Unlock your potential – that seems to be the key message which the Ambassador of the Netherlands, H.E. Henk van den Dool, has for his Serbian interlocutors and policy makers. In this interview, the Dutch ambassador explains why rule of law, anticorruption procedures and freedom of expression matter.
Do you expect 2018, to be the key year for the future of the EU integrations of the Western Balkan and Serbia as many political commentators are suggesting?
— It is certain that the EU integration of the Western Balkans has been put high on the political agenda already in the first half of this year. After the European Commission issued its strategy for the Western Balkans in February, it published its country reports in April, we had the summit in Sofia in May and in June the General Affairs Council will discuss the enlargement package. All these steps show that the EU is committed to the European future of the region and wishes to provide a realistic and concrete accession perspective. It is however not a promise: whether Serbia and other Western Balkan countries will eventually join the EU simply depends on whether they fulfill the criteria for EU membership. The accession process is merit-based, measurable and transparent: the Netherlands will be a strict, fair and committed partner during this process. I am convinced that Serbia has the potential to join the EU family and it has taken significant steps in this direction. Nevertheless, it will require much more work in crucial areas such as the rule of law, anticorruption and fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. Political will is key to addressing these issues and moving forward on the path towards EU membership.
While Serbia is seen as a forerunner in the accession process, there are many areas in which more visible progress has to be made such as rule of law and media freedom. Do you consider recent government activities such as judicial reform and the call for the new approach to the Media strategy as promising?
— Indeed, Serbia is considered as a frontrunner, but maintaining this position requires continuous efforts and steady progress. The recent EU progress report for Serbia is clear when it comes to the rule of law: more can be done and more should be done. Ongoing judicial reforms need to strengthen the rule of law and result in tangible improvements. In order to achieve this, consistent implementation of reform measures, full political commitment and constructive cooperation between various stakeholders – including the government, independent institutions, civil society and professional organizations – remain essential. When it comes to media freedom there is still a lot of work to be done, which is reflected in the EU progress report and in Serbia’s drop in the World Press Freedom Index and the Freedom House ranking. Among many issues that are of importance for media freedom, the most concerning is safety of journalists. All attacks, verbal and physical, need to be timely processed and perpetrators punished. Regarding the Media Strategy, that should have already been in place, I think that the call for new approach in drafting it is a positive step forward. This should be an integrative and consultative process. The Netherlands attaches great importance to freedom of expression and freedom of media. Therefore we closely monitor the situation in Serbia and in Montenegro and support projects contributing to creating better conditions for freedom of expression.
What are your expectations when it comes to economic reforms and the new IMF agreement?
— The state of the Serbian economy today, is certainly different from where it was a few years ago. The results, particularly in the macro-fiscal field, are praiseworthy and I think the effects are evident. Both the fiscal deficit and the debt-to-GDP ratio were reduced sig-nificantly, helping to put Serbia’s public finances on a more sustainable path and working toward establishing a functioning market economy. Overall, there has been progress across reform areas and in many sectors there is a better acknowledgement of what needs to be implemented and how urgent these reforms are. That said, there is still a lot to be done and it’s important that reform fatigue is managed and a sense of complacency amid postive results doesn’t set-in. Sustainability is the key word, so the focus now is to ensure that the momentum is kept in order to keep Serbia’s economy on a positive trajectory in order to facilitate dynamic growth. In that sense, the ongoing negotiations with the IMF regarding a new arrangement are a welcome indicator that the Government intends on following through.
What does Serbia need in order to unlock its potential and attract more multinational companies and FDI?
— Serbia has significant economic potential across economic sectors, be it due to its geographic location, favourable climate, skilled workforce, various free trade agreements and many other factors. The succesful presence of a number of large well-known international corporations in Serbia, several of them prominent Dutch names, is illustrative of this. That said, one of the key issues that is still holding the economy back, and one I hear about from companies often, remains the rule of law and the efficiencyof public institutions. If Serbia is to unlock its potential and attract more multinational companies and FDI, addressing these issues is key. Companies make strategic decisions based on the predictability of doing business, which is, to a large extent, based on the uniform and transparent application of regulations which affect the business environment, such as the uniform application of tax regulations, execution of inspections and application of parafiscal charges. In that sense, the Government’s initiatives to reduce the administrative burden for businesses in general, including start-ups, in order to encourage (youth) entrepreneurship and increasing the ease of doing business are positive developments and will be important for Serbia’s growth. In addition, progress on (key) infrastructural projects that increase economic activity and facilitate greater (regional) connectivity, can do much to further unlock Serbia’s significant potential.
Has rising bilateral trade caused more interest in cooperation between Dutch and Serbian companies and sparked more advanced models of cooperation?
— I’m very glad to see that there is an increasing interest in Serbia from Dutch companies, from a variety of sectors, on top of the fact that companies registered in the Netherlands have invested nearly two billion euro over the past five years in Serbia. Whilst companies, of course, make their decisions based on their calculations and strategies, we do our part to encourage them to invest in Serbia. Amongst other things last March, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, together with our Embassies in the region, organised a Doing Business in the Western Balkans Day in the Hague, which gathered over eighty Dutch companies interested in the region. Most recently, our agricultural department, which organised an excellent Dutch pavillion at the Novi Sad agricultural fair, brought fourteen Dutch agri companies, and their state of the art agricultural technologies, which help make the Netherlands the second largest exporters of agricultural products, to Serbia. In addition, my team is currently working on a trade mission for Dutch companies interested in investments and partnerships in the Serbian soft-fruit sector. Before that, sixteen Dutch companies active in the water and energy sectors were present at this year’s RENEXPO.
How will the Dutch bilateral and donor agenda further support reform processes in Serbia?
— The Dutch bilateral and donor agenda remains complementary to the agenda of the EU. Strengthening democratic processes, the rule of law, public institutions and civil society has long been a focus area for the Netherlands’ foreign policy. One of the longest running assistance programs in this area is the Netherlands’ Fund for Regional Partnership – MATRA, which we implement in all candidate countries, including Serbia. MATRA projects are primarily focused on the capacity development and institutional strengthening of local civil society organizations, the judiciary and public institutions; and promoting constructive dialogue between these various actors. The Netherlands has a rich tradition when it comes to a sound relationship between government and citizens and a stable political culture. This has helped the Netherlands accumulate specific knowledge on democracy, the rule of law and human rights, from which Serbia can benefit. Apart from supporting Serbia’s EU prospects, the projects that we jointly implement help us to further strengthen the bilateral relationship between our two countries and create partnerships for the future.
My team is currently working on a trade mission for Dutch companies interested in investments and partnerships in the Serbian soft-fruit sector.