Axel Dittmann, German Ambassador to Serbia: Our Partnership Is True And Stable

Germany is, and will remain, a dedicated and reliable partner to Serbia in its EU accession efforts. It is therefore a clear priority of my job to work closely with our Serbian partners to support Serbia’s reforms on its path towards the EU Axel Dittmann, Ambassador of Germany to Serbia remains optimistic when it comes to Serbia’s EU accession process, which was recently consolidated with the opening of two new chapters, 20 and 26. The ambassador considers that the recent shift in U.S. policy towards EU processes will not affect the process.

In your opinion, in which way could the negative attitude of the new U.S. President towards the further strengthening of the European integration process and Brexit impact on public opinion regarding enlargement in the EU and the prospects of the Western Balkan countries joining the Union?

Recent global challenges show more clearly than ever that Europe needs to take its destiny into its own hands. And we have, despite all of the turbulence, a good point of departure. The European Union is a unique and remarkable project: twenty-seven countries, twenty-four languages and more than 500 million people. It originated from a desire for peace, stability and economic prosperity in Europe, and it has served this idea well. It is the biggest internal market and a major job market that allows free movement of workers and great variety of opportunities for young Europeans to study in other member states. It is, in spite of all the cultural differences among the variety of countries, united by a common system of values, where human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights are shared and respected. The result of the British referendum is a watershed for the European family that signals that a far-reaching dialogue on critical issues is needed among the 27 member states. The challenges the EU faces, such as internal reform, the migrant crisis and terrorism, cannot be solved by any one country alone. Populists are playing with people’s fears, not giving them solid arguments or viable solutions. And viable solutions are only to be found in a united and strong European Union. Germany is therefore committed to enlargement and to a constant, vibrant dialogue. In 2004, Europe experienced its biggest phase of enlargement so far, and as a result, the EU not only became larger, but had also gained considerably in terms of experience, history and political influence. We expect that the enlargement of the EU will have a similar beneficial effect for both the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans. We want Serbia to become a member of the European Union! As such, a clear priority of my job is to work closely with our Serbian partners to support Serbia’s reforms on its path towards the EU. Germany is, and will remain, a dedicated and reliable partner to Serbia in its EU accession efforts.

How could the refugee crisis and the crisis facing the European idea impact on the results of both the French and German elections, and the destiny of Europe as a whole?

The refugee crisis is a great humanitarian and international challenge, and it can only be tackled through the combined forces of the international community. Populist rhetoric is being intensified during election campaigns – this is the case everywhere in the world. However, as I already mentioned, the truth is that the easy solutions often put forward by the populists in many countries do not exist in reality. Germany is therefore working hard with its European and international partners on various levels to protect the European Union’s external borders, reform the EU asylum system and eliminate the causes of crises. At the same time, Germany is treating refugees with dignity and respect, in accordance with European values. For Germany, there is no alternative to a joint European approach. A lot of concrete steps towards managing and alleviating the crisis have already been made.

Considering the overall situation, what can the EU offer countries like Serbia, and what should our country’s motives be when it comes to continuing with the European integration process?

The EU accession process is, in its essence, an offer to undertake a process of comprehensive transformation to a modern and prosperous model of a state, judiciary and economy. The EU is a powerful market and legal system, but it is also a union of values. Serbia has declared these values as its strategic goal. Ultimately, however, Serbia is adopting these values and reforms itself for its own sake and the sake of its people. The EU is there to offer its financial and technical support, as well as its guidelines. The EU has been, and continues to be, Serbia’s biggest donor and a vocal supporter of Serbia’s reform path. Germany has, since the year 2000, contributed some 1.6 billion euros to support the legal, administrative and educational development of Serbia. This makes Germany Serbia’s biggest bilateral donor.

With this in mind, how do you interpret the deadlock in the implementation of the Brussels agreement and the uncertain timeline for opening new EU accession chapters for Serbia?

Serbia has already opened six chapters and closed one. Among those are also the key chapters concerning the rule of law: chapters 23 and 24. The implementation of reform is more important than opening further chapters. Elaborate action plans for chapters 23 and 24 still need to be implemented. The true transformation of Serbian society depends on this implementation. And the true beneficiaries of the transformation are the Serbian people. I am very happy that we have just opened two further chapters, namely 20 and 26. This is a convincing signal that Serbia is continuing the accession process in a dynamic way. Regarding the dialogue with Pristina, you must not forget why this process is being undertaken and what has already been achieved. At its core is the desire to normalise relations in such a way that citizens – Serbs and Kosovars – enjoy better living conditions. Progress has been achieved, such as in the area of the freedom of movement and recognition of certificates and diplomas. It is important that the recent crisis has been overcome by the dialogue moderated by the High Representative in Brussels. It is now important that the dialogue continues and that the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities be implemented, as an important element.

What are the main characteristics of German-Serbian bilateral relations and could the results of the German election have a bearing on them?

German-Serbian relations are excellent overall. Our good political cooperation is underscored by numerous visits by German politicians to Serbia and vice versa. In the economic sphere, trade and investment are important pillars of our bilateral relations. Germany has been one of Serbia’s key trading partners for years. More than 350 German businesses operate in Serbia. These companies range from relatively small SMEs to large production sites. German companies have invested more than 1.8 billion euros in the country. According to a survey conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce in 2016, 90 per cent of German firms would choose to invest in Serbia again. Many German companies are expanding their activities with additional investments. We enjoy a broad cultural exchange: German companies are participating in many important festivals in Serbia, a German conductor will be leading the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra this season and DJs and dance groups are constantly collaborating… And, of course, there is the human factor, with nearly 300,000 Serbs living in Germany. Excellent bilateral relations and support for Serbia’s EU integration are a shared goal of German policy. I am sure that this will continue – whatever the result of our elections will be.

To what extent could presidential and possible parliamentary elections in Serbia slow down the reform effort?

Election processes always lead to a certain amount of delay in the implementation of reform. For us, it is important that these delays do not last too long.

Serbia has set out on the path of serious transformation and this momentum should be maintained. In which area has Serbia made the most progress?

Serbia has made considerable progress in the field of economic reform. A number of important measures have been taken to consolidate the state budget and improve the business climate. The most important contribution here will be the full implementation of the laws adopted on economic reform, e.g. the labour law, the privatisation law, the insolvency law and the law on construction permits. This needs to be continued in close cooperation with the IMF. Overall, the reform process has entered into a crucial phase with the opening of the chapters on the rule of law. A great deal remains to be done here, but this is the real key to transformation, and it is excellent that Serbia now holds this in its hands.

How successful has Serbia been in exerting a positive influence on stability in the region and in dealing with the challenges of the refugee crisis?

Regional stability is of utmost importance for the region. We appreciate Serbia’s support for the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I hope that good neighbourly relations, including with Croatia, will improve in the time to come. For Germany, it is important that the region cooperates successfully and makes progress towards the EU. Having this goal in mind, Chancellor Merkel and then Foreign Minister Steinmeier initiated the so-called “Berlin Process” three years ago, with a yearly conference of the countries from the WEB-Region at which concrete joint projects and cooperation with the EU are discussed. This conference, which has already been held in Berlin, Vienna and Paris, has brought substantial progress to regional economic and cultural relations: concrete agreements in the field of infrastructure have been reached, and the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) has been established. RYCO officially started its work in January this year. Germany appreciates the constructive role that has been taken by the Serbian state and its civil society in the refugee crisis. It is good that Serbia opened up new reception centres in the recent cold winter months. The international community, the EU and Germany have made considerable bilateral contributions to alleviating the crisis and will continue to do so. NGOs play a pivotal role in helping the people.

Are you satisfied with the pace at which members of the Roma minority included in the readmission programme in Germany have been returning to Serbia; and are you happy with their level of integration into Serbian society?

It is very important to be aware of one thing, which is that citizens from Western Balkan states do not fall into the category of refugees in Germany. Serbia has been declared a safe country of origin. Therefore, asylum seekers from Serbia – a European country that is preparing to join the EU – cannot be treated as refugees. More than 99.9 per cent of these applications are rejected. These people simply have to return to Serbia. They will also be banned from re-entering the entire Schengen area. Requesting asylum in Germany is not the way ahead if you want to live and work in Germany. We are working closely with the Serbian government in the context of readmission. We are aware that the position of the Roma minority is not easy, and this is why Germany is supporting many programmes that improve their living conditions and support their integration.

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