Dr Miro Cerar, Slovenian Minister of Foreign Affairs: Encouragement for further reforms

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We honestly expect Serbia to continue with due dedication the process of reforms as well as the adoption of, and respect for, the EU acquis, thus progressing on its path towards the European Union.

The primary goals of Slovenia’s foreign policy are to ensure peace, security, prosperity and good bilateral relations, to work towards a strong European Union and a strong multilateral system, as well as to consolidate Slovenia’s international standing,” says dr Miro Cerar Slovenian Minister of foreign affairs. “When stating Slovenia’s main foreign policy priorities, we can still quote from the Declaration on Foreign Policy of the Republic of Slovenia adopted by the National Assembly, and the Foreign Policy Strategy adopted by the Government of the Republic of Slovenia in July 2015”. Slovenia is one of the world’s safest countries, states our interlocutor, but this is not a given, as Slovenia’s security requires an active foreign policy, responsive to the changing international and security circumstances. NATO forms the foundation of Slovenia’s national security. In terms of development and in the context of EU policies, it is particularly important that Slovenia be included in the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), as the TEN-T is closely connected to Slovenia’s central geographical location and the Port of Koper, and linked with the Baltic–Adriatic Corridor, and consequently with Slovenia’s location in the Alps-Adriatic-Danube region as well as in Central Europe and the Mediterranean. These geopolitical areas, representing Slovenia’s key markets and a common cultural area, will be in the focus of Slovenia’s foreign policy,” says Mr Cerar.

How important was Slovenia’s membership in the EU for realisation of the country’s national foreign policy priorities?

EU membership in itself was one of Slovenia’s main foreign policy goals. Following EU accession, Slovenia’s foreign-policy goals and priorities were slightly adapted to the new reality, as some new membership-related goals and priorities had to be set. Therefore, two of the main goals are enhancing Slovenia’s visibility and reputation in the EU, and its positioning at the core of the integrated and enlarged European Union.

For Slovenia, as a small country, the European Union is a framework facilitating the attainment of certain foreign policy goals. Broadly speaking, the EU is vital for ensuring peace and security, as well as the prosperity of Slovenian citizens. Membership of the EU, with its common market and almost 500 million consumers, as well as a number of foreign trade agreements, is invaluable for Slovenia’s export-oriented economy.

How would you assess the progress that the región, and by that Serbia, has made in the European integration process?

Slovenia is a staunch supporter of Western Balkan countries on their path towards EU membership. Slovenia’s has always been clear: progress, the observance of standards and, consequently, stability in the region are in our vital interest. We offer our continuous political support to the countries of the region, within the structures of the Council, through bilateral contacts with other EU Member States and, more concretely, through the engagement of Slovenian experts, as we are well aware that the EU enlargement process is the most efficient tool for ensuring the stability and progress of the region. I am therefore very happy that the EU’s commitment to the enlargement process was reaffirmed by the adoption of the new Enlargement Strategy in February and by the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Sofia in May. I believe that the EU, along with its clearly defined standards, requirements and expectations, must retain its credibility and adopt political decisions when the conditions for this are met.

To be more specific, with regard to Serbia’s EU rapprochement, I would like to stress that in Brussels as well as within EU institutions, I have always reaffirmed Slovenia’s position that, given the necessary reform progress, especially the rule of law, sustained dynamics of the negotiation process must be supported. I would like to point out that it is important to open those negotiating chapters for which the European Commission determines that the conditions are technically met.

A while ago, the Slovenian Government and National Assembly gave their consent to opening three new chapters, namely Financial services, Economic and monetary policy and Statistics. We honestly expect Serbia to continue with due dedication the process of reforms as well as the adoption of, and respect for, the EU acquis, thus progressing on its path towards the European Union. The quality of reforms and their implementation are key indicators of a successful EU integration process.

Is it realistic to expect for the next enlargement wave to take place in 2025 in the light of the current developments in Europe?

Slovenia has been advocating the enlargement process and stressing the importance of its credibility. However, to speak of the exact dates of the next round of enlargement is meaningless, as the process is not a matter of dates, but content. Prior to accession, candidate countries must meet all the conditions for membership and conclude accession negotiations. Slovenia is in favour of the idea of using the year 2025 as the reference year for the next round of enlargement, so that candidate countries can have a time frame for preparing action plans to implement all the necessary legislative and economic reforms. However, the actual date of the next enlargement depends primarily on the candidate countries themselves, and it is up to the EU and its Member States to give the process credibility and match the candidates’ concrete progress with concrete steps.

What foreign policy topics are you and your Serbian counterparts focusing on?

Slovenia and Serbia hold regular political dialogue. In addition to regular meetings of presidents, the two countries also hold traditional joint sessions of prime ministers with ministerial delegations. Certain line ministries also engage in political dialogue, and regular consultations are held at the expert level. Many topics are discussed, as – in addition to bilateral relations and monitoring progress in the implementation of the Agreement on Succession Issues – representatives of the two countries address topical international issues. The situation in the region, where Slovenia sees Serbia as one of the important players, is most certainly a focus of attention.

What is your view of China’s bigger engagement in the region?

I view China’s engagement in the Western Balkan region as a pragmatic move. China continues to implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which forms the basis for establishing its reputation as a promoter of globalisation and free trade. The Initiative involves strengthening infrastructure connectivity and enhancing cooperation in other areas with different parts of the world, including the Western Balkan countries. Regarding regional connectivity, China – with its infrastructure projects (railways, bridges, acquisitions of large industrial facilities, roads), backed by funding, largely in the form of unconditional and easily accessible loans – has established a strong position with which it is hard to compete. The connectivity that interests China in the region is primarily related to the transport infrastructure that will connect the Port of Piraeus with Central Europe.

China is thus filling a gap in terms of investment in and development of vitally important infrastructure projects. As part of this, the 16+1 initiative was formed a while ago, bringing together eleven EU Member States and five Western Balkan countries: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The credit exposure of the countries of the region to China is increasing, and at the same time, by acquiring ownership of large industrial facilities (ironworks, mines) China is relieving social pressures and boosting economic growth by ensuring investments and continued production. Certain South-Eastern Asian and Pacific countries, as well as some African countries, are already showing signs of the negative effects of Chinese funding. From the EU point of view, Chinese investments and infrastructure projects in the region might also be questionable in terms of environmental standards.

In the framework of Europe-Asia cooperation (ASEM) and with a view to connecting the two continents even more closely, a platform has been created to establish greater connectivity, particularly in transport, as well as digital and energy connections, both physical and institutional, which are necessary for the interoperability of systems, customs cooperation, trade measures and environmental protection. The platform is also intended to enhance people-to-people contacts through exchanges in education, research, innovations, culture and tourism. This is a wide-ranging initiative, which also involves cooperation in the Western Balkans. The European side clearly underlines the importance of respecting the principles of international trade and other international legal norms. The EU promotes the concept of connectivity based on sustainable development and renewable energy sources, and on respect for labour, social and environmental standards, taking into consideration transparency and market principles to ensure a level playing field.

What are the key security challenges in the region?

The main security challenge in the region is irregular and illegal migration in all the countries along the migration route. Migration poses threats both to migrants, who often set out on a dangerous and uncertain journey, and to the countries of origin, transit and destination, with an increase in the activities of criminal organisations engaging in human trafficking and smuggling. Furthermore, migration flows might also entail the risk of entry of terrorists and members of various fractions who have taken part in military operations in Iraq, Syria and other crisis areas.

In addition to posing direct threats, illegal migration affects the lives of the local populations and their perceptions of the newcomers, which makes the situation even harder for refugees entitled to international protection, and for those migrants who enter a country legally.

The number of illegal border crossings has been on the increase again in the entire Western Balkan region. In early October, higher numbers of migrants were recorded in various directions, from Greece via Romania and Bulgaria to Hungary, from Greece to Macedonia, and from Albania to Montenegro and farther north towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. It is important that the countries in the region strengthen their activities to ensure border security and take the necessary measures related to migration management. It is equally important that the countries refrain from deviating from the EU common visa policy, e.g. from concluding visa-free agreements with certain third countries.

However, managing irregular migration and combatting radicalisation and terrorist threats are not the only security challenges facing the countries of the region; another major issue is hybrid threats, which also require a coordinated response. We can be successful only through joint action based on good coordination and an exchange of information. Here, I must point out the Slovenian initiative Integrative Internal Security Governance (IISG) in the Western Balkans, which addresses a number of these issues, prevents duplication and creates synergies among all the players in the region. I am glad that the IISG has been recognised at the European Union level as an important tool in the implementation of initiatives that were announced concerning security and migration, such as those launched in the framework of the new EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans.

And finally, the Positive agenda for Youth in the Western Balkans, also initiated by Slovenia, underlines that the lack of prospects and feelings of helplessness facing young people in the region should be considered risk factors that might motivate or lead them to turn to various negative options. This is why I would like to reiterate the importance of ensuring the rule of law, creating a favourable socio-economic environment, and providing education and jobs for young people in the region.

How, in that context, do you view the development of refugee crises and your cooperation with Serbian counterparts?

It has been determined that there are currently two major migration routes leading to Slovenia, one from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the other, recently reopened, from Serbia, where criminal organisations provide train and van transport for migrants. We are particularly concerned about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the number of illegal migrants exceeds the country’s capacity for appropriate care and procedures, which poses a security threat both to Slovenia and the entire region, and in fact to the EU as a whole. It is important that the countries of the region strengthen their activities related to border security and take the necessary measures for migration management. It is equally important that the countries refrain from deviating from the EU common visa policy, e.g. from concluding visa-free agreements with certain third countries.

Cooperation between Slovenia and Serbia has been efficient ever since the first wave of migration in 2015. The two countries have closely cooperated on joint activities extending over a prolonged period of time within the Brdo-Brijuni process (e.g. coordination network to combat human trafficking) and within the IISG. Both initiatives (in addition to the WBCTi, which now forms part of the IISG) have become established models in the EU, which is an important recognition of our joint efforts. Furthermore, fourteen representatives of the Slovenian Police participate in various operational activities of the Frontex agency related to irregular migration; one Slovenian police officer responsible for detecting stolen vehicles is stationed at the Bajakovo border crossing (Croatian-Serbian border), and one Slovenian expert for identifying forged documents at the Mali Zvornik border crossing (Serbian-Bosnian border). The remaining police officers work elsewhere in the region, in the countries along the migration route (Macedonia, Croatia, Kosovo, Romania, Greece).

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