In spite of Brexit and the turbulence it created in the EU, Germany remains dedicated to fulfilling the Thessaloniki promise – bringing all of the Western Balkans into the EU, says H.E. Axel Dittmann, adding that such a commitment was reaffirmed in the framework of the Berlin Process at the conference in Paris this summer.
You recently attended the presentation of the programme of the new Government of Serbia. The importance of relations with Germany was referred to repeatedly in the keynote address. How do you see future cooperation?
Germany is, and will continue to be, an honest and reliable partner to Serbia. Our relations are excellent. The best indicator of our good political relations is the numerous visits of German politicians to Serbia: Since my arrival, Chancellor Merkel came to visit and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Belgrade twice, as did many other high-ranking officials, including the President of the Federal Constitutional Court. Just recently, our State Minister for European Affairs, Michael Roth, paid a two days visit to Serbia. German and Serbian officials work together closely on many issues. One recent example is the refugee crisis, during which Serbia reacted very responsibly. Germany also supports regional cooperation through the Berlin Process. Serbia and Germany cooperate closely in the field of the economy. German companies are very interested in the Serbian market: this is exemplified by the fact that more than 350 German businesses have invested more than 1.8 billion euros over the past 16 years, thus creating 31,000 jobs.
However, relations between our two countries go much further than just the areas of politics and business. We enjoy broad cultural exchange: Let’s take as an example the on-going Bitef Festival, in which two German companies are participating; a German conductor will be leading the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra this season; DJs are constantly collaborating and several dance groups have linked up successfully. Finally, there is the human factor, of course, with nearly 300,000 Serbs living in Germany.
If you ask me how these close relationships may develop in the future, I can only say that I hope we will not only maintain, but also sustain the successes achieved thus far and that even more German companies will discover Serbia as a partner and that there will be an increasing exchange on all levels.
The fact that the normalisation process has to advance in parallel with the accession process is nothing new. This was agreed in the Negotiation Framework between Serbia and the 28 EU Member States in January 2014
Your compatriot David McAllister insists on the urgent harmonisation of Serbia’s foreign policy with that of the EU, especially in terms of sanctions against Russia. Do you consider that to be a priority?
As I mentioned, we already collaborate closely with Serbia on many foreign policy issues. For example, Serbia is an active partner in EU peacekeeping missions, e.g. in Mali. We also strongly welcome Serbia’s efforts to develop regional cooperation. The main strategic goal of Serbian foreign policy is to become a member of the EU. This has been stressed many times by the Serbian government. Facts and figures support this decision: 65 per cent of Serbia’s foreign trade is with EU member states. The EU is also the largest investor in Serbia. Serbia has, and should have, good relations with other countries as well, including the traditionally good relations with Russia. However, since the strategic decision was made to join the EU, which is a community of shared values, including a common foreign policy, progressive alignment with the EU’s foreign policy will be necessary as the accession process advances. When becoming a member of the EU, Serbia’s foreign policy will have to be fully aligned with that of the EU, as in all other parts of the joint EU legislation.
On the eve of the opening of chapters 23 and 24, messages arrived from Germany insisting that the opening of each subsequent chapter will require evidence of further progress in the dialogue with Pristina. Is that the official position and what is expected?
The fact that the normalisation process has to advance in parallel with the accession process is nothing new. This was agreed in the Negotiation Framework between Serbia and the 28 EU Member States in January 2014. At the end of these parallel processes, and before Serbia’s accession to the EU, there needs to be a legally binding agreement on the comprehensive normalisation of relations. This is the benchmark. However, this normalisation process is primarily being done in order to improve living conditions for citizens in Serbia and Kosovo.
The EU is much more than a common market. Its real strength is that it unites different cultures and traditions that share the same values: the values of human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights
Why does the Serbian public view with distrust the numerous statements that recognition of Kosovo’s independence is not a condition for Serbia’s entry into the EU? Research on citizens’ views shows that they expect just the opposite. Finally, that is spoken about openly by some of your colleagues in Brussels and Germany.
As I noted above, the normalisation process needs to end with a legally binding agreement on the comprehensive normalisation of relations. This is part of the negotiation framework. This document is available online and anybody who is interested can have a look at the relevant passages. There are no other hidden conditions.
In your opinion, how much will Brexit slow down the EU enlargement process for the countries of the Western Balkans?
Brexit and EU-enlargement are two different processes that should be addressed separately. Germany is, and will continue to be, dedicated to fulfilling the Thessaloniki promise: The perspective for all Western Balkan countries to become members of the EU when they meet the political and economic requirements. The EU perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans has recently been reaffirmed in the framework of the Berlin Process at the conference in Paris.
The outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom is, of course, disappointing. I am nonetheless convinced that the EU will remain strong, that it will continue to be the basis for prosperity and the good future of its citizens. It is, after all, the biggest internal market in the world and, as such, offers excellent conditions for businesses and customers. It also offers great job and study opportunities to its citizens who can freely move, study and work across the EU.
Yet, the EU is much more than a common market. Its real strength is that it unites different cultures and traditions that share the same values: the values of human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Being different countries, EU members do not necessary have to agree about everything when they start discussing an issue. But it is because they share a common set of values that disagreements between them can be solved around the conference table through dialogue and discussion among members.
Are you worried about new tensions in the region and the deterioration of relations between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia?
For Germany, it is very important that the region cooperates successfully and makes progress towards the EU. With this goal in mind, three years ago Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier initiated the so-called “Berlin Process”, an annual conference bringing together the countries of the Western Balkan Region, where concrete joint projects and cooperation with the EU are discussed. These conferences, which have already taken place in Berlin, Vienna and Paris, have brought substantial progress to regional economic and cultural relations: tangible agreements in the field of infrastructure have been settled, and the regional youth office has been established.
Western Balkan countries have had a turbulent recent history and it is precisely because of this history that conferences like the Berlin Process are of such importance. Connecting young people and bringing together ministers around one conference table is an important step for WB-countries towards dealing with their past and inventing their future together. In order to foster good-neighbourly relations, it seems very important to me to solve open bilateral issues between neighbours in the Balkans. At the same time, it is our firm view that bilateral issues have to be separate from the EU accession process, where the benchmark is the EU acquis.
I am convinced that we can expand our cooperation even more if Serbia continues to further improve its business climate. 2016 is Serbia’s year of the entrepreneur. This is a further incentive for efficient and thorough reform of the economic and legal sectors
Judging by several indicators, Germany is challenging other countries, such as Italy, in being ranked as Serbia’s number one trade and investment partner. What position do the Balkans and Serbia occupy when it comes to German plans for spreading its industrial base?
Serbia is a crucial economic partner located in the middle of Europe along key infrastructure corridors. Trade and investment are important pillars of our bilateral relations. Germany has been one of Serbia’s key trading partners in the region for years. In 2015, the trade volume grew to over €3.5 billion. Additionally, the activity level of German companies in Serbia is stronger than ever. The companies range from relatively small SMEs to large factories. I am convinced that we can expand our cooperation even more if Serbia continues to further improve its business climate. 2016 is Serbia’s year of the entrepreneur. This is a further incentive for efficient and thorough reform of the economic and legal sectors.
For Serbia, €1.8 billion worth of German investments is a significant sum, but is still far less than the amounts attracted by many of the neighbouring countries. What currently impedes the further expansion of German investments in Serbia?
Investment is expanding every year. According to a survey conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce, 90 per cent of German firms would invest in Serbia again. We welcome the important economic and fiscal consolidation reforms of the last years; it is important that these reforms will continue. However, the prerequisite to achieving even faster expansion of investment is further improvement of the legal framework, including investment security, which again has reference to the development of the rule of law. Companies need stable investment conditions, reliability and continuity. If Serbia makes substantial progress in the rule of law chapters 23 and 24, it will be able to attract even more investments.
Within this overall cooperation that will continue, the German- Serbian Initiative for Sustainable Growth and Employment will focus primarily on private sector development, structural and legal framework enforcement and employability
Where do you see the priorities of the reform process for Serbia’s new government?
First and foremost, and I am glad that the government in its programme, as presented to Parliament, has placed an emphasis on achieving further steps in the area of rule of law. Together with the EU, Serbia has developed very detailed action plans in this area. One thing here is legal amendments, e.g. in order to ensure the independence, impartiality and efficiency of the Judiciary and to prosecute corruption cases more effectively. The other, even more important aspect is the implementation of these laws.
There are, of course, also other important reform priorities. The previous government implemented many economic reforms and this process must be continued, including the privatisation of state enterprises and public administration reform.
Overall, Serbia has embarked on an important reform process within the EU accession process. However, it is important to underline that these reform measures are not being undertaken for the sake of the EU, but rather in order to improve the lives of citizens in Serbia.
How could the German-Serbian Initiative for Sustainable Growth and Employment help this cause?
German-Serbian economic cooperation exists and is active in numerous sectors, like sustainable economic development, good governance or the environment. Since the year 2000, we have supported projects in Serbia with financial means of over €1.6 billion. Within this overall cooperation that will continue, the German-Serbian Initiative for Sustainable Growth and Employment will focus primarily on private sector development, structural and legal framework enforcement and employability. Of particular importance is German-Serbian cooperation in the field of vocational training and projects to foster entrepreneurship and the establishment of SMEs in Serbia.
Having all of this in mind, the German-Serbian Initiative will be an additional platform for support of the ongoing reform process in Serbia.
What consequences do you expect from the new wave of refugees heading into EU countries, especially after recent events in Turkey and sharp messages passed between Brussels and Ankara?
The EU-Turkey Agreement was a very important achievement. It needs to be continuously implemented – by both sides. That is not only in the interest of Germany and Europe, but also in the interest of Turkey. As a result of this agreement, the number of refugees who take the life-threatening route across the Aegean Sea, and then across the Balkan route, has decreased drastically. We highly appreciate the constructive and humanitarian stance Serbia has taken on the refugee crisis. This is yet another example where Germany, the EU and Serbia cooperate successfully in a challenging environment.