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I cannot emphasise enough the responsibility of all politicians in Serbia to avoid inflammatory language and to counter hate speech, aggravating social divisions and disinformation in the media, especially during the electoral campaign – Tanja Fajon

Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon, who chairs the European Parliament Delegation to Serbia, wrote recently that Serbia could be the next country to become an EU member state, though she said that this primarily depends on politicians in Serbia. Their readiness to implement comprehensive reforms that would bring Serbia into alignment with European standards has also been tested over the past few months, during the political dialogue on electoral conditions.

CorD Magazine’s interlocutor, who participated in this process together with colleagues from the European Parliament, says that progress has been made at the level of laws and regulations, but it remains to be seen whether the agreed improvements in electoral conditions will be implemented in practice. As a former journalist, Fajon is particularly concerned about the media situation in Serbia.

Ms Fajon, Serbia is now entering a preelection period, with elections coming up at the national, provincial and local levels. Given that you participated as part of the team of the European Parliament in political dialogue on fair and free elections, do you believe that the voting in April will be in line with European standards?

At the end of the three rounds of the Inter-Party Dialogue in December 2019, we concluded with a list of 17 recommendations to be implemented before the start of the electoral campaign. We recognise that progress has been made, but the real and qualitative implementation of these measures to improve conditions for elections can only be assessed once the electoral campaign has started and the bodies responsible for the management of the elections, including the REC, REM and Supervisory Board, are fulfilling their mandates and reporting in a timely and transparent way. Although time is running out before the start of the electoral campaign, more can still be done to improve the overall trust and conditions for holding elections, especially in the area of the media.

At the end of your mission to Serbia that was dedicated to addressing election conditions, EU Enlargement Commissioner Várhelyi said that all conditions have been met for fair and free elections. It seems you didn’t entirely agree with such an assessment?

As I said, some progress has been made, but more can still be done, especially in the area of the media. Improving the media sector and the effective regulation of public broadcasters is essential in order to create a level playing field for all political forces, as well as an atmosphere free of intimidation for all, including journalists and the Serbian electorate. I continue to hear the concerns of opposition forces regarding unfair access and coverage, biased media reporting and editorials, abusive language, intimidation and even hate speech. 

At the end of the three rounds of the Inter-Party Dialogue in December 2019, we concluded with a list of 17 recommendations to be implemented before the start of the electoral campaign

You’ve spoken repeatedly about media freedom as a key precondition for freedom of choice. How would you rate the degree of media freedom in Serbia?

The need to address concerns about the media remains in our focus and will be a key area for further monitoring as the European Parliament prepares to take part as an observer in the framework of the ODIHR’s International Election Observation Mission.

I share my concerns with almost 300,000 viewers who have lost access to the N1 TV Channel recently. I’m a former journalist myself and believe strongly that there can be no free democracy without free and pluralistic media. I hear too often that there are signs of captured media and captured state, and I take these concerns of citizens seriously. I feel responsible to all Serbian citizens to do everything in my power, as Chair of the EU – Serbia parliamentary committee, to support Serbia on its path of European reforms and its future in the EU.

You’ve said that changes to the Electoral Law which lowered the electoral threshold were “dangerous tactics”. What do you think could be the reason for such tactics?

I can only underline that international best practices, such as those established by the Venice Commission, advise against major changes in the electoral framework so close to elections, especially if they have not been subjected to broad consultations and consensus-building.

Tanja Fajon

All Serbian citizens need to feel confident in the electoral framework and that every effort has been made to build that consensus across society, especially if major changes are to be proposed and implemented. Look at any game-changing the rules just ahead of the start of the game can cause distrust among players.

You faced criticism during your February visit with regard to some of your stances on the situation in Serbia, with that criticism coming from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) majority in the National Assembly of Serbia. You invited Speaker of the Parliament Maja Gojković to address a situation that you consider as “hate speech”. Has there been any additional communication on that topic?

I am a politician, and I know that such statements are used mostly for domestic political campaigning. Still, I cannot emphasise enough the responsibility of all politicians in Serbia to avoid inflammatory language and to counter hate-speech, aggravating social divisions and disinformation in the media, especially during the electoral campaign. We will continue to pay particular attention to the media environment and the conduct of politicians in public and through the media.

The need to address concerns about the media remains in our focus and will be a key area for further monitoring as the European Parliament prepares to take part as an observer in the framework of the ODIHR’s International Election Observation Mission

Part of the Serbian opposition has declared a boycott and will not respond to your calls to participate in the elections. Why do you find this political strategy unacceptable?

Tanja Fajon

I urged the opposition several times to carefully consider their decision to boycott the elections. Along with my European Parliament Colleague Bilčík, we have already underlined the fact that even more could have been achieved if the opposition had engaged fully in the Inter-Party Dialogue, in the form of recommendations to improve electoral conditions. The only way to guarantee political representation to their constituents is by engaging in the political and electoral process.

I, therefore, regret the decision of those that have announced a boycott, for different reasons.

Firstly, I wished to see a united democratic and pro-European opposition taking part in this April’s elections and, secondly, I feel that we failed them even though we’ve done some hard work. Nevertheless, there is some progress on their side, and I hope it will continue. We will certainly follow developments, both now and after the elections.

How would you respond to warnings that the boycott of the opposition with the largest support among citizens and a reduction of the electoral threshold runs the risk of creating the illusion of democracy in the Serbian National Assembly?

I remain concerned that strong divisions also still exist on the assessment of whether conditions for holding the elections are improving or not.

During our recent meeting in Belgrade, we urged the government not to waste any time and to fully implement its commitments in order for Serbia’s citizens to have greater confidence in the integrity of the electoral framework. As I said, the European Parliament is preparing to take part as an observer in the framework of the ODIHR’s International Election Observation Mission.

In one recently published editorial opinion piece, you wrote that Serbia could be the next country to enter the EU. On what is the realising of that prediction most dependent?

Serbia could be the next country to enter the EU, but that does not necessarily mean it will be. Both Serbia and Montenegro were mentioned as the front-runners in the last EC enlargement report. However, the ball is in the court of the Serbian politicians. The country has so far opened 18 of 35 chapters. I hope the new enlargement methodology will bring new dynamism to the accession process and speed up the necessary reforms, in order for Serbia to join the EU as soon as possible. I still remember the joy of citizens when we managed to abolish visas for them to travel to the Schengen area. That was one of the many tangible steps on the European path that can truly improve people’s lives.

The EU and its member states are still the biggest donors in the region, and together we can better address the challenges of this century, such as climate change, security, terrorism, migration, trade wars etc. For me, that is the only right way forward. There can be no scenario ‘B’

The European Western Balkans portal has listed you among the politicians who will decide the fate of the Western Balkan region in 2020. Would such a “mandate” cause you to rejoice, or is this region too difficult a job for European politicians?

I am honoured, but it is a challenge and a responsibility. I’m a very passionate supporter of EU enlargement to encompass the Western Balkans. I’ve been dealing with the process for almost two decades – since my own country, Slovenia, was in the waiting room. 

Tanja Fajon

The countries and peoples of this region are very close to my heart. They have great potential and knowledge; I admire many young and brave people and am strongly convinced that they deserve a better future. We all share our European values; we are all Europeans and need to rebuild our bridges in the region; we need to reconcile, to fight nationalism and ethnic or religious disputes.

We are all responsible for peace and stability in our region, and especially for the dignity and well-being of our citizens. How would you respond to the growing sense that it is not the EU, but rather the U.S, Russia or even China that play the key role in the Balkans? The Western Balkans has become a playground of different, strategic geopolitical interests, partly due to the absence of a strong and unified European voice in the region. We wasted too much time in the past as a result of our own crisis and problems, and we failed to deliver on promises. We now have a chance to take a leading role again. We can prove our commitment to the Western Balkans by giving the green light to the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, and the lifting of visas for Kosovo. We also won’t forget that the Western Balkans is part of Europe and always has been and will be. The EU and its member states are still the biggest donors in the region, and together we can better address the challenges of this century, such as climate change, security, terrorism, migration, trade wars etc.

How do you see the role of the European Parliament in the new approach to negotiations on EU membership proposed by the European Commission?

I am glad to see that many of our S&D proposals were integrated into the new methodology. We called for a stronger focus on sector-based integration on economic and social issues, but also on climate issues.

We managed to ensure that all Western Balkan countries will be represented in the next conference on the Future of Europe.

Moreover, we will continue reporting on the enlargement progress of all accession countries. We will continue to be a direct link with citizens in the countries of the Western Balkans. Moreover, we will remain a watchdog of our institutions and governments to deliver on promises – as we did when the EU made a historic mistake last October with Skopje and Tirana, by calling on them to correct the decision immediately. 

The aforementioned list of politicians who will have a decisive impact on the Western Balkans also includes the French President. Do you believe that Emmanuel Macron will give the green light to continuing the European integration of the Balkans and that all EU member states will support the new methodology for negotiations?

I am cautiously optimistic. We have proof that swift political decisions are possible. The new methodology is adopted to please the concerned EU governments. In addition, we are receiving positive signals from Paris. March is already here, and the Council will have to prove how serious and committed it is when it comes to the Western Balkans. There are domestic political issues in the Netherlands and Denmark, but it is now or never. We need a strong EU and a strong Western Balkans; we need to rebuild trust in our policies and this year could be a good one for enlargement.

REFORMS

I feel responsible to all Serbian citizens to do everything in my power, as Chair of the EU – Serbia parliamentary committee, to support Serbia on its path of European reforms and its future in the EU

PARTNER

The new Commission is trying to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution as integrated challenges. Such an approach will make an enormous difference

PLAYGROUND

The Western Balkans has become a playground of different, strategic geopolitical interests, partly due to the absence of a strong and unified European voice in the region