As always, we will work diligently and responsibly on the implementation of reforms, primarily because of the interests of our citizens and the promises we have given to them so that, in the end, the EU membership will come as a logical follow-up activity The EU Enlargement Strategy sends a clear and positive political signal, as it also indicates the respect for our country and its citizens which additionally facilitates the reform process and the transformation of our society. On the other hand, the continuation of the reforms in the rule of law segment is one of the top priorities of our government for this year – says Minister of European Integration, Jadranka Joksimović for Diplomacy& Commerce magazine.
What kind of qualitative change did the fact that the EU (and specially the European Commission) give Serbia a potential accession date make in the country’s accession process?
The EU Enlargement Strategy, which was adopted on Tuesday, sends a clear and positive political signal, as it also indicates the respect for our country and its citizens. At the same time, it confirms that the EU is committed to making itself stronger by 2025, and to demonstrating more solidarity and institutional strength in order to be ready to take on new members. This is a strong political message that successful and responsible governments, and I consider our government to be such, should take on board. As always, we will work diligently and responsibly on the implementation of reforms – primarily because of the interests of our citizens and the promises we have given to them so that, in the end, the EU membership will come as a logical follow-up activity that will create an environment for better life. To that end, I would like to underline that the EU integration process is a positive process that inspires us to be faster and more efficient in resolving certain issues. Everybody can see that focusing on the past will not create better future.
So why doesn’t the pace of opening of new negotiation chapters reflect that at present?
Bearing in mind that the European Union has declared the year 2018 as a year that will be dedicated to strengthening of the enlargement policy, among other things, I expect our negotiations to intensify and accelerate this year. In that sense, I also expect that we will open all the chapters for which we are technically ready, and that the clear political will of the EU institutions, primarily the European Commis-sion and its President Juncker, will be translated into concrete results.
How much is the issue of opening of new chapters and concluding a legally binding agreement with Priština a determinant that affects the certainty of Serbia’s accession?
— Concluding a legally binding agreement about the normalization of the relations with Priština is nothing new. This is an obligation that is stipulated in the EU’s negotiating framework with Serbia. The content of the Agreement has to be a product of the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, with a more pronounced mediation role of the EU and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who I expect to again take an active role in this issue. As you already know, and in order to achieve this, it is vital for both parties to implement all the obligations stipulated in the Brussels Agreement. I am primarily referring to Priština’s obligation to form the Community of Serb Municipalities which has not been done for more than 4 years. Serbia is very clear in its position not to recognize Kosovo’s independence, as are other five EU members, and is advocating finding sustainable solutions for the comprehensive normalization of the relations.
Bearing in mind the current pace of the accession, is it realistic to expect that Serbia can meet all the accession criteria by 2023, and overcome all the challenges associated with the EU members’ giving their consent to the accession by the aformentioned deadline?
— If you are referring to the date stated in the Strategy published by the EU Commission, this is an indicative deadline by which Serbia can become a member. We are talking about the year 2025. This is certainly possible. The pace that you are talking about has been the most intensive ever since Serbia embarked on the EU integration process. Each step in the accession negotiations, which is to say the adoption of a screening report for each chapter, the adoption of negotiating positions for 35 chapters, the fulfillment of the criteria for opening and closing chapters, and transitional criteria applicable to Chapters 23, 24 and 35, must always be approved by all, in this moment still 28 EU members. This fact alone should tell you just how complex the entire process is. All of this requires a lot of work and patience, and above all, understanding in good faith and accepting that Serbia is a partner today and a full-fledged EU member tomorrow. Such relations, which are based on mutual acceptance, are important for the entire region, regardless of the current status in the EU integration process or the EU membership. Moreover, you have more responsibility as an EU member because it implies that you have resolved the issues in the past in the spirit of reconciliation, good faith and legal certainty.
Do you think that unresolved issues between Crotia and Serbia, which often concern the EU integration process too, could be an aggravating factor on this accession path? Do you also think that Serbia might have similar unresolved issues with other countries too, especially in terms of minority rights?
— The very fact that you can use any bilateral conflict to slow down the accession process is an aggravating circumstance. The most cumbersome thing is that these are the disputes that, in the substantive legal sense, have nothing to do with the EU Acquis which is the only objective and measurable criterion for the membership. The European integration process is far more than a mere technical process of harmonization. It is the process which has the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights, including minority rights, as its basis. Hence, in the spirit of the rule of law and calm resolution of disputes, I expect that a country, that is facing a blockade in the accession negotiations because of a bilateral dispute, should demonstrate a different kind of approach. A different approach would entail no EU candidate having its accession process blocked, and transferring to the EU candidates positive experiences regarding peaceful settlement of disputes with neighbours in accordance with the accepted models provided by the UN system and international law. Concerning the issue of national minorities, Serbia has adopted a special action plan under Chapter 23 (in the part concerning fundamental rights and freedoms). Minorities are not an integral part of EU acquis, but Serbia has undoubtedly confirmed its commitment to strengthening and protecting the position of national minorities, although our existing legislative framework exceeds the existing EU standards in that area. Also, further improvement of the legislative framework is envisaged – such as amendments to the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities and the Law on National Councils of National Minorities, which are in progress. As always, we are going to try to resolve all bilateral issues with our neighbours through sincere and open communication.
What are Serbia’s key priorities in the following period in terms of making the EU integration process more efficient?
— The continuation of reforms in the segment of the rule of law is at the top of the government’s priorities. This year will be dedicated to adopting constitutional amendments aimed at further ensuring the independent judiciary, as well as to enacting laws in order to meet the criteria laid out in Chapters 23 and 24. At the same time, we are working on a comprehensive revision of the action plans for these two chapters in order to address the shortcomings of the initial versions which were too ambitious in certain elements. The Ministry of European Integration has prepared the third revised version of the National Plan for Adoption of Acquis Communautaire (NPAA), which is expected to be adopted in February. The NPAA envisages full harmonization with the EU Acquis by the end of 2021. Our priority is ensuring that our legal system is ready for the membership in the shortest possible time, and that we have enough time to successfully and efficiently implement regulations. Therefore, the NPAA is not only the priority for the Ministry of European Integration, but also for the government as a whole.
ENLARGEMENT STRATEGY HAS A POSITIVE INFLUENCE
The EU Enlargement Strategy, which additionally encourages the process of reforms and transformation of our society, and stipulates the timeframe for accession, set for 2025 as a year of possible membership, has a positive influence on public opinion in Serbia. This is clearly evidenced by the unequivocal trend of growing support for the European integration process, as well as for the measures and activities aimed at joining the EU as soon as possible. For the first time in several years, 52% of people in Serbia support the country’s accession to the EU.