H.E. DENIS KEEFE, British Ambassador to Serbia: No-one Wants to Hold Back the Western Balkans

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We see the Western Balkans Summit in London as an opportunity for us to demonstrate our commitment to the long term prosperity and security of the European continent, despite Brexit. We hope that the initiatives taken will make the lasting impact

This year so far was full of important events shaping the EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries. The main one took part in Sofia where the EU and Western Balkan leaders met at the EU-Western Balkans Summit, after a long pause since Thessaloniki. While the public got impression that the participants’ assessments about the future of the Western Balkans in the EU are polar opposites our interlocutor H.E. Denis Keefe British Ambassador to Serbia is of a different opinion: “It’s true there exists some hesitance around the pace of enlargement, but certainly noone wants to hold back the Western Balkans from reaping the benefits of EU accession”. Great Britain, itself, in spite of the Brexit, strongly supports the EU future of the region. The Western Balkans Summit in London which took place on July 9 and 10, as well as the support Serbia is receiving from the British experts in different fields – from the reforms of the legal system to the digital revolution – clearly speaks in favour of that intention. We took the opportunity to talk with H.E. Denis Keefe about the Berlin Process, and expected results of the London Summit, as well as about the Brussels Dialogue and the pace of the Serbia‘s EU accession process in general.

Why the Western Balkans Summit in London is important, and what kind of novelties can we expect to hear after it?

  • The Berlin Process is important as it focuses on the connectivity of the Western Balkans. It’s not all about EU accession (although undoubtedly those on their EU path benefit); it’s about breaking down the barriers that hinder cooperation in the region. This ranges from physical connections such as roads, railways and other networks to political relationships. The London Summit novelty is that it brings together Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers and – for the first time in the Berlin Process – Interior and/or Security Ministers. Discussion is focused on three key areas: economic stability, political and legacy issues and security. The Summit should make progress on some bilateral disputes, as well as on some very delicate issues such as war crimes and missing persons. Interior Ministers agenda includes the security challenges facing the WB6, from migration to organised crime and anti-corruption. Economic Ministers who met a week in advance of the Summit in Vienna were there to discuss how to improve the financial and business climate of the region. In London we have introduced a great showcase of young business talent, as 25 entrepreneurs from the region were ready to come to London to compete for mentoring support from the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT). Civil Society Organisations participation is secured through the ‘Question Time’ format with Foreign Ministers of the region. These initiatives were meant to make the Summit dynamic and to make a lasting impact. We have worked hard to make it so: this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our commitment to the long-term prosperity and security of the European continent, despite Brexit. We hope to make the most of the opportunity.

The EU-Western Balkans Summit is finished, and the participants’ assessments about the future of the Western Balkans in the EU are polar opposites. What are the main pros and cons of the EU taking up new members?

  • The UK has always been pro-enlargement, and that remains the case today despite Brexit. Countries are stronger, safer and more prosperous together, bound by a common set of values. The opening, negotiating and closing of chapters one-by-one provides a disciplined framework for governments to see where they are and where they can improve. It’s true there exists some hesitance around the pace of enlargement – and whether the EU has some internal reforming to do before it takes on new members – but I do not think that’s a ‘polar opposite’ assessment. Certainly no-one wants to hold back the Western Balkans from reaping the benefits of EU accession, which improves governance, security and living standards for all.

What are the main reasons for our two countries having had so many ups and downs in their bilateral relations?

History is history. What matters to me is the shared values that link our countries since the first diplomatic contacts in 1837. I have used my time here to promote the stories like the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, the Serbian Herioters, the ‘Forgotten Admiral’ Troubridge

etc. I am also glad that our political relationship is developing as we have been working together to face new challenges such as the fight against organised crime.

What key steps does Serbia need to take in order to join the EU?

  • There’s a lot to do and a lot of chapters left to negotiate. Serbia needs to focus on closing chapters, not just opening them. The big ones, in my opinion, are Chapters 23 and 24. The EU Annual Enlargement Report this year cited problems on Rule of Law and freedom of expression. These are long-standing and really need to be tackled. Then of course, Chapter 35 on Kosovo is difficult given the political context. But we are hopeful that the Brussels Dialogue will bear fruit soon. President Vučić’s commitment to this, including the Internal Dialogue over the past year, is very important. Other issues need not be too difficult – the economic chapters, for example. The government has already done excellent work on the economy under the IMF Stand-by Agreement. It just needs to pick up the pace on private sector development to prepare itself for integration in to the single market.

How much has Serbia progressed in the rule of law, which is one of the sectors in which Great Britain has provided a strong support both the Serbian government and the judiciary?

  • Serbia has made limited progress in the crucial rule of law area, as mentioned above. UK support has directly helped reduce the backlog of old enforcement cases and improved the efficiency of commercial dispute settlement by enhancing and promoting the use of alternative dispute resolution as a way to reduce the burden on courts. However, while the efficiency of the judiciary system may be slowly improving there remains much to do on ensuring full accountability and independence.

Great Britain has been supporting Serbia through donor funds too. Which projects would you like to single out?

Through the UK’s Good Governance Fund – which amounts to about £4m a year across a wide range of areas – we are providing significant support to drive forward the digital revolution in Serbia. This is vital to improve transparency, simplify accountability, tackle corruption and make life easier for all Serbian citizens. Key projects include decreasing the administrative burden that businesses are facing by simplifying procedures for 1250 licences and permits while enabling online application for 100 procedures that can result in $8 million of direct compliance costs savings not to mention the huge amount time saved. As well as building the internal capacities of the Office for Information Technologies and Electronic Government (ITE), to enable effective coordination and implementation of the digital government strategy. Big changes are coming to Serbia and our support is acting as a catalyst, speeding up progress.

ISSUES

The Western Balkans Summit in London should make progress on some bilateral disputes, as well as on some very delicate issues such as war crimes and missing persons.

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