June sounds like a realistic timeframe for Serbia to open the rule of law chapters 23 and 24, confirms David McAllister, European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia, in this interview for CorD following the European Parliament’s adoption of the resolution on Serbia that he proposed. This generally very positive resolution clearly states that Serbia’s EU accession process is closely linked to the normalisation of relations with Kosovo, and that, in the long run, Serbia should align its foreign policy with that of the EU, including its policy on Russia.
As the process of opening chapters progresses, so implementation of legislation and policies becomes the key indicator of Serbia’s successful integration process. Chapters 23 and 24 are particularly challenging, as they must secure respect for the rule of law and protect citizens, businesses, state institutions and the economy from crime, says McAllister.
However, he notes, the major challenge in Serbia’s EU integration process is for citizens in Serbia to acknowledge the human side of things – that the path towards the EU means progress towards a society in which respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights are the most cherished and guarded values. “These are values which are positive for every society and its citizens,” says the EP’s rapporteur for Serbia.
The European Parliament recently adopted the resolution on Serbia that you had proposed. Are you satisfied with the outcome, given that the first version of your text was subjected to 190 amendments?
Yes. The European Parliament adopted a balanced and realistic resolution on Serbia. All 751 members of the European Parliament are entitled to table amendments. That said, and compared to other reports and resolutions, 190 amendments aren’t many.
The biggest and most important challenge of the EU integration process is to convince Serbian citizens that EU accession is not about politicians negotiating behind closed doors. Our EU accession is about people
The resolution recognises Serbia’s efforts to fulfil the criteria for EU membership. Do you believe that, as you suggested, negotiating chapters 23 and 24 will be opened by June?
The rule of law chapters 23 and 24 should be opened as soon as possible to help Serbia to continue on its path towards the European Union. I believe that the opening of these chapters in June is realistic.
Could negotiations on these chapters, which are believed to be the most difficult, help in the reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption, which are identified in the resolution as problem areas requiring more progress in Serbia?
The negotiations of chapters 23 and 24 cover a wide variety of aspects of justice, domestic security, fundamental rights and the fight against corruption and organised crime. These chapters are to be opened early in the process and closed at the end, to allow maximum time for solid track records to develop with the aim of reforms being irreversible. When countries respect the rule of law, their citizens, businesses, state institutions, and the economy as a whole, are protected from crime. Furthermore, there is no functioning state without an independent judiciary. Serbia has adopted important reforms. Now the thorough implementation of legislation and policies remains a key indicator of a successful integration process.
The European Parliament shares the view that Serbia’s EU integration process should be linked to and dependent on progress in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. How would you evaluate the current state of that process?
Serbia’s EU accession process is linked closely to the normalisation of relations with Kosovo. Serbia is engaged in the normalisation process and finalised key agreements on 25th August 2015. These agreements marked another significant step forward towards further normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Both sides must now move forward with the full implementation of all agreements already reached, in good faith and in a timely manner.
Chancellor Merkel is a reliable partner for transit countries like Serbia and promotes an effective, fair and sustainable mechanism within the EU for burden sharing with regard to asylum-seekers and refugees on our continent
The government in Pristina has not satisfied its obligation to create conditions for the formation of the Community of Serbian Municipalities, a fact that has caused discontent in Belgrade. Serbian officials have stated that the reaction from Brussels to such a violation of the agreement has been mild. What do you think about that?
The European Parliament’s resolution on Serbia, as well as the resolution on Kosovo, clearly state that both sides have to implement previously reached agreements. The formation of the Association/Community of Serbian Municipalities forms a key part of the Brussels Agreement. Both sides should foster its implementation.
During the European Parliamentary debate on the Resolution on Serbia, it was suggested that Belgrade should not have blocked Kosovo’s admission into UNESCO. In response, officials in Belgrade asked why EU member states supported Kosovo’s attempt to take the cultural heritage debate to this UN organisation, while a comprehensive dialogue about these relations is being simultaneous led under the auspices of the EU. Could this not have been a topic for one of the rounds of the talks in Brussels?
Kosovo applied for UNESCO membership to become its 196th member. This objective could not have been reached in the framework of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. At this stage, it is important that Kosovo’s failed bid for membership does not hamper the dialogue. Moreover, cooperation and efforts for the protection of cultural heritage must continue.
Were EU members thereby showing their strong support for Kosovo’s independence, despite the status-neutral dialogue in Brussels? Does it seem that all dialogue ultimately boils down to the issue of recognising the independence of Kosovo?
Due to five member states (Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus) not recognising Kosovo’s independence, this issue remains at the centre of controversial debates; also in the European Parliament. The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is about the comprehensive normalisation of relations. This is the term used in the conclusions of the European Council and the negotiation framework. At the end of the negotiations, a legally-binding agreement has to be reached.
This time you have once again not missed the chance to draw the attention of Serbia to the need to harmonise its foreign policy with that of the EU, especially when it comes to the relationship with Russia. If this is an obligation that should be implemented gradually, ending with membership in the EU – which is still a long way off for Serbia, why are you so insistent on this issue?
The European Parliament calls in its resolution on Serbia to progressively align its foreign and security policy with that of the EU, including its policy on Russia. We have therefore made it clear that a gradual alignment is requested. However, EU accession is a process and requirements cannot be met overnight.
In the resolution, you suggest that a single military exercise with Russia was particularly concerning, even though there have been numerous examples of military cooperation between Serbia and NATO. Why is this so important?
Serbia’s cooperation with NATO is most welcome and I am aware that Serbia has traditionally strong ties with Russia. However, after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the events in eastern Ukraine, Serbian-Russian joint military exercises don’t send out the right signal. The resolution is very clear on this: “[The European Parliament…] considers conducting joint Serbia – Russia military exercises as regrettable”.
Media freedom is a constituent element of democracy that cannot be achieved merely by adopting laws. It is also about creating a friendly environment for an independent media
You have warned about the problems facing the media in Serbia and stated that freedom of expression must not be undermined. Do you see a willingness among the members of the government with whom you converse regularly to devote attention to these shortcomings?
The Serbian Parliament has adopted very good media laws that now need to be implemented. However, media freedom is a constituent element of any democracy that cannot be achieved merely through the adoption of laws. It is also about creating a friendly environment for independent media.
Will the European Parliament monitor election processes in Serbia and, if so, how?
I expect the procedure to be the same as during the early parliamentary elections in March 2014. At that time, following an official invitation from the Serbian authorities and in accordance with its mandate, the OSCE deployed a limited election observation mission to monitor the elections.
The Government of Serbia received praise from the EP for its approach to the migrant problem, and you have proposed a continuation of the financial assistance for accommodating and handling refugees. What do you expect from Serbia in this area?
In recent months, the flow of refugees and migrants has reached an unprecedented scale. Many refugees enter the European Union via the “Western Balkan route”, passing through Macedonia and Serbia. I would like to commend the efforts of the Serbian government, as well as the Serbian people, to cope with this extraordinary situation. Better sooner than later, Serbia should be part of a common European solution.
The wave of refugees also caused problems in your country – not only in terms of security but also on the political front. To what extent has the influx of refugees impacted negatively on the popularity of Chancellor Merkel?
In 2015 some 1.1 Million migrants and refugees came to Germany. This is unprecedented and many citizens worry about how our country can cope with the persisting influx. Chancellor Merkel is working hard to find sustainable political solutions in regions in conflict, such as Iraq, Syria or Libya. She is a reliable partner for transit countries like Serbia and promotes an effective, fair and sustainable mechanism within the European Union for burden-sharing with regard to asylum-seekers and refugees on our continent. Only a common European solution can provide the answer to the diverse internal and external cross-border challenges we face.
The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These are values that are positive for every society and its citizens
Is it possible that Germany could change its position on the further acceptance of refugees and close its borders?
Many proposals are on the table. I am convinced that the German Federal Government will find a way to reduce the influx of migrants while at the same time fulfilling its legal and humanitarian obligations.
To what extent has the Schengen Zone come under threat and are we approaching a juncture at which some EU members, like Greece, or EU candidate states, like Serbia, could find themselves omitted from this so-called visa-free regime?
On a continent where nations once shed blood to defend their territories, today borders only exist on maps. The creation of the Schengen area is one of the greatest achievements of the EU. It should be irreversible. A Europe without internal borders brings huge benefits to our daily lives, to our societies and the economy. We ought to remain committed to Schengen but, as a consequence, our external EU borders must be secured more effectively. That would also be beneficial for Serbia. Visa liberalisation for Serbia was an important step for the country on its path towards the European Union and is not brought into question.
In Serbia, there is great appreciation for your positive intentions and friendly attitude towards the country for which you are EP rapporteur. You say that Serbia is faced with years of hard work. In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenges as the EU integration process advances?
The biggest and most important challenge is to convince Serbian citizens that EU accession is not about politicians negotiating behind closed doors. Our EU accession is about people. The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These are values that are positive for every society and its citizens.