Serbia should continue to stick to its reforms process, to implement all the recommendations and priorities identified and to move forward with a process fully anchored in common European values and principles. The EU will continue to support this process
We are continuously hearing from various levels of the EU that Serbia is progressing well on its European path, but this is to some extent not reflected in the number of open Chapters. Just recently, Serbia opened two new chapters, while Serbian officials state that four or five chapters are ready for opening. We asked the ambassador Sem Fabrizi, Head of the EU Delegation to Serbia whether we should be optimists or pessimists when it comes to the EU accession process.
If there is progress how come that only two new chapters were opened?
— The opening of new chapters is of course always positive news, as this reflects progress in the accession process. In fact, the opening of chapters is a complex task and depends on Serbia’s preparedness, on the status of reforms within that particular chapter, on the level of implementation of the Action Plan and the level of harmonization with EU legal framework, norms and standards. On June 25, the last Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) opened two new chapters. Chapter 33, in particular, is an important step as it deals with the financial and budgetary provisions. All Member States of the EU support these two new chapters. The Serbian government has expressed its appreciation, and its commitment to accession. We should bear in mind that chapters are a negotiating tool. Reforms are the objective. Accession remains a process and intense work needs to continue. Progress is also closely related to reforms in Rule of Law, fundamental to the overall accession process. Serbia has now opened 14 chapters and provisionally closed two. In the second part of 2018 further Accession Conferences will be planned, as appropriate, to take the process forward.
Are you an optimist when it comes to the agreement between Belgrade and Priština? Is there any chance that the deal would be struck by the end of 2018, which is in public seen as a sort of deadline?
— We should remain optimistic and pragmatic. The EU facilitated Dialogue has led over the years to a significant normalization of relations between Belgrade and Priština. Now the normalization is being brought to a comprehensive level. On June 24 Federica Mogherini, High Representative/Vice President of the European Commission, hosted in Brussels a High Level Meeting of the EU-facilitated Dialogue with President Vučić and President Thaçi. It was a productive and intensive discussion on the framework of an agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations between the two sides. The parties agreed to intensify the work in the coming weeks. That said, I have not heard about the deadline you mention except from some media – – it is up to the parties to agree on the speed and timelines on the Dialogue.
How did the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia contributed to the clarification of the standpoints of the EU partners, Belgrade and Priština?
— The Summit had a regional inspiration and dimension helping to put all the elements in a wider regional context. It addressed the many challenges and opportunities that lay in the regional integration process, including on the need to find solutions to normalize relations in the region. The Declaration made clear that good neighborly relations, regional stability, and mutual cooperation are all part of the political mix to progress on the road of the European perspective. This includes finding agreed solutions to bilateral disputes, also through more efforts to reconciliation. In this sense – without referring to specific situations – it made clear that the EU will not import unresolved disputes and that it will continue to support WB in finding and implementing definitive, inclusive and binding solutions to bilateral disputes.
There is a feeling that after the Summit the resolution of that issue is a sort of a game changer for other Western Balkan countries’ prospects for the prospective EU membership. Is that so, or for example Macedonia may become a new forerunner for the membership, if Serbia and Kosovo fail to reach the agreement?
— The Summit was a clear call to all – in the European Union and Western Balkans – to work hard and together to make the European perspective a reality. This perspective includes many converging elements. A call to WB partners for continued commitment to fundamental progress on the rule of law, to establish a resilient market economy to create growth and jobs, to fight against corruption and organized crime, to have good governance, as well as respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities, and reconciliation. A call for effective implementation of reforms in these areas, as there will no shortcuts for accession to the EU. A call on the EU to redouble efforts to support this process and to maintain its doors wide open to this region. The positive and transformative developments we have witnessed in the past two months, notably the historic agreement on the name between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece on June 12, and the European Council decision of June 28 to set a clear path towards opening accession negotiations with Albania and FYROM in June 2019, are clear signs we are all responding to this call.
What the Summit added to our reading of the EC report? Where Serbia needs the press for changes the most?
— The Summit did put in a regional dimension the European Commission report. It underlined that many of the points in the Serbia report are shared with other partners in the WB region and that progress will also be made through regional cooperation and reconciliation. The findings of our Annual Report stand and we have seen that they were largely confirmed by Serbian government, the business sector and civil society. They have also been confirmed in the draft report from the European Parliament – so it is encouraging that there is a shared understanding that the report is factual, objective and fair. More importantly, it should be seen as a tool to stimulate progress across the different sectors of society. You can read from it that we are seeing some progress related to the rule of law, in particular the reform of the judiciary. The Venice Commission released on June 22 its opinion on the reform of the Constitution that Serbia is introducing to increase the independence of the judiciary system, in line with the commitment taken in chapter 23. The government’s pledge to fully implement these recommendations is very important and welcome. It is equally important to ensure maximum transparency and inclusivity in this process, starting with the categories immediately interested by the reform. Serbia is also called to improve its alignment with the EU Common foreign and security policy and to not diverge from the EU common visa policy with which it is expected to progressively align.
Some notable analysts think that the gap in convergence is so deep that the countries of the Western Balkan, Serbia included, should get access to the EU cohesion funds before they become members, like Romania and Bulgaria before them. We know that there is no budget earmarked for countries that will enter membership, but which funds are at hand? What are the sums and the goals we are talking about?
— Serbia is already benefiting from an average of €200 million a year from the Instrument for Pre-Accession funds (IPA). It makes already the European Union by far the biggest donor in Serbia. In addition to the funds that Serbia receives also from the IPA regional envelope, Serbian institutions, organizations, businesses and citizens are eligible for numerous European programs – Horizon 2020, funds for various youth initiatives, Creative Europe for culture, Erasmus and Tempus for education, Cross Border Cooperation programs with its neighbors.Since 2018 Serbia is also beneficiary of a grant of EUR 175 M euros to support farmers and agriculture (IPARD 2). So when we talk about funding from the EU, there are significant and diverse funds available to Serbia. It is important that Serbia continues making good use of them to the benefits of its citizens and to get closer to the EU. The next long-term budget proposed by the European Commission is also good news for Serbia and the Western Balkans region. The Commission has proposed to the EU Member States and the European Parliament to increase its total pre-accession assistance to €14.5 billion. This would represent a 20% increase compared to the current budget period. It would mean more funds for Serbia and the Western Balkans to prepare for EU accession. In addition, this budget has the necessary flexibility to adapt to new accession once candidates are ready to join. This is what was said in the Western Balkans Strategy adopted in February and this is what the EU already experienced when Croatia joined the EU in 2013, with a long-term budget ending in 2014. So, this budget proposal clearly confirms the European Commission’s commitments to Serbia and the Western Balkans. Meanwhile, Serbia is in the process of building necessary capacities and institutions to implement European funds. This is quite a complex and important process and before cohesion or structural funds become available to Serbia, all this mechanisms and institutions, including control and monitoring of the use of European funds need to be in place and fully functional.
Quite often those who see the constitutional changes related to the judiciary as detrimental for the profession, or those who believe that media in Serbia are suffocating in silence, think that the EC should be more vocal on these issues. Do you think that the truly European oriented Serbian experts, civil society and media need more encouragement from your side?
— The annual report on Serbia published in April is objective and clearly pinpoints the areas where more progress is necessary and where more progress are expected from Serbia. As you mentioned judiciary, the Report states that Serbia’s judicial system has some level of preparation to meet European norms and standards. It concluded that some progress has been made, notably by reducing the backlog of old enforcement cases and putting in place measures to harmonize court practice. Improved rules for evaluating professional performance of judges and prosecutors were adopted. The report also noted that the scope for political influence over the judiciary remains a concern. To address it a new draft of amendments to the Constitution in the domain of the judiciary was published in January 2018 and was put forward for public discussion before being sent to the Venice Commission for its opinion. Now that the opinion of the Venice Commission has been released the EU will follow closely – as I said earlier – how the Government will follow the recommendations and re-draft the amendments. On the freedom of expression and media, the Report was also very clear on the lack of progress registered. The report was received generally positively by civil society organizations and journalists’ and media’s representatives. The Report also gave several recommendations what should be prioritized in this area, including for the new strategy for the development of a public information system, and to be prepared in a transparent and inclusive manner. We noted that this particular recommendation has been followed and that the Working Group comprising representatives of the government and representative media and journalists’ associations has started to work in the last weeks. This is certainly a positived evelopment.
If the current warnings of the EC with regards to media freedom didn’t bring much change what tools the EC has to be more persuasive?
— Serbia is negotiating Chapter 23 which covers judiciary and fundamental rights. Freedom of expression is one of these fundamental rights and the progress of negotiations through the chapter will certainly depend also on progress achieved in this area. I already mentioned in the answer to your previous question, that we are seeing some positive movements, notably related to the Media Strategy. It is too early to say which real progress it will achieve. The EU is prepared to help the working group to find solutions in line with European norms and standards.
On the bright side, in which areas is Serbia the pupil who most seriously took the task to become the EU member in 2025?
— The annual report assesses the state of play and progress made and provides recommendations on reforms that Serbia has itself committed to do. This is not a teacher – pupil relationship. As is often and rightly recalled, the objective of the reforms is for the development of Serbia itself, also before the EU accession process. Our report states that some progress has been made in many areas, while of course encouraging Serbia to make further efforts.It is evident that the economic area is scoring the better results: fiscal stability, lower budgetary deficit, growth of external trade. Substantial are the fiscal results, where Serbia moved to a budgetary surplus of 1.2%; an important tool to maintain this stability, possibly also with more stringent fiscal rules. Economic growth is based on sound fundamentals and we are optimistic that it will strengthen in this and the coming years. There are other good news: export expanded, foreign direct investment increased, and improvements were made in the business environment. These have helped to make the EU the first trading and investor for Serbia. It is encouraging that Serbia’s economic growth for 2018 is currently forecasted at 3.5% by the IMF. If we look into the future from this Report on economic issues: Serbia’s focus in the next few years should be on further structural reforms, in particular in public administration, tax authorities, and state-owned enterprises. We also wish to see more efforts in the enforcement of fair competition (in particular state aid), and a reduction of the size of informal economy. The progress on the economic front put forward the recipe for what needs to be done also in other areas, starting with the Rule of Law.
TWO SCENARIOS FOR THE EU – SERBIA RELATIONS
How do you see the best possible scenario for the EU Serbia relations by the years end? How about the one less optimistic?
— The positive scenario for our relations is to continue to remain fully engaged, all of us, and to have the ambition to move forward. Serbia should continue to stick to its reforms process, to implement all the recommendations and priorities identified and to move forward with a process fully anchored in common values and principles. And the EU will continue to support this process. Not only through substantial and long term financial assistance but also through political commitment.