Spain is one of the EU members that strongly supports the stance that Serbia belongs in the EU, regardless of whether or not it recognises Kosovo’s sovereignty on that path. However, the EU accession process implies a long and arduous road of total economic – and even psychological – transformation of a candidate country. Spain supports the opening of the first chapters in the negotiations, with the expectation that Serbia will implement that which has been agreed and that the opening of the following chapters will start as soon as possible.
This year marks the centenary of the establishing of diplomatic relationships between Spain and Serbia. Do you have any plans to mark this event in some way?
In our opinion, the centenary of our diplomatic relations is not 2016, but 2017, as the first Serbian ambassador presented his credentials in Madrid in 1917. As such, we still have time to prepare a ceremonial celebration of the jubilee.
When you arrived in Serbia a year ago, the general consensus was that the two countries had friendly relations, with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić underlining the importance of Spain’s official decision not to recognise Kosovo’s independence. Spain is one of five EU members to maintain such a position. Is this still official Spanish policy, given that certain circles in the EU suggest you should make a change?
Spain’s position regarding the non-recognition of Kosovo is completely unchanged, and will remain so even under possible pressures from other countries, especially considering that Spain bases its Kosovo position on solid legal and political grounds, which have not changed and with which many other countries also agree.
Spain also reaffirmed its support for Serbia in UNESCO by voting against Kosovo becoming admitted as a member of this organisation, again contrary to the votes of the majority of EU members. Has this led to Spain being criticised by your European partners?
Given that Spain does not recognise Kosovo, it should not accept Kosovo’s presence in organisations that accept only officially recognised states. That was our stance regarding Kosovo’s efforts to join UNESCO, and that will be our future position regarding any pretensions of Kosovo to join other international organisations. I’m not aware of Spain having sustained criticism for remaining committed to its own position, which is grounded firmly in law.
When you took up the ambassadorial position in Belgrade, you said that you would be glad to help Serbia with its EU accession process. Serbia fears that EU membership will not be possible unless the country recognises Kosovo’s independence. As someone who comes from a country that has refused to accept Kosovo’s independence, how do you interpret this situation?
Spain will support Serbia on its path towards the EU, because it shares the opinion of the Serbian Government that EU accession is a key strategic goal for the future of Serbia. I see no reason why the recognition of Kosovo should be a condition of accession, given the fact that five member states have not recognised Kosovo. However, let’s put aside the issue of Kosovo, as I would like to return to the issue of EU accession. Spain is a country that is characterised by a strong EU commitment, so, in passing on our own experience, I want to point out that joining the EU meant a very important turnaround that was not only economic in nature, but also psychological, and demanded a change in the previous behaviour. It is true that sometimes differences of opinion within the Union are obvious and negotiations leading to common solutions are complex, but achieving them is worth every effort. In that sense, we were extremely pleased to see the opening of the first two chapters in the accession negotiations with Serbia, and we expect other chapters to be opened soon. We encourage the Serbian government to exert the necessary efforts with the aim of speeding up negotiations.
The economic and trade exchanges between Spain and Serbia are equal, though not quantitatively significant. It is true that there is a certain geographic distance and that, despite the great mutual affinity of our people, this exchange is still modest
There is much talk about where the EU’s destiny lies in the next decade or so, e.g. whether or not the EU will be able to control the migrant crisis.
Indeed, the crisis caused by the influx of refugees is a huge challenge that requires the finding of a common solution, and I think any approach that would disregard the idea of unity in seeking a solution is wrong. There may be differences of opinion in the approach to dealing with the problem, but it is necessary to come up with a common response, because the EU is a joint project that we should respect and protect. It is necessary, therefore, to strike a balance between, on the one hand, respect for the principles of international law and the applicable EU laws and, on the other, acceptance and integration of refugees in a number that would be realistically possible. Excess enthusiasm could be just as harmful to the EU’s structures as a lack of solidarity that would return us to the former concept of “Fortress” Europe.
UK citizens will this year vote in a referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. Are you worried about the results?
Of course, with all respect for the decision of the British government to hold the referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, and bearing in mind the psychologically important changes that other countries are willing to accept in order to receive a positive response, I think it is logical to be concerned about the outcome of this referendum. The EU would be weakened by the UK’s departure, and not just for economic reasons. I was a student at the College of Europe in Bruges during the 1973-74 academic year when the UK joined the Union, and I am convinced that during these forty years the British have been able to preserve their own characteristics, while at the same time protecting their own interests and influencing the development of the joint project. The British are great negotiators, have an extremely strong public administration and are quite pragmatic people. I wish for them to continue to be part of the Union and I hope they won’t be overbearing with the idea of some Europe “à la carte”, because I’m afraid that would be unsustainable.
On the other hand, certain analyses suggest that the UK’s exit from the EU would immediately prompt Scotland to separate from the United Kingdom, which would in turn encourage similar movements in Europe to re-launch their independence campaigns. Even Spain has been facing this issue. Does this concern you?
Everything that would imply breaking states into their constituent parts would weaken the whole. Divisions worry me; I think they’re wrong and can cause further divisions. This is a phenomenon that should be avoided.
Returning to the issues that affect Serbia, do you think there is more room to boost economic cooperation between our two countries; and which areas of economic cooperation have the highest potential in that respect?
The economic and trade exchanges between Spain and Serbia are equal, though not quantitatively significant. It is true that there is a certain geographic distance and that, despite the great mutual affinity of our people, this exchange is still modest. Spain should be more present in Serbia in the fields of agriculture, tourism and construction.
There are over 40 Spanish companies operating in Serbia, while Serbia exports agricultural products, furniture and vehicle parts to Spain. Despite all of this, trade between the two countries remains modest. What are the biggest difficulties in this segment?
On the other hand, Spain is a major producer of cars and many of the European brands of cars that can be seen around Belgrade were produced in Spain.
Apart from that, we should – and I hope that will be the case – create such aviation transport of passengers and goods that it would justify the introduction of direct flights between Belgrade and Spanish cities throughout the entire year. Vueling is currently the only company with direct flights to Barcelona, and they run solely during three summer months. This results in a reduced presence of Spaniards in Serbia and Serbs in Spain, given that they have to take a connecting flight and must sometimes wait a long time for the next one. If there were more flights, there would also be higher passenger numbers.
You have said that Spain is Serbia’s natural ally when it comes to exporting to Latin America. Do you see any Serbian products as being interesting to that market?
Serbia has very good political relations with Latin American countries and has embassies in some of them. Latin American countries also have beautiful embassies in Belgrade. In this regard, Spain will always be ready to contribute to forging even closer ties between Serbia and all of our brotherly nations.
Spain will support Serbia on its path towards the EU, because it shares the opinion of the Serbian Government that EU accession is a key strategic goal for the future of Serbia
At one point there was talk about Spain being interested in building a metro system in Belgrade and a hotel on Stara Planina, as well as participating in other infrastructure projects. Is there still such interest?
There are Spanish companies that are involved in infrastructure projects in Serbia. Spain has extremely strong companies in all areas of construction and infrastructure, so it is logical that these companies are interested in participating in all public tenders launched by the Serbian authorities.
Spain has been successfully implementing the public-private partnership (PPP) format to fund large-scale infrastructure projects. Given that this format is still undeveloped in Serbia, how can Spain’s PPP experience assist us?
Financing major construction works can be carried out in many different ways. In Spain there are also major financial institutions that can participate in the design, construction and exploitation of building projects. This is something completely normal, and international financial institutions also encourage that with the aim of improving infrastructure. As I said already, many Spanish companies expect participation in the larger projects that will soon be launched, especially in Belgrade.
It was announced recently that Spain recorded economic growth of 3.2% and significantly reduced unemployment last year. Since Serbia is currently implementing reforms aimed at boosting our economy and creating more jobs, what do you think we can learn from Spain’s example?
In recent years, and following the deep crisis that has led to high unemployment, Spain has had to introduce very painful structural reforms that would enable a change of the previous situation and the restoring economic growth, in order to create new jobs. These structural reforms have their social costs, are politically unpopular and impact on the electorate, but they are necessary for creating a meaningful and competitive economy. Governments need to be bold and to adopt such economic healing measures, with the proviso that they alleviate social consequences to the greatest possible extent. It is simultaneously necessary to introduce measures to prevent and, if necessary, curb corruption in the state administration. Citizens, especially when they are forced to endure heavy sacrifices, need to see that the authorities are decisive when it comes to abuse.
There is another phenomenon that comes from Spain – Podemos. This party has been recognised globally as one of the movements that gives a voice to ordinary, disgruntled citizens. Do you think Podemos will suffer the same fate as Syriza in that it will eventually have to face a reality in which compromise is sometimes more important that fundamental ideals?
It is inevitable that these measures cause discontent and lead to protest movements, particularly among young people. When these protest movements grow into political parties, they have to face the reality called “income-expenditure”, and to make decisions that take into consideration the distinction between desires and reality.
When someone is outside the government, he can have “impossible demands” and the syndrome of Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up. However, entering into government requires more common sense and acceptance of the fact that outgoings must be covered by incomings.
Do you know that the Spanish language has become a mandatory subject in some primary schools in Serbia, in response to pupil demand? What do you think of that?
Of course I’m convinced that the Spanish language is useful, attractive and easy to learn. It is the mother tongue of 500 million people, while it is a second or third language for the hundreds of millions. I therefore understand the interest that exists in learning Spanish, although I also understand that the authorities have limited resources to implement that. Both sides make up as much as possible. We should not forget that there is a great Cervantes Institute in Belgrade, which encourages that enthusiasm and contributes to learning the Spanish language.