Since my arrival to Belgrade, my message towards the Serbian people and authorities has been consistent: Serbia is part of the European family, with a clear path towards EU membership
The Netherlands has been and remains a committed partner to Serbia, both bilaterally and within the framework of Serbia’s EU accession process. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and our Director General for European Affairs reconfirmed this during their visit to Belgrade in November of last year when they had a series of successful meetings with the Prime Minister, several cabinet ministers as well representatives of civil society and the Dutch business community.
Your Excellency, you arrived in Serbia in August 2019 and presented your credentials in September. What are your impressions and views of the current economic and diplomatic relations between our two countries?
It is difficult to imagine that it has already been ten months since my wife and I arrived to Belgrade. Time has flown by, and we consider ourselves lucky to live in a vibrant and dynamic country such as Serbia. I also feel privileged to work in a context in which our diplomatic and economic relations are excellent already, and I look forward to working on improving them further still during my time here.
Serbia and the Netherlands are tied in many ways and on many different levels, diplomatically, economically, culturally. We continuously work to maintain that relationship. The visit to our Minister of Foreign Affairs is an example of that. So is the meeting between our two Prime Ministers in Davos earlier this year. Netherlands remains one of the largest sources of FDI in Serbia, and our bilateral trade is well on its way to approaching €1 billion in trade. Of course, as someone from Amsterdam, I cannot omit to mention the positive effects Dušan Tadić playing for Ajax has had on our bilateral relationship as well.
The whole world is now suffering because of the global pandemic caused by COVID-19. What can you say about the Dutch response and fight against the virus, regarding protecting the population`s health and the Dutch economy?
The countries around the world are being severely affected by the coronavirus and all are looking for the best measures to alleviate this unexpected situation. The Netherlands’ approach is aimed at keeping the virus under control as much as possible in order to protect vulnerable groups and make sure the healthcare system can cope. Thanks to people complying with the measures, the situation has improved since March. The figures show a positive trend and the Netherlands is moving slowly towards having more freedom
On 1st June several measures were relaxed (e.g. cafés, bars, cultural institutions). However, the basic rules still apply: wash your hands, keep a distance of 1.5 metres, avoid busy places, stay at home if you have symptoms and work from home as much as possible. These rules also apply in shopping streets, parks and recreation areas as well. To ensure everyone can follow the rules, the government is working together with businesses and organisations, including employers’ federations, trade unions, sector associations and Dutch rail company NS. Developments permitting, more measures will be relaxed on 1 July (opening of gyms, spas, clubhouses, casinos). The basic rules and additional measures will apply at these locations too. Each step can only be taken if the virus stays under control, this must be done with great care, and this is why the Netherlands is taking a step-by-step approach. If circumstances require, any decision to relax measures will be reversed.
You stayed in Serbia during the state of emergency. The Serbian government has devised measures to protect the Serbian economy. Have you any information about how Dutch companies responded to the crisis and how it affected their operations?
The Corona-crisis has affected economies around the globe in unforeseen ways, and Governments have had to respond quickly in an effort to minimize the negative consequences. I was very glad to see that the Serbian government took decisive measures to minimize the risk to people’s health and lessen the blow to businesses. It is also encouraging that Serbia was in a good financial position to design and implement such an effective package of measures. The work is done in the past years to ensure healthy and balanced state finances has certainly paid off.
The Dutch and Serbian people have two very important characteristics in common – resourcefulness and resilience
Naturally, the crisis has affected Dutch companies in Serbia, just like all businesses. That said, the experiences and responses differ from company to company. Dutch companies are active in a wide range of sectors in the Serbian economy. They are part of Serbia’s economic heartbeat, with companies being successful in areas such as agriculture, shipbuilding, tourism, beer brewing, retail, IT, textile and many others. This also means that companies are experiencing a crisis in different ways, depending on the sector in which they are active. While some companies have had to scale-down operations, others have to do the opposite and increase capacities due to higher demand. As you can imagine, the demand for bicycle tours of Belgrade dropped, while demand for goods in supermarkets went up sharply.
Because we were not able to visit companies physically, the Embassy organized a videoconference with the Dutch business community in Serbia, in order to hear how companies were experiencing these challenging times. While individual experiences differ, I was glad to hear that overall, the Dutch business community is in good shape and in a strong position to weather the storm. It is still unclear what the exact effects of the crisis will turn out to be, but I find comfort in the fact that both the Dutch and Serbian people have two very important characteristics in common – resourcefulness and resilience. I’m proud of the way Dutch companies have weathered the crisis, with responsible social-economic policies and contributions to fighting the pandemic.
The Netherlands remains committed to Serbia’s EU perspective but is also a strict, fair and committed partner that judges the progress in the accession process based on merits. What are Serbia’s next steps on its path to the EU membership in terms of reforms and opening of chapters?
On its path to the EU, Serbia can count on the Netherlands as a strict, fair and committed partner. Therefore, we maintain an open dialogue with Serbia, both with the authorities as well as with civil society in order to reflect on the reforms, which are necessary, not solely because of EU membership, but ultimately because of the need to improve the lives of the citizens of Serbia.
We will continue to assess Serbia’s efforts based on merits and sustainable impact
In that sense, reforms and their implementation need to reflect a true acceptance of the values, which underlie both our Union as well as Serbia’s own society – values such as democracy, the independence of the judiciary, and the fight against corruption and organized crime. Here I would also emphasize the importance of freedom of expression and media freedom as a priority because independent, responsible and pluralistic media are part of the necessary checks and balances in a society governed by the rule of law. Within the EU as well as within the Netherlands, we are constantly assessing to what extent we are able to uphold and live up to these values, thus it is only logical that we do and expect the same of candidate member states.
When talking about the next steps, let me stress that in the short term, it will be paramount that the general elections in Serbia are held in a free and fair manner. Every effort is necessary to ensure elections where parties feel they can participate on an equal footing and all voters can cast their vote freely, as this will reflect the extent to which core democratic values are embraced.
Looking beyond the elections, the impact of Serbia’s sustained reforms will continue to determine the speed of Serbia’s progress towards full EU membership. Hence, when it comes to the opening of new chapters, the Netherlands will continue to assess not only the technical readiness to do so but also the overall developments in the rule of law area. However, the EU accession-narrative should not be reduced to the counting of opened or closed chapters. In fact, Serbia still needs to decide whether it will accept the principles of the revised enlargement methodology, which the Netherlands would very much welcome. Whatever the decision of Serbia may be, our expectations of Serbia, as one of the frontrunners in the accession process, remain high. On our side, as one of the founding member states of the European Union, we will continue to assess Serbia’s efforts based on merits and sustainable impact, which does not imply a need for immaculate perfection but does require full and unequivocal political commitment and responsibility.
An initiative facilitating a joint economic development of the region, the so-called Mini-Schengen has been launched. Regional Economic Area (REA) has already received the support of all six WB partners, unlike the Mini-Schengen. What can expedite the process of the EU accession of all Western Balkan countries?
The European Union is, in its very essence, a framework for cooperation, which aims to ensure peace and prosperity for its member states. Economic cooperation and joint economic development are and have been from the very beginning, central to that framework. The elimination of barriers to trade, harmonization of standards, increase in connectivity, creation of joint institutions and many other steps that have been taken over the decades, have ensured unprecedented economic development and stability in Europe.
It is, in my opinion, only natural for the countries of the Western Balkans to aspire to work together in a similar manner, and I am very glad that the EU-facilitated WB6-process had led to effective strategies and tangible results. The economic potential of the region is substantial, with its favourable climate, strategic geographic location and a resilient, resourceful and well-educated population. The true extent of that potential can only be achieved if the countries of the region work together to unlock it.
By ensuring better connectivity, improved border-crossing procedures, encouraging labour mobility and many other things which are included in the action plan for a regional economic area, the region will become an even more interesting and competitive investment destination for global companies. Most importantly, such cooperation allows for a continuous open political dialogue between partners, which furthers reconciliation and helps shape a common future for the region within Europe. By the way, the political and economic cooperation by Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands (the so-called Benelux that started as a customs union) was an important aspect of the creation of the European Union. Therefore, there is a very good example here.