Belgium is firmly on the side of reinforcing the European Union project, as well as supporting the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The number of EU preparatory programmes and assistance projects to help the Serbian administration in that endeavour is growing in intensity every year.
We spoke with Leo D’aes, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Serbia, about the current challenges to the European project and how the Western Balkans and Serbia fit into that picture with regard to security, political and economic issues, and the small, albeit growing, cooperation between Belgium and Serbian businesses, supported by cordial bilateral relations between the two countries.
Do you think that the EU will manage to find a sustainable formula to continue existing as it is, despite Brexit and Euroscepticism both within and beyond the Union?
Yes, I am convinced that there is enough united wisdom, experience and common sense to continue the success story of the European Union. A founding nation like Belgium will most certainly continue its policy of safeguarding and reinforcing the European Union project, which is in essence an ever closer political union. And we are not alone in this ambition.
Brexit is an important event, which we very much regret, but in the end it will help clarify the duties and the privileges of being a member of the European Union. Brexit is a particular, rather dramatic form of the Euroscepticism that has been with us for quite a while. I do not belittle this phenomenon, on the contrary, it helps focus the minds of staunchly pro-EU governments or officials on what indeed are real or perceived or wrongfully-presented weaknesses or deficiencies of the EU. In these volatile and uncertain times, the best answer to these doubts (again: real or artificial) is more EU, a better response to the needs of EU citizens, and intense consultation and cooperation between the member states, so as to pool ideas and resources to tackle the many transboundary problems which affect our daily lives. As HR Federica Mogherini said recently, there is not one single country in the EU that in today’s world can influence international and global agenda on its own, whilst the EU as such can. Some cynics only want to see enormous bureaucracy. I see the enormous historic achievements and the unique potential of the Union for tackling responsibly what will no doubt be an ever more unsettling, complicated world agenda.
How much have the issues of terrorism and the refugee crisis overshadowed equally important topics like economic stagnation in Europe?
If you follow the agenda of EU meetings closely, as I do, you will notice, on the one hand, that the European Council has indeed held many meetings in which the issue of terrorism and refugees were the central agenda topics. These meetings are an obvious response to the need for concerted action. Regarding refugees, in close cooperation with the Commission, the Council is gradually steering a route away from crisis management towards a more structural policy of managing the flows of migrants. Coordination in the fight against terrorism is increasing with each passing day, learning from each other’s best practices and involving all authorities concerned, including the Serbian.
On the other hand, in the meantime, EU policies with regard to economic and financial policies were not put on hold, quite the contrary. Streamlining the European semester, completing the banking union, enforcing fiscal coordination…all of this requires a patient follow-up in numerous meetings at all levels, which is essential to safeguarding the economic foundations of our internal market and maintaining business confidence and the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Considering the current circumstances, do you think the Balkan countries still have a future in Europe, and what can we expect to happen to Serbia in that context?
There is no doubt in my mind that the Thessaloniki declaration of 2003 is still very much alive: the EU firmly supports the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. Or, to quote the then Heads of State/Government: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. Today, in 2016, this remains valid: those Balkan states wishing to become members are welcome, if and when they fulfil all the conditions. It’s as simple (and as vast) as that. The road ahead is clear, so are the efforts required and the means and assistance to get there. The number of EU preparatory programmes and assistance projects to help the Serbian administration gradually reach the final objective of being EU-compliant is impressive. This cooperation is growing in intensity every year. It is complemented with substantial assistance from the World Bank, IMF, EIB, EBRD, and with the regional action programme in the framework of the Berlin process. If you look at this global picture, there most certainly is a future in and with Europe.
Also, in the same context, what do you think of security in the Balkans and Serbia’s contribution to improving stability in the region?
The Balkans is still recovering from a violent and relatively recent past. I do not underestimate the difficulties to pass from history to harmony. However, mistrust within the Balkans leads to mistrust towards the Balkans. So it’s in everyone’s interest that confidence and security be gradually and persistently built. Serbia plays a role that is indeed key in this difficult but necessary regional endeavour. The recent meetings between the Serbian and Albanian prime ministers, and their respective business communities, are a positive example. The more signs or efforts of genuine reconciliation and cooperation are made, the more a self-reinforcing process of respect and outreach will continue to develop, to the benefit of everyone –including the local and international business community, which looks for stability as a prerequisite for trade and investment.
How much do you think is the new government’s reformist and pro-European orientation based on its programme and actions?
At the time of this interview, an IMF mission is here again in Belgrade, for the 6th time since the SBA of February 2015. I have been closely following the IMF’s assessments, and I note a steady progress in the difficult areas of fiscal consolidation, modernising business laws and streamlining the public administration. As I said in response to your third question, other international institutions also contribute to the realisation of the government’s programme. This is especially true for the EU, which is carrying out a tailor-made assistance programme for Serbia. And, even though we still have a long way to go, the process of adjustments itself contributes to creating confidence in Serbia’s future.
In which way does Belgium support Serbia’s pro-European and pro-reformist aspirations?
In line with the Thessaloniki commitment, Belgium has from the outset firmly supported Serbia’s aspirations to join the EU. Like any other member state, we are involved on an almost daily basis in accession talks and are trying to contribute constructively to this process, with an understanding for the difficulties and with a clear wish to move on, taking into account Serbia’s present assets and deficiencies. A practical example of cooperation is the recent visit of 10 Serbian civil servants to the EU Department of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, with the aim of acquainting our Serbian guests with the way an operational relationship with and within the EU is managed on a daily basis. And, last but not least, the Belgian Embassy is of course actively supporting the work of the EU Delegation here in Belgrade, which is the anchor of our common efforts.
How would you rate overall bilateral relations between the two countries?
Serbian-Belgian relations are very cordial, and have become even more intense since the candidature of Serbia for EU membership. The Serbian authorities know that in this accession process we consistently apply a “strict and fair” attitude, which is in our common interest. The trade relations most certainly have potential for growth, but are of course dependent on the business climate. There is good cooperation between our respective police and justice departments in the daily fight against organised crime and terrorism. Serbia is being more and more discovered by the Belgians, be they businesspeople, tourists, artists, festival-goers or scouts. It is a welcome trend that we obviously support actively.
How interested are Belgian companies in investing in Serbia, and what can Serbia do to attract more Belgian investment?
About 50 companies with Belgian capital or links are currently active in Serbia, in various sectors like food, retail and industry, agriculture, ICT, metal processing, renewable energy. All in all, the presence is small compared to some other EU countries, but we aim to actively support the steadily increasing interest in the Serbian market, a tendency reinforced by the ongoing EU accession negotiations. The three Belgian regional agencies dealing with foreign trade are represented in Belgrade by the Brussels Invest & Export agency, which provides regular and timely information to the Belgian business world on opportunities, potential local partners, local legislation, tenders and fairs.
Generally speaking, the state and local governments do their best to assist in the prospective and starting-up phase, in finding the most suitable workforce, or in cooperating in specific training provided by enterprise. What are often missing are streamlined administrations with clear procedures. With the active assistance of the CCIS, the Mixed Chambers Council, of which the Belgian-Serbian Business Association is a member, is engaging in a productive dialogue with the ministries concerned (notably Finance and Labour), so as to gradually reduce these obstacles and arrive at smooth and beneficial cooperation.