H.E. Oana-Cristina Popa, Ambassador Of Romania To Serbia:

No Pressure To Change Stance On Kosovo

Dr Oana-Cristina Popa arrived in Belgrade in September 2016 as the new ambassador of Romania. In this interview for CorD Magazine, she says that her first impressions were very good and she is looking forward to continuing cooperation and strengthening bilateral relations

Responding to the question that is most commonly posed to EU member states that have not recognised Kosovo’s independence, Ambassador Popa says that there will be no policy change regarding the issue. She added that Romania will continue to support Serbia’s EU integration process and will strive for that process to be accelerated.

During this November’s visit to Romania, the Serbian Prime Minister called for the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries. How was this visit perceived in Romania?
The visit was perceived in a very positive note, consistent with the Romanian Prime Minister’s message in which he mentioned that “we wanted to give a signal that this relationship between Serbia and Romania is a consistent, long-lasting one, beyond the duration of the Cabinets’ terms of office, beyond political hues. Serbia and Romania have potential and should also be economic partners in the future”. I would also like to point out another message offered by the Romanian Prime Minister on the same occasion and that is that, irrespective of the political persuasion of governments in Bucharest and Belgrade, our high officials should meet periodically.

A joint declaration on Romania’s support for Serbia’s EU integration was signed on this occasion in Timisoara. What would be the practical outcome of this declaration?
Romania has, from the very beginning of the process, been an active and strong supporter of the European prospects of Serbia. We will be consistent in our support for the opening of new negotiation chapters. We further support Serbia’s advancement on its path towards European Integration, through the effective and consistent adoption and implementation of reforms. We are ready to share our expertise, as well as lessons learned on the EU accession path. The Serbian authorities could take advantage of our similar understanding of the transformational changes and benefits that the EU integration process brings for citizens. Romania’s expertise can be useful in areas such as the fight against corruption, justice reform, administrative and capacity building, and environmental protection.
The statement signed in Timisoara by Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lazăr Comănescu and Serbian Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic creates a framework for further cooperation and support through study visits, workshops and training, facilitated by dedicated instruments, such as TAIEX or the Mobility Fund for Governmental Experts, financed through Romania’s assistance for development policy.

Does Romania have concerns regarding the rights of the Romanian minority in Serbia that could possibly impact on Serbia’s EU accession negotiations?
We have a constructive position in line with our general support for Serbia’s European integration. Our open, constructive and principled stance comes from the objective of ensuring full reciprocity for the Romanian minority throughout the whole of Serbia as regards access to education, mass-media and religious services in their mother tongue. We would expect the same treatment as is afforded to the Serbian minority in Romania. There are areas where this is happening, but between those areas and the rest of the country there are significant differences in the treatment of people belonging to national minorities. We hope the implementation of the dedicated Action Plan for the national minorities will help improve the situation.

At the same time, I remind you that Romania and the Republic of Serbia also have a bilateral treaty regarding national minorities from both countries. Based on this treaty, a Joint Intergovernmental Committee was created. We do hope that, following a pause that has lasted a few years, the activity of the Joint Intergovernmental Committee will be resumed and will work productively in the interest of the national minorities in both countries.

I would like to express our open and constructive approach towards the Serbian minority in Romania, particularly with regard to their full and free access to education, culture, political representation, freedom of belief etc. In fact, the Romanian government allocates consistent and constant financial support for preserving and maintaining the specific cultural, linguistic and ethnic identity of the Serbian minority in my country. As you well know, evidence of our approach can be found in the presence of a Serbian MP in the Parliament.

How would you assess the current perspectives of EU enlargement?
Enlargement is a powerful instrument of the European Union’s external policy. Romania has, thus, strongly advocated for the inclusion in the EU Global Strategy of a clear political message on the continuation of the enlargement, association and stabilisation process, as a sustainable tool for strengthening democratic institutions, boosting the economy and promoting regional cooperation.

Although the EU is currently facing various challenges, the enlargement process is continuing and our role is to continue to help advance the accession processes in the region and maintain a positive message on enlargement within the EU. Romania will continue to lobby for Serbia’s European integration efforts and I would like to mention that the road to the EU will help Serbian society transform, as it did with the Romanian one.

Soon we will celebrate 10 years since we became a member of the EU. Also, in the first half of 2019 Romania will hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council, at a very important moment for Serbia’s accession negotiations with the EU, and our intention is for enlargement to be one of our priorities.

We do hope that, after a pause that has lasted a few years, the activity of the Joint Intergovernmental Committee will be resumed and will work productively in the interest of national minorities in both countries

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe have expressed their reserves on the common European migration policy. Could this migration policy impact on the future of Europe?
Migration is currently one of the biggest challenges for our region and international cooperation is of utmost importance for the proper management of the refugee influx. Therefore, good communication and cooperation between EU Member States and the neighbouring countries on this issue is of the utmost importance for the identification and implementation of the best solutions.

Although Romania is not directly affected, the country fully acknowledges the need for shared responsibility and solidarity, and participates in all EU measures aimed at dealing with the consequences of migration. Nevertheless, Romania appreciates that any reform of the EU asylum policy should be based on consensual solutions that are able to meet the objectives of all Member States. Any future asylum system should allow the Member States to decide voluntarily on the nature of their contributions to the EU’s common efforts for dealing with migration.
Romania is committed to continue to act in this spirit of solidarity and cooperation, in order to avoid, through joint efforts, the reactivation of the Western Balkan route, which is currently closed. Romania follows this objective also at the EU level, where Romania lobbies in favour of further EU support for the countries of the region.

Serbian authorities are very engaged in addressing the consequences of migration. Romania has fully supported Serbia’s efforts in this area by offering humanitarian assistance and operational assistance, either bilaterally or through EU agency FRONTEX. It is in our mutual interest to continue our close dialogue and cooperation in order to combat illegal migration.

Last but not least, when we discuss migration it is essential to bear in mind the need to address the root causes of the phenomenon, which must be tackled together, in a joint manner, by all the members of the international community. Dialogue and cooperation with third partners, countries of origin and transit, is currently a major priority at the EU level, which is fully supported by Romania, as this would contribute substantially to a long-lasting solution on migration.

What is the essence of the Protocol on joint Romanian-Serbian patrols along the common border?
The scope of the protocol signed recently in Timisoara is to establish mixed patrols along the common state border and to increase cooperation in order to prevent and combat illegal migration and cross-border crimes. It also has the objective of encouraging an efficient exchange of information and increasing the effectiveness of border surveillance and control. I think the results are already visible in the media.

What would be the practical effects of the recently signed declaration on cross-border cooperation in the fields of employment and social protection?
The two Ministers of Labour met twice this autumn, first in Belgrade, on 28th October, and then in Timisoara, on 10th November. In Belgrade they signed a bilateral agreement on social security, thereby giving Romanian workers in Serbia and Serbian workers in Romania similar rights to social security as their own citizens, from the moment of its implementation. The Joint Statement signed in Timisoara deals with further developing and increasing bilateral cooperation in various fields, such as cross-border labour mobility, social policies with a focus on vulnerable groups and communities, reducing unemployment, promoting entrepreneurship etc.

Romania will end 2016 with GDP growth of 4.8%, which ranks it among the EU’s most successful countries. If Serbia wishes, as has been stated, to follow the Romanian model, what does it need to focus on?
Indeed, Romania’s economic performance in the last few years has consolidated its profile as a factor of stability in the region. Both IMF and EU forecasts mark Romania as Europe’s top performer regarding GDP growth in 2016.
Nevertheless, we had our share of economic difficulties and results didn’t come overnight. Among the factors that contributed significantly to Romania’s positive economic evolution I would mention reforms to ensure financial structural stability and an overall attractive financial and fiscal framework, tangible results in the fight against corruption, stimulating employment and internal consumption, attracting foreign investment and striving to ensure the efficiency of our own investments, better absorption of EU funds, a tight monetary policy, efforts for maintaining public debt within sustainable limits, and supporting entrepreneurship and SMEs. We are ready to share our experience with the Serbian institutions on these topics as well. A positive aspect of cooperation between our countries is the constant growth of bilateral trade. Last year we reached a historical high of over a billion euros and we are hoping reports for 2016 will be similar.

Or position on the Kosovo status matter is well known, and it did not prevent us, or the EU as a whole, from approaching the relevant matters for all inhabitants of Kosovo in a status-neutral manner

Do you believe that the two countries could implement the idea of jointly constructing a highway linking Vršac and Timisoara?
Planning and designing the new highway between Timisoara and Pančevo was selected as strategic project by the IPA CBC Common Committee for Monitoring on 5th October. In this respect, we look forward to properly and wisely utilising EU funds in order to swiftly advance the project.

It is clear to all of us that a structured approach to furthering the interconnection of both countries provides benefits to all stakeholders involved. Given Romania’s current transportation Master Plan, depending on the results of the feasibility study for this project, Romanian authorities will assess fitting adjustments as necessary.

Timisoara and Novi Sad will be joint European capitals of culture in 2021 and you have already discussed the possibility of the two cities organising joint activities to mark this occasion. How could this cooperation look?
Having both Timișoara and Novi Sad as European Capitals of Culture in 2021 will be an excellent opportunity for the further development of cultural and tourism ties between our two countries. As you have already mentioned, we have indeed approached the responsible officials in Timisoara and Novi Sad, in order to prepare a cooperation framework that would allow us to take advantage of this excellent opportunity in the most efficient and appropriate way.
However, discussions on concrete steps on the respective cooperation are still ongoing, especially at the level of the local authorities in Timişoara and Novi Sad. I have been informed that many ideas are being discussed and indeed this is a unique occasion to promote our traditions and our natural and cultural heritage.

In the EU we can often hear calls, or some would say pressure, for Romania to change its position on Kosovo’s independence. Does the government in Bucharest intend to do so?
I am surprised to hear this. We are not under pressure for anything within the EU. The EU does not function like this. Time might have passed, but one should recall that in 2008, right after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the Council (GAERC at that time) adopted a Conclusion stating that the EU Member States will take a position on the UDI according to international law and national practice. As such, each Member State was able to state where it stands on this event.
You may also recall that our position on the Kosovo status matter is well known, and it did not prevent us, or the EU as a whole, from approaching the relevant matters for all inhabitants of Kosovo in a status-neutral manner. The Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, which resumed and reached an important agreement on telecommunications in recent weeks, is guided by the same principles and has proved its usefulness for the European integration prospects of both Belgrade and Pristina.