Serbia has to continue with the reform process, particularly in the fields of justice and social protection, but also with regard to freedom of expression and the media, as well as the fight against corruption. These reforms are primarily for the benefit of Serbia’s citizens, not for the sake of Brussels or Berlin.
Germany has proved to be an important supporter of Serbia in its reforms and EU accession process, as well as being a serious trade and investment partner. Furthermore, cultural ties between the two countries are getting stronger and deeper, thereby providing a solid basis for the true friendship between Germany and Serbia, says H.E. Axel Dittmann, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Serbia.
How would you assess the reform agenda of the new Serbian government?
— The Serbian government has initiated serious and challenging, but necessary, reforms, and Germany strongly supports this process. A crucial step was the opening of the negotiating chapters with the EU on rule of law in July. However, it is important to stress that these political, economic and social reforms are primarily for the benefit of Serbia’s citizens, not for the sake of Brussels or Berlin. I know that many of these reforms are not easy; some of them bring along hardships, but in the long run they will improve working and living conditions in Serbia. It is now important to continue the reform process, particularly in the fields of justice and social protection, but also with regard to freedom of expression and the media, as well as the fight against corruption.
In which areas should Serbia exert more effort towards building a functional market economy, and what are the experiences of German investors in Serbia like regarding this issue?
— Trade and investment are important pillars of our bilateral relations. Germany has been one of Serbia’s key trading partners for years. More than 350 German businesses operate in Serbia. These companies range from relatively small SMEs to large production sites. German companies have invested more than 1.8 billion euros in Serbia. According to a survey conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce in 2016, 90% of German firms would choose to invest in Serbia again. However, in order to achieve even faster expansion of investment and a more efficient market economy, the prerequisite is an improvement of the legal framework, including investment security, which means continuing the reform process and implementing the action plans for important accession negotiation chapters 23 and 24.
What do you think of Serbia’s progress so far in negotiations regarding chapter 35, and what is the expected dynamic regarding the continuation of talks between Serbia and Kosovo?
— We strongly support the normalisation process that is mediated by the EU’s external action service. The opening of chapter 35 at the end of last year was an important step that showed both the progress made so far and the challenges that lie ahead. It happened at a time when Serbia and Kosovo once again took some important decisions on how to normalise each other’s relations and to improve living conditions – namely in the fields of energy, telecommunications, the creation of the Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo and freedom of movement. However, some of those agreements still have to be implemented. We hope that both sides can make progress here soon, and that they can also identify the next areas of normalisation that will make people’s lives easier. For the EU, it is very important that EU accession and the normalisation of relations with Kosovo progress in parallel – this is what we agreed at the beginning of 2014 in the Joint Negotiating Framework.
Considering the substantial German assistance in improving our judiciary, are you satisfied with the current progress relative to chapters 23 and 24?
— Chapters 23 and 24 are particularly important for Serbia’s transformation process. Serbia has developed the necessary action plans and these now need to be implemented. The new Minister of Justice, Ms Kuburović, has expressed her determination to continue the reforms, and Germany, as a reliable and honest partner, will offer continuing support in the reform process. With the action plans, there is now a good blueprint for reform and we hope progress can be achieved according to the agreed timelines.
What do you think about the cooperation between Germany and Serbia in resolving the migrant crisis and dealing with asylum seekers from Serbia?
— The refugee crisis and the issue of asylum seekers from Serbia are two different challenges. However, I can happily say that we cooperate successfully with the Serbian government on both issues. Germany greatly appreciates the constructive role that the Serbian state and its civil society have taken on the refugee crisis. Serbia has been treating refugees in a humane way; it proved its willingness to be part of a joint European solution and is thus acting in a truly European spirit. The refugee crisis made our two countries work even closer together. Germany has supported Serbia during the crisis with more than four million Euros. German organisations, like GIZ, KfW, HELP and ASB, collaborate closely with Serbian institutions and Serbian civil society in alleviating the crisis in Serbia.On the other hand, citizens of Western Balkan States who seek asylum in Germany do not fall under the category of refugees. Serbia has been declared a safe country of origin. Hence, asylum seekers from Serbia, a European country that is preparing to join the EU, cannot in principle obtain asylum in Germany. As such, more than 99.9% of these applications are rejected. These people simply have to return to Serbia. They will also be banned from re-entering the entire Schengen area. Requesting asylum in Germany is not a route to pursue if you want to live and work in Germany. We are in intense cooperation with the Serbian government in mitigating the tough living conditions for people whose application for asylum in Germany has not been granted, e.g. water-infrastructure has been improved in some Roma settlements and, in partnership with German agency GIZ, we offer workshops for specific types of careers and professions.
How much have German practices regarding the functioning of chambers of commerce and dual education taken hold in Serbia?
— We work very closely with our Serbian partners in supporting them in the reform of their chamber system and in introducing vocational training in schools. Both of these concepts are showing their first positive results. An efficient chamber system has always played a key role in the German economy. Today, the network of German Chambers of Commerce abroad encompasses 130 institutions located in 90 countries all over the world. We are happy to share our experiences with our Serbian friends and help them to reform their chamber system. I appreciate that Serbia, with the formal establishment of the German-Serbian Chamber of Commerce in April this year, has finally become an official part of the German chamber network. This Chamber is the first point of contact for German companies wishing to invest in or trade with Serbia. It also provides information about Germany, thus offering valuable information to Serbian enterprises and potential trade partners. The German-Serbian Chamber of Commerce is a signal that Serbia is an interesting and reliable place for investment and trade. In the context of the German-Serbian Initiative for Sustainable Growth and Employment, one of the most important activities is the support of Serbia’s reform path to strengthen the vocational system. This is an important concept where students get the opportunity to do practical work in a company and in parallel receive aligned education in specialised vocational training schools. This can improve the capacity of companies in Serbia to produce complex products by having a better-trained workforce and will also help to reduce youth unemployment. Germany actively supports the development of vocational training in Serbia: the German Development Cooperation (GDC), for example, supports the modernisation of vocational education in the commercial sector, and to date more than 1,000 teachers have passed comprehensive teacher training. Moreover, many German companies in Serbia – like Bosch, Falke, Siemens or Conti – participate in establishing vocational training here.
GIZ supports Serbia’s efforts to achieve convergence with the EU, while the Goethe Institute contributes to creating a better understanding of the German culture and tradition. What is their overall importance in promoting the German spirit in Serbia?
— The Goethe institute is of immense importance to our partnership with Serbia. Our cultural activities, as well as those of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German school and partner schools, show that relations between our two countries go much further than just the areas of politics and business. We enjoy a broad cultural exchange. Let’s take as an example the ongoing Bitef Festival, where two German companies are participating; a German conductor will be leading the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra this season; we will have three German film festivals in October; the so-called October Salon has been opened by a German-Turkish artist; and the fact that German has become the second most studied foreign language in Serbia exemplifies the strong links between Serbia and Germany. You see, our cultural ties are strong and they provide a solid basis for true friendship between Germany and Serbia.