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Dittmann says that the pace of progress towards membership largely depends on the commitment of candidate countries to carry out reform: strengthening the rule of law, regulating the market, respecting media freedom etc. And, in the case of Serbia, the European integration process also depends on the normalisation of relations with Pristina, which would be sealed with a comprehensive, binding agreement. Not responding to speculation that his country is advocating for Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations, Ambassador Dittmann does confirm that Kosovo’s status in international organisations should be part of the comprehensive agreement with Belgrade.
The EU has always been striving for good relations with our eastern neighbour, but a response was needed, particularly to the annexation of Crimea and events in Eastern Ukraine
Media freedom is a problem. This has been described clearly several times in, e.g., the EU Country Report
The European Union, with more than 500 million people, is a peace project, the world’s biggest internal market and a community of values
Your Excellency, since being re-elected as German Chancellor, Mrs Merkel has held a series of meetings with leaders from the Balkans, including President Vučić, President Thaçi and the members of the B-H Presidency. Does this confirm that Germany will continue to focus on this region?
Absolutely! This region is very important for us. The European Union will not be complete without the Western Balkans. We are therefore very much focused on supporting the countries from the region in progressing towards the EU by implementing the necessary reform process.
Hence, we fully support Serbia’s strategic decision to become a member of the EU. This is a long and demanding process, but a good one for Serbia and its people, because the necessary transformation and modernisation process will, first and foremost, benefit the citizens of Serbia.
Germany will continue supporting Serbia in reaching its strategic goal. For example, since the year 2000, we have committed some €1.6 billion to support the development of Serbia. This makes Germany Serbia’s biggest bilateral donor, while we are, of course, also a very close political and economic partner. It seems that the EU and Germany, as one of its leading countries, is facing a new, major challenge in relations with the U.S.
Since the year 2000 we have committed some €1.6 billion to supporting the development of Serbia. This makes Germany Serbia’s biggest bilateral donor, while we are, of course, also a very close political and economic partner
How do you think the situation will evolve following President Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminium coming from the EU?
We are living in turbulent times in which many long-established cooperation mechanisms are being tested severely. For us, this means that the EU will have to be able to act more united. Nevertheless, the EU and the U.S. continue to share an interest in a close transatlantic partnership. And we continue to work very closely with the U.S. with regard to Serbia and the region – particularly when it comes to supporting Serbia’s strategic decision to become an EU member.
What is the line of new German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas regarding Russia? Do you expect tensions to ease?
The German government, in close coordination with our EU partners, has been following a very coherent line towards Russia. The EU has always been striving for good relations with our eastern neighbour, but a response was needed, particularly to the annexation of Crimea and events in Eastern Ukraine. We will stick to this approach.
When it comes to relations with Serbia, how do you think Serbian citizens should best interpret messages from the recent EU-Western Balkans summit? Is there more or less hope for the region’s prospects of EU accession?
At the summit EU leaders reaffirmed their clear support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The EU is determined to strengthen its support to the region’s political, economic and social transformation. As European Council President Donald Tusk has said, there is no other future for the Western Balkans than the EU. This is also our goal. The Western Balkans is an integral part of Europe and it belongs to our community.
The Summit underlined that the way towards the EU means implementing the necessary reforms, in particular in the area of the rule of law, and also fostering good neighbourly relations, regional stability and mutual cooperation. This includes, in particular, finding solutions to bilateral disputes and dedicating additional efforts to reconciliation. The EU has underpinned its commitment to the European future of Western Balkan countries with tangible projects in the area of connectivity, with a view to improving links with the Western Balkans and within the region itself. Increasing connections should support political stability, economic prosperity, cultural and social development in the region and beyond. Working together on common security challenges was also an important issue discussed at the Summit.
We now are working to further develop the results of the Sofia meeting at the next summit in the framework of the Berlin Process, to be held in July in London.
Many analysts believe that French President Macron sent the sincerest message to the Balkans when he reiterated that the EU must undergo serious internal reforms before any enlargement. Does that new framework also allow more time for Serbia to resolve its relations with Pristina?
The European Union, with more than 500 million people, is a peace project, the world’s biggest internal market and a community of values. It is true that the EU is facing important challenges. At the same time, it remains the only vehicle in which we can make our voice heard in the globalised world. A far-reaching dialogue on the critical issues of the 27 member states is therefore necessary. We are working on this very actively with France. At the same time, the EU perspective of the Balkans is not in question. The speed of accession, however, is in the hands of candidate countries like Serbia – it depends on the speed of implementing the necessary reform process.
To summarise: the EU’s internal reform process and the Serbian accession process are two separate but parallel processes, both of which are very important – foremost for the citizens.
Serbia has agreed, though the Brussels Agreement, to work towards such a solution, i.e. the full normalisation of relations in the form of a legallybinding agreement. In our view, this should cover all areas of interaction
Serbian President Vučić suggests that pressure is being increased to conclude normalisation negotiations with Pristina and reach a final solution. Is Germany backing the alleged proposal for Kosovo to be granted the status of a UN observer country?
Germany fully supports the process of reaching a comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. This is solely in the interest of the two countries and their citizens, in particular the members of the Serb community in Kosovo. Germany is supporting the two sides in their efforts to reach such a comprehensive normalisation of relations, mediated by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.
What are the chances of staging a new international conference on Belgrade- Pristina relations, which the media have already dubbed “the new Rambouillet”?
As I stated previously, the dialogue, coordinated by EU, is the process that has been agreed with both sides to work for a comprehensive normalisation of relations through a legally-binding agreement. Germany supports this process.
President Vučić has expressed disappointment regarding the lack of understanding in the West for Serbia’s arguments regarding Kosovo. If Serbia rejects Western proposals to accept Kosovo’s independence by blocking Kosovo’s place in the UN, how would that impact on the relation between Belgrade and Berlin?
The fact of the matter is that there is an unresolved conflict – and the EU is trying, through the mediation of its High Representative, to help the two sides to find a solution. Serbia has agreed, though the Brussels Agreement, to work towards such a solution, i.e. the full normalisation of relations in the form of a legally-binding agreement. In our view, this should cover all areas of interaction, also within international organisations including the UN. We believe that the time has now come to try to reach such a comprehensive agreement.
Does the arrival in Serbia of company Continental confirm the interest of German businesses when it comes to investing in the Serbian economy?
I am very pleased with the activity level of German business in Serbia. It is currently stronger than ever: around 400 companies are present in this country and have created more than 47,000 jobs. Business investments from the year 2000 add up to an impressive total of around two billion euros.
The Serbian-German Chamber of Commerce conducts an annual survey in which it asks German companies whether they are satisfied with the overall investment conditions in Serbia – around 85% of companies have confirmed that they would invest in Serbia again.
However, if we want to strengthen this positive trend and develop our excellent economic ties even further, it is important to continue to reform the country; it is important to strengthen the rule of law. Investment security is crucial to developing a strong private sector and a key to achieving sustainable growth and creating attractive employment opportunities in Serbia. Strengthening the rule of law will not only benefit foreign investors. It will also have beneficial effects for domestic businesses and the people of Serbia. We want to continue working with our Serbian partners to promote reforms and thus support Serbia on its way towards the EU.
There is contentious rhetoric in Serbia about whether the arrival of this German giant should go without a state subsidy of almost 10 million euros. In your opinion, are subsidies a good way to attract foreign investors?
Companies look at the investment environment in different countries. These include framework conditions like taxes, workforce quality, legal certainty and general support from the side of the government when entering a market. I think that German investments contribute significantly to Serbia’s positive economic development.
I am very pleased with the activity level of German business in Serbia. It is currently stronger than ever: around 400 companies are present in this country and have created more than 47,000 jobs. Business investments since the year 2000 add up to an impressive total of around €2 billion
In his latest draft report, German MEP David McAllister – European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia – concluded that more must be done on strengthening the rule of law. He also added that the Serbian government had made no improvements whatsoever when it comes to media freedom. Would you agree with such a description of the current situation?
Media freedom is a problem. This has been described clearly several times in, e.g., the EU Country Report. Strengthening freedom of expression is an important topic in Serbia’s reform process and on its progression towards the EU, within the framework of Chapter 23. Among other things, it is very important to achieve transparency of ownership and establish fair rules for financing. It is also paramount to ensure a safe and secure working environment for journalists. We welcome the fact that work on a new media strategy has been relaunched with the active involvement of the OSCE and the EU, and we will carefully monitor its progress.
You are leaving Serbia, what are your impressions after three years here?
Serbia is a wonderful place, with people who are very passionate and at the same time warm-hearted and extremely hospitable. At the same time, it is a very dynamic place. My family and I have felt very much at home here. We have made lots of friends, and that includes friends of my kids, who attended school here. We will keep very close contacts with Serbia and I will continue to follow developments in the country – politically and economically, but also culturally. I wish Serbia and its people lots of success and happiness, and I hope that it will become a member of the EU soon.