Enlargement remains high on the EU agenda. The trio of presidencies – starting with Romania and continuing with Finland and Croatia – will maintain this priority, says Ambassador Oana-Cristina Popa

The beginning of July saw the culmination of the first Romanian presidency of the EU since the country became a member of the Union. The six-month term ended with a summit of European leaders in the Romanian city of Sibiu, from where a call was sent – on the eve of the then-upcoming election of new people to key leadership posts in EU institutions – insisting that the strengthening of the Union requires a return to the fundamental principles of unity and solidarity. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Popa says that she is convinced that the enlargement policy will remain among the EU’s priorities.

Your Excellency, the first Romanian presidency of the European Union came to an end on 30th June. What do you consider as the greatest achievements of this six-month period?

It has been a very intense six months that mobilised large parts of the public administration and touched the entire society. There’s no better way of learning than by doing. We learned a lot, and we are coming out of this collective experience more mature, more European, more determined, but also more knowledgeable about how to continue bringing our contribution to the European project.

We faced a number of challenges, mainly resulting from Brexit. We achieved a lot at the Sibiu Summit, with its important conclusions restoring the fundamental mission of the EU – convergence and prosperity in Europe. The EU should focus not only on its soft power but also on what it does in its closest and wider neighbourhood. It should promote the Sibiu “spirit of community and spirit of solidarity”.

The main message of the Romanian presidency is obvious – to bring political cohesion back to the top of the agenda because cohesion means solidarity, which means unity and that we stand together against discrimination. We managed a large number of legislative files and dossiers. Among the most important files concluded, we can mention: the Natural Gas Directive, the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market; the Regulation establishing European Labour Authority, the Consumers Package, the Regulations Package on the interoperability of the informatics systems of the EU; the legislative proposal regarding the consolidation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, the Banking Package, the legislative package on the Capital Markets Union, amending the Regulation on the Status and Financing of European Political Parties and Foundations; and Council Conclusions on securing free and fair elections, with a focus on countering disinformation, Council Conclusions on artificial intelligence and Council Conclusions on the 2030 Agenda.

Despite the limited legislative window, due to the timing of the European Parliament elections and the different, sometimes even divergent, interests of EU member states, the Romanian Presidency managed to conclude work on a number of key policy areas that can deliver real benefits for European citizens. This achievement was acknowledged by both EU member states and representatives of European institutions.

As we have succeeded in delivering such important results during a rather short period of time, we are confident that the days to follow will be as important as those that have just passed. We will continue to work diligently with non-legislative files that are equally important and complex, in order to reach our common European objectives.

The year 2025 has been offered as a potential reference point to encourage candidates to redouble their efforts. It is now time for those aspiring to join the EU to make good on the commitments they took on

Romania has strongly advocated EU enlargement and Serbia’s accession. Unfortunately, however, it seems that enlargement is falling in importance on the list of European priorities. A joint declaration from the recent informal summit of European leaders in the Romanian city of Sibiu barely mentioned the possibility of enlargement. How can you explain this?

Allow me to disagree that enlargement is falling in importance. We have built upon the great work done by the two preceding presidencies, of Bulgaria and Austria. Enlargement remains high on the EU agenda. The trio of presidencies – starting with Romania and continuing with Finland and Croatia – will continue this priority.

You have said several times that you believe in the possibility that the next EU enlargement will come in 2025. What needs to happen to make this possible, both in the European Union and in Serbia?

The EU again expressed its commitment in the clearest terms in 2018 and created a window of opportunity that could be taken advantage of by candidates. The year 2025 has been offered as a potential reference point to encourage candidates to redouble their efforts. It is now time for those aspiring to join the EU to make good on the commitments they took on. The Romanian Presidency will continue to play the role of an honest broker for the remaining days until the end of the presidency and will facilitate political decisions in relations with all partners involved in the enlargement process.

We strongly support the European perspective of the Western Balkan region. The tools are in place and the perspective is open. The Commission recently published its annual reports, in which it spelt out what lies ahead. Let me use this opportunity to reiterate Romania’s offer to share experiences from its wide and relevant expertise gained during and after EU accession.

You spoke recently about judicial reform, referring to the Romanian experience. You said then that Romania had a problem adopting a large number of laws from the European agenda that turned out to be inapplicable in practice. Do you think that, in the process of membership negotiations, Serbian authorities and citizens are aware of the importance of fulfilling the conditions of Chapter 23, related to the rule of law and human rights?

Serbia is one of the leading candidates and also plays an important role at the regional level when it comes to the stability of the Western Balkans and its rapprochement to the EU. There are great expectations vis-a-vis Serbia leading by example in the process of approaching the goal of accession.

In this regard, we strongly encourage Serbia to count on Romania’s full support. We have a standing offer to provide our expertise, technical know-how or whatever Serbia feels is useful to support the achieving of standards in fundamental areas of reform. Romania is, again, a good example of the fact that it is the candidate country which sets the pace. As you know, we joined two years after the “historic wave of enlargement”, because we required more time. Hence, with the candidates that followed, the EU placed the fundamentals first principle at the heart of the enlargement process and first opened chapters dealing with the judiciary and fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security.

Thank you for bringing up the dilemma of speed vs. depth in the negotiation process. Allow me to correct and clarify your statement. The pace of progress is not only determined by the speed of adopting EU compliant legislation and adapting the legislative framework to be EU acquis compliant but mostly by developing the capacity to implement new legislation and demonstrate a track record. In this regard, Romania’s experience remains highly relevant for Serbia and we reiterate our offer for Belgrade to make use of that experience.

The latest European Commission progress report for Serbia calls for the “urgent” adoption of a legally-binding agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which is referred to as “crucial” for “progress on the European path”. Considering the current situation on the ground and the suspended dialogue, do you believe that such an agreement can be reached by the end of the year?

Romania has been a constant supporter of the EU facilitated Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, which has a direct impact on Serbia’s EU accession prospects. This is a consequence of the UN General Assembly resolution introduced jointly by Serbia and the EU in 2010. The dialogue is a venue for seeking solutions, evidently through compromise, to questions that in many cases impact on the daily lives of people living in the Kosovo Province.

During his recent visit to Bucharest, the Serbian president thanked the Romanian prime minister for his support regarding Kosovo, which he said had been demonstrated in particular in discussions on Kosovo’s request to join Interpol. Is Romania under pressure to change its position on Kosovo’s independence?

Indeed, the Serbian President had a new opportunity to meet the Romanian Prime Minister, Madame Viorica Dancilă, during a recent High-Level Quadrilateral Meeting hosted in Bucharest in April. On the issue of Kosovo, Romanian’s position is well known and respected by the authorities in Belgrade. It is a principled position based on international law.

How would you assess the level of respect for minority rights in Serbia, especially when it comes to the Romanian minority?

Romania continues to pay close attention to the situation of ethnic Romanians throughout Serbia, and the embassy follows the efforts undertaken by the Serbian authorities, especially when it comes to facilitating access to education, religious services and mass media in the Romanian language. At the same time, people belonging to the Romanian minority are, first and foremost, citizens of Serbia, and the Serbian authorities have the primary role in ensuring all of their rights are provided, including the right to an education in Romanian. In doing so, we encourage members of our minority community to maintain an active and transparent dialogue with the responsible Serbian institutions and to reach agreed solutions to overcome possible issues. From our perspective, it is very important that all Serbian citizens who assume their Romanian identity, regardless of the region in which they live, can enjoy their rights to an education and religious services in their mother tongue, as well as access to mass media and representation in forums of local and national policies.

The Romanian Presidency will continue to play the role of an honest broker for the remaining days until the end of the presidency, and will facilitate political decisions in relations with all partners involved in the enlargement process

Can we already talk about the political and economic effects of the regional quadrilateral – strengthening cooperation among Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece? 

The High-Level Quadrilateral Meeting between Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Serbia has resulted in a number of political agreements to improve the interconnectivity of the four countries. Once implemented, these commitments will contribute to the economic development of our countries. The concept behind this endeavour aims to develop and use synergies and possible joint investments in certain economic areas.

Recent discussions on this initiative included talk of building a motorway from Pančevo to Timisoara. How well developed is this idea?

The project for a high-speed road link between Timisoara and Pančevo was initiated a couple of years ago, during bilateral discussions. Its potential benefits are considerable for the two countries, but also for the region as a whole. Possible sources of funding are being explored at this point.

Are you satisfied with the quality of projects from both the Romanian and Serbian sides that are selected for financing from European funds under the cross-border cooperation programme? How can they contribute to strengthening economic cooperation?

Thank you for this question. Romanian –Serbian IPA funded cross-border cooperation has been identified as one of the most dynamic areas of cooperation of all other EU-funded cross-border bilateral programmes. A variety of areas are covered by IPA cross-border, with evident benefits for communities on both sides of the border. These projects are excellent vehicles to exchange best practises and expertise, and they also bring an important contribution to connecting people.

Do you believe in the joint tourist offer of Romania and Serbia, which may be tested this year with the new “Eco Tamiš” joint project?

The programme plans to attract tourists to the two countries, to familiarise them with the 350km of banks of the Tamiš, a river that’s sourced in Romania and joins the Danube in Serbia. The regional project aimed at attracting tourists to visit the Timiș River Basin is a tangible example of the multiple benefits of cross-border projects. There is unused tourism potential in this beautiful region, and coordinated and complimentary offers by Romania and Serbia not only stimulate local economies and facilitate cooperation at the local level, but also at the inter-state level.

NEIGHBOURHOOD

The EU should focus not only on its soft power but also on what it does in its closest and wider neighbourhood

SUPPORT

Romania has been a constant supporter of the EU facilitated Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, which has a direct impact on Serbia’s EU accession prospects

COOPERATION

Romanian –Serbian IPA funded cross-border
cooperation has been identified as one of the
most dynamic areas of cooperation of all other
EU-funded cross-border bilateral programmes