“The Austrian business community is in general very satisfied with doing business in Serbia. We have 400 Austrian companies in Serbia providing jobs for around 18,000 persons and have invested around 2.3 billion Euros. Serbia is an important economic engine for the whole region and has already undertaken a number of important reforms“, says Austrian Ambassador to Serbia, H.E Nikolaus Lutterotti, emphasizing that over the last years Serbia has shown great ambition and determination to embark on reforms of the country so as to move ahead towards EU membership. He also points out that there is a mutual interest of the European Union and the countries in the region for the accession process to be successful.
In the interview he talks about bilateral cooperation between Serbia and Austria, the opinion on Kosovo and EU integration.
Do you think that there is a possibility that Priština and Belgrade will overcome the dead-end in current talks?
– I sincerely hope so. We strongly support a resumption of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and hope that it will happen soon. We have urged the authorities in Kosovo to abolish the tariffs that they imposed in violation of the rules established by CEFTA. Both sides need to refrain from any acts that further jeopardize the dialogue. We are convinced that both sides tend to gain more from a comprehensive normalization of relations than from the status-quo.
The former EU envoy for Kosovo, Wolfgang Petrich said that Brussels should think about organizing a conference, in which both Serbian and Kosovar representatives would participate, and which would go on until a solution was found. Do you think that this is a viable solution?
– We support the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina under the facilitation of the EU High Representative. And we believe that this dialogue should resume as soon as possible, in order to build confidence and to reach an agreement. It is primarily up to the parties to find such a legally binding agreement on a comprehensive normalization of their relations. After all, both parties will have to secure the necessary political support at home.
How much does the Kosovo issue deter Serbia from tackling urgent, internal issues, particularly those related to the European integration process?
– Without the comprehensive normalization of the relations between Belgrade and Pristina there will clearly be detrimental effects on the development of both sides. In other words, both sides would gain a lot from a normalization of their relations. It is quite obvious that in Serbia a lot of political energy would become available for other urgent reforms after settling the Kosovo issue. This includes reforms that are relevant to advance on the EU integration process. Let me also add that the entire region of the Western Balkans would benefit enormously from a solution and it would send a positive signal for further regional reconciliation and cooperation.
How much has Serbia done lately in regard to the rule of law and media freedom?
– The EU Commission reports on a six-monthly basis on progress made by Serbia in the area of the rule of law. According to that assessment, that we share, the picture is a mixed one. We recognize that progress has been made. But we equally hope that efforts with regard to the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption, media freedom, the domestic handling of war crimes and the fight against organized crime will be further strengthened.
In the context of reforms and economic growth, what would you single out as key changes that the Government should work on and to which the Austrian business community in Serbia had been pointing out?
– The Austrian business community is in general very satisfied with doing business in Serbia. We have 400 Austrian companies in Serbia providing jobs for around 18,000 persons and have invested around 2.3 billion Euros. Serbia is an important economic engine for the whole region and has already undertaken a number of important reforms. Where Austrian companies would like to see improvement is regarding the overall setup for doing business in Serbia, namley in the broad area of the rule of law. Our businesses look for transparency and predictability in administrative and regulatory procedures, an independent judiciary, a more effective fight against corruption and a clear and predictable tax administration. The issue of education and vocational training for skilled workforce is also becoming more pressing and Austria has been successfully cooperating with Serbia in the field of dual education.
Which topics related to the bilateral cooperation are the most important for you at this moment?
– Our relations are manifold and very intense. Bilateral conomic relations have been developing well over the last years, but we think that there is still room for improvement. Political relations are excellent and I am happy that in addition to our exchanges at the highest politcal level there is a good exchange among different ministries from the Minsters’ level down to the working level. We have good and efficient cooperation for example between the Ministries of Interior and the Ministries of Justice. We will also reinforce the cooperation in the field of Innovation and Technology Development, Public administration and digitalization (e-government). I am confident that there will be even more in the months to come. Cultural and scientific exchange has traditionally been good and intense. The Austrian Cultural Forum at the Austrian Embassy promotes contemporary Austrian art and culture and puts a lot of emphasis on partnerships with local cultural actors, fostering dialogue and aiming at responding to the needs of local professionals and the Serbian audience. The European dimension, however, is equally a very important part of the cultural work of the Austrian Cultural Forum. The local EUNIC cluster, consisting of 18 European Union National Institutes for Culture and Embassies, is jointly carrying out and supporting several projects per year such as lectures on public diplomacy or an Artist in residence program that brings artists from all over Europe to Serbia to work together with their local counterparts.
What will be the focus of your support to Serbia in the European integration process in the coming period?
– Austria will certainly continue to support Serbia’s EU integration process and her reform efforts, both on a bilateral level as well as within the European Union. We believe that it is important that the EU accession process remains a priority of the EU’s political agenda and we will advocate for this. During our presidency we have been working towards more inclusion of Serbia and the other countries of the region into EU meetings and conferences in order for these countries to be better acquainted with EU-discussions and decision making processes. We are also interested to involve Serbia and the other countries of the region in the discussions about the future of Europe. The bilateral cooperation that I mentioned before includes very specific support for reforms relevant to the EU integration process. We are active through Twinning projects and will continue to apply for new projects. We will also continue our support for economic development and investments as well as supporting Serbia in the field of vocational training and dual education. Within the Berlin Process, Austria has supported efforts to strengthen the role of civil society and youth and we would like to see the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) working smoothly and successfully. Reconciliation and progress in resolving bilateral issues and conflicts are of major importance for the stability and prosperity of the region.
Do you see Serbia as a country that is at the helm of the EU integration, or are other Western Balkan countries ahead of us?
– Serbia is certainly among the frontrunners of the EU accession progress. More than 50% of the negotiating chapters have been opened. The pace of the accession process, however, will be determined by each Member State and by the concrete results achieved in the reforms necessary for EU membership. In the case of Serbia, irreversible progress and implementation of reforms in the area of the rule of law are very important. These are areas that will benefit particularly the citizens of Serbia and would also have a very beneficial impact on the business location of Serbia attracting more investments.
Do you think that Serbia fully takes advantage of the Austrian support for its European integration process? How much can Austria’s expertise in this matter benefit Serbia?
– As mentioned before we have a very good and constructive cooperation with Serbia in various fields. We are happy to continue and intensify this cooperation where Serbia feels it could benefit from Austrian experiences and expertise.