When it comes to improving the political environment in Serbia, conditions for free and fair elections and a functioning parliamentary culture, the only way forward is dialogue ~ says European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia Vladimir Bilčik in this interview for CorD Magazine
His first engagement in Serbia – as European Parliament Rapporteur – is, coincidentally, to participate in the process of establishing a dialogue between the government and the opposition.
Mr Bilčik, how do you see your engagement in this process, which was initiated by your predecessor, David McAllister?
First of all, I’m very pleased to be fully engaged as European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia. It’s important that we start at full speed with the work that we have to do in the Western Balkans and the region regarding enlargement. When it comes to dialogue, I basically jumped on a train that had already been running for some time and was initiated by my predecessor, David McAllister, in his capacity as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. I was fully engaged in the dialogue when I came to Belgrade in early November, and I see this engagement as an important part of my work, and as an important part of the work of the European Parliament, the aim of which is to produce results by the end of this year; results that will help create a better political environment for dialogue between the government and opposition, and will also create a better environment for elections.
This is the aim and the task with which I came to Belgrade and with which I hope to return to Belgrade. However, my key message in terms of this engagement is that we need to see results on the ground. We also need to see delivery from the government and the opposition in political action in Serbia, and we need to see that political action should concentrate on the National Assembly. The aim of the Members of the European Parliament is to help with the quality of the political dialogue and political culture at the parliamentary level here in Serbia.
The part of the Serbian opposition that has the greatest support of citizens doesn’t believe that a dialogue is possible with the executive government, just as they believe that current media freedoms and regulatory conditions don’t enable fair election conditions. How do you view those stances?
I’m not going to get involved in evaluating positions related to a domestic conflict in Serbia. My main task is to listen to all relevant interlocutors and help all those on the ground in Serbia to find solutions to the current political crisis. This is my task, and that means that everybody has to engage actively in attempts to find solutions, and that includes both the government and the opposition.
Frankly, the only way forward – when it comes to improving the political environment in Serbia when it comes to conditions for free and fair elections when it comes to a functioning parliamentary culture – is a dialogue; the dialogue is the only way. We at the European Parliament will be engaged in dialogue, which we see produces results on the ground and helps to create conditions under which politicians in Serbia can have fair and meaningful competition. That competition should take place, first and foremost, in the National Assembly and, of course, in free and fair elections.
How do you see the current state of media freedom in Serbia?
I will say two things: one is that, yes, I’m new to the position, but I’ve been following developments in candidate countries for years and I did read the latest European Commission Report on Serbia with some concern. This Report is publicly available and it points to serious issues that must be improved when it comes to the position of the media and when it comes to fair access to media for all relevant stakeholders in Serbian politics.
The main reference point here is and will be for me, the Commission’s evaluation. I also want to underline that I come from an EU member state, Slovakia, which just last year saw the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was murdered in February 2018 together with his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The position of journalists, freedom of the media and freedom of the press is not just issue in Slovakia, but also across the EU following the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, and this is something that we monitor very closely and that represents an important part of the commitments that we expect candidate countries to fulfil in the run-up to their EU accession.
The position of journalists, freedom of the media and freedom of the press are not just issues in Slovakia, but also across the EU … this is something that we monitor very closely and that represents an important part of the commitments that we expect candidate countries to fulfil
What have you underlined as the priorities of your mandate as European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia?
My priority is to be fully engaged in conversation with partners in Serbia and to be an active, visible and fair voice on behalf of Serbia’s European perspectives in the European Parliament.
I will not only be regularly drafting reports on Serbia’s policies and the state of affairs in the European Parliament, but rather I will also be communicating actively on enlargement, on Serbia’s work towards EU membership, and also on Serbia’s important domestic tasks that need to be fulfilled in order for us to see progress towards EU accession.
You’ve announced that you will strive to help Serbia speed up its European integration. Is this even possible, considering that there is a strong current within the EU that advocates for a break in accessions until the implementation of internal EU reforms?
Internal reforms in Serbia are the key to advancement to EU accession, particularly on issues that deal with the rule of law, the quality of democracy, media freedom and a number of other issues related to standards that are typical for EU member states. All of this needs to be fulfilled in Serbia, and this is an important part of the domestic homework for Serbia. This also applies to other candidate countries from the Western Balkans; the same goes for Montenegro and others with which I hope we will soon be able to open negotiations, particularly North Macedonia and Albania. The criteria is the same for everyone and should remain as such, and the only way to fulfil this is to deliver on the domestic front in candidate countries, including Serbia. And, yes, we are having discussions on enlargement.
My position has always been that enlargement has been the most successful tool of the EU to make lasting change in its neighbourhood. Since 1989, Europe’s history has been a history of success thanks largely to successful rounds of enlargement. The EU has transformed fundamentally by increasing the number of member states and spreading stability, democracy, peace and prosperity to a much larger part of Europe, including my own country.
As such, I see enlargement as a success story and I think this story must continue in the Western Balkans and I will certainly fight for that. There are many other supportive voices in the EU that see in this way. I think that one of the good things about the unfortunate decision not to open EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in October is that we are once again having a very intensive political debate about the EU’s enlargement policy at the highest political level. I hope that we are going to be able to find answers that will not only clarify certain issues within the EU but will also fundamentally underline the fact that we cannot change the rules of the game that we started a number of years ago with Serbia, but also with other partners in the Western Balkans. Our partners were promised that their only future is in the EU and that we will help them fulfil the difficult tasks of the EU accession process.
On the other hand, in your opinion, how could Serbia accelerate the opening of accession negotiation chapters?
I think that the best way to accelerate the opening of those chapters is to really close some of the chapters that have already been opened, and this is something that relates to domestic reforms, domestic change and delivery on the ground. I think that the latest European Commission Report was clear in asserting that there is a lot more Serbia can do domestically to deliver on that front; to be true to its political goal of being a country that is fully committed to its European perspective. We need to see more drive on the domestic front, so we can move closer to closing several chapters provisionally. Once that momentum continues to be maintained, I think there will be space to open more negotiation chapters.
Let me also say that, on the EU side, I think we need to see a lot more political commitment to enlargement. The enlargement was not a priority for the previous European Commission. Jean- Claude Juncker said early in his mandate that it wouldn’t be the Commission of enlargement.
We at the European Parliament are going to vote this week on the new European Commission and President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, the new leader of the European Commission, has stated repeatedly that this is going to be a geopolitical Commission, while she has also sent clear political signals about the importance of enlargement to include the Western Balkans to her personally, and I am convinced that this means a lot to her Commission. I believe we also need to see much more political engagement on the EU side when it comes to EU accession negotiations and making progress on negotiations. My basic point is that, if and when Serbia indeed delivers on the various chapters, we in the EU should be ready to award the price for delivery, which is ultimately the provisional closing of chapters we’ve been negotiating. It is extremely important that we have good will on both sides, which needs to be underpinned by credible results on Serbia’s internal reforms.
I think that one of the good things about the unfortunate decision not to open EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in October is that we are once again having a very intensive political debate about the EU’s enlargement policy at the highest political level
What do you think about the Serbian President’s regional ‘Mini Schengen’ initiative, which proposes closer ties between the countries of the Western Balkans?
I personally welcome any initiative that fosters regional cooperation. Regional cooperation was extremely important in the cases of previous enlargements, particularly in the case of my own country, Slovakia, and the Visegrád Group cooperation. That was a very important vehicle for our own ability to catch up with our neighbours in our accession negotiations in the early part of the last decade before we joined the EU in 2004. I see any attempt at regional cooperation that aims to foster the European prospects of the region as a welcome sign, and I think this is fundamental. When it comes to ‘Mini Schengen’,
I think we still need to hear more details about it and I will be happy to discuss this issue with leaders in Serbia and the region. I want to underline that the ultimate aim of Serbia is, of course, to one day join Schengen, so the ‘Mini Schengen’ and respective steps connected to this initiative should be complementary with the aim of European integration, and not progress contrary to the goal of joining the EU; it shouldn’t in any way be an attempt to create an alternative project, but rather should help speed up the process of European integration in the region. As long as this happens, I think we can all welcome it in the European Union, but it is, of course, too early to evaluate, because it is a regional initiative. As such, we will watch closely to see what happens on the ground and what results it brings.
You’ve spoken about the importance of resuming the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Do you believe that it could be possible to revive the old Brussels format of discussions?
Quite frankly, I think we need to revive the dialogue. Whatever format leads to the revival of the dialogue will be welcomed in the EU. With a new Commission, a new High Representative and new political leadership in Kosovo, we perhaps need to find new ways of approaching this dialogue. But the dialogue must continue regardless, as it’s another important part of Serbia’s political engagement towards EU membership, in addition to domestic reforms. It is really up to the interlocutors on the ground in the region to find the most suitable form of the dialogue, but it’s also the task of the EU to make sure that the dialogue is serious and focused on producing results. I was happy to hear, for instance, that the new enlargement commissioner wants to be engaged in this dialogue in an important way, as well as new High Representative Josep Borrell, and, of course, I know that this is also going to be an issue for the incoming President of the European Commission.
We at the European Parliament stand ready to be engaged in any way, and I think that we can help in the parliamentary dimension of the dialogue. Ultimately, whatever is agreed between Pristina and Belgrade will need to be implemented, and it will have to be implemented by the political stakeholders and parliaments in both cities, and in that sense I also see the potential for the European Parliament to play a greater role in dialogue and for the parliamentary dimension to be at the forefront of the dialogue once we start seeing results and delivery on the ground. However, the main thing now is to see how we can quickly relaunch this dialogue and how quickly we can use the window of opportunity.
Certain analysts consider that the break in the dialogue and the placing of a focus on issues such as the possible partition of Kosovo and mutual recognition actually indicate that the dialogue has been taken over by other centres and has moved away from Brussels. Do you believe that, in future, this dialogue should more transparently or more actively include the involvement of the U.S. and perhaps Russia, China etc.?
I think that the key parts of the dialogue are in Belgrade and Pristina. Of course, when we talk about the solutions, they have to be based on certain principles that are accepted, especially by the EU, but also by the wider international community. Those principles have to follow the principles of international law and the overall goals of sustainable and peaceful solutions.
The key to agreement really lies in an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, and I think that – in terms of the EU – it’s important to be heavily engaged, to ensure that we utilise the opportunity that we have to foster dialogue. I think we have to be much more focused on dialogue and that this is the key to its relaunch, given the fresh political wind that we have in Brussels today. I am convinced this is something that we will be following very closely, and I will be doing my part here in the European Parliament. This is an important aspect of stability in the Western Balkans, but it is also an important aspect of the steps that need to be taken by Serbia to resolve some important issues on its journey to European Union membership.
The key to agreement really lies in agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, and I think that – in terms of the EU – it’s important to be heavily engaged, to ensure that we utilise the opportunity that we have to foster dialogue
Given that you hail from Slovakia – a country that’s friendly to Serbia and hasn’t recognised the independence of Kosovo – how will you respond to the question that’s already being posed to you regarding whether you will be objective in your reports on Serbia?
Let me say three things on that. One is that Slovakia has friendly relations with every country in the Western Balkans, including the administration in Kosovo. We are one of the five EU member states that didn’t recognise Kosovo, but we in Slovakia believe that the future of the whole region lies in its European perspective and, ultimately, in EU membership, so in essence we always approach political relations very constructively and will continue to do so. Secondly, I have the mandate of a Slovak Member of the European Parliament and I represent the European Parliament.
I will follow the tasks diligently and also use my experience of working on enlargement over the past 20 years, as well as my political engagements with partners in the region, to show that we at the European Parliament are duly committed to the European perspectives of Serbia and the whole region, and I will do this in a very open, honest and fair way. The third remark to go with this is that, as you know, good friends tell each other the truth, so I will not only be very engaged with partners in Serbia, but I will also be very honest about numerous issues, including the difficult ones that have to be delivered and achieved on Serbia’s road to the European Union.
Everybody has to engage actively in attempts to find solutions, and that includes both the government and the opposition
My position has always been that enlargement has been the most successful tool of the EU to make lasting change in its neighbourhood
Given the strenuous and major political reforms implemented by North Macedonia and Greece and the reforms conducted by Albania, they shouldn’t have been so easily undermined and somehow put “on hold”