The EU and Belgium diplomatic action in Serbia are to a great extent convergent: it is indeed in the Belgian interest to accompany Serbia on its path to EU membership in a way that makes sure that the accession will take place in the best possible circumstances, for Serbia, but also for the EU itself.
The visit of PM Michel, earlier this year, and of Deputy PM Reynders last year, were good occasions to gauge the excellent quality of our relations. Belgium believes the region can do more efforts to collectively come to terms with its past and prepare the way for better mutual understanding and cooperation, as future members of one EU family.
What is your first impression about Serbia?
– My experience so far is limited to Belgrade and Novi Sad, cities that breathe a refreshing dynamism. Social and cultural life is vibrant, and the city is catering for this by upgrading its infrastructure. My wife and I really enjoy being here, and we are committed to boosting the quality of our interaction with the friendly Serbian people by improving our language skills.
Our arrival coincided with a renewed attention for the Kosovo situation that consumes a lot of political and also emotional energy, in all layers of society. It is my sincere wish and hope that the EU facilitated dialogue will result in the long-awaited normalisation between Belgrade and Priština, so as to allow our collective efforts to be focussed on the other challenges this country is facing. One of which is undoubtedly the need to give young Serbians better economic and social perspectives and stem the brain drain. This country and its people have an enormous potential, not to be wasted.
After spending most of your diplomatic career in Africa, and for some shorter period of time in Latin America, do you think that it is possible to draw some similarities between the emerging economies, Serbia and Western Balkan included?
– I prefer to avoid comparisons between regions and countries that have intrinsically different profiles, histories and track records. There is one feature though, that both the African Great Lakes region and the Balkans have in common: the need for regional cooperation, in all areas of economic and societal life. The challenges are simply too big to be tackled within the boundaries of individual states. Interconnectivity is needed in road, railway, energy and ICT infrastructure if countries want to make a qualitative step ahead, exploit opportunities for adding value and work within bigger markets that link up to the outside world. This also applies to the Balkan countries.
Regional integration will increase the appeal for foreign economic operators to look with more favourable eyes to investment opportunities. The Berlin process, involving 6 WB partners, aims to promote this agenda, with Belgium’s full support. For this to materialize there is a need to overcome the historically rooted divisions, resentments, recriminations and indeed wounds that have to be healed, another similarity between the Great Lakes and the Balkan. Economic cooperation and prosperity go hand in hand with peaceful coexistence and are mutually reinforcing, as shown by the post war European experience.
How do you estimate bilateral relations between our countries?
– We believe it is important to maintain high level contacts in order to better understand the Serbian concerns and positions, as well with regard to the EU accession process, as for the Kosovo-file or the assessment of regional developments. The Belgian two-year presence in the UN Security Council, as a non-permanent member from January onward and which was also supported by Serbia, will make this all the more important, in order to live up to our campaign commitment ‘Fostering Consensus, Acting for Peace’.
The bilateral relations are developing well in the economic and commercial field, with a steadily increasing bilateral trade volume (+20% in the first half of the year), and more investment presence. Earlier this year we welcomed another Belgian trade mission, with 30 participants. The satisfactory bilateral cooperation in the field of police and judicial cooperation should also be mentioned. And last but not least I noted an increasing presence of high quality Belgian cultural performers in the Belgrade cultural scene. These people to people contacts need to be encouraged and fostered.
What are the priority diplomatic activities you intend to focus in the near future?
– As a newcomer my main objective in the short term is to meet as many relevant people and organisations as possible, at all levels of society. This is indispensable to get a better understanding of the challenges this country is facing, and to identify niches where the my country could play a constructive role. This is valid for the economic and commercial cooperation, as well as for the promotion of the ‘rapprochement’ between both our countries and between Serbia and the EU. I definitely plan to get out of Belgrade more often and familiarize myself with the situation in more distant cities and regions.
I will also make it a priority to visit Belgian economic operators, and learn from their experiences. Their success stories, such as Metech, Kenzai, Delhaize, Blockx, Elicio, T4B to name a few, are the true ambassadors for the promotion of Serbia as destination for trade and investment.
In which part the EU and a Belgium diplomatic agenda are the same, and what particular bilateral topic you intend to pursue?
– The road map has been spelled out, the EU commitment to the European perspective of the Balkan has been reconfirmed earlier this year, and Belgium fully supports this trajectory. At the same time we stick to the ‘strict and fair conditionality’ with which every candidate member, including Serbia, will be assessed prior to any enlargement decision. In that process we will pay particular attention to reforms in areas that are fundamental, because they shape the democratic reality and hence provide the credentials that will allow candidates to accede. We look for progress in the Rule of Law, , the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, but also in the way corruption or the fight against organised crime is tackled.
There is a direct link between this agenda and the need to attract more interest of economic operators to come to Serbia and look for business opportunities that may lead to job creation and extra growth. It is indeed the improvement of Serbia’s image, as a law abiding country, with transparent procurement, a predictable and corrupt free business climate, and a reliable and independent judiciary, that will become Serbia’s best ambassador and pave the way to prosperity.
Finally, regional reconciliation will not be feasible without due attention to the healing force of a properly conducted process of transitional justice, with respect for all the victims.
How do you estimate the progress in the region and Serbia in terms of security and reforms?
– Belgium respects the choice of Serbia to maintain its military neutrality, and appreciates the fact that this doesn’t prevent a close cooperation with NATO, as illustrated recently by the joint NATO-Serbia emergency rescue exercise ‘Serbia 2018”. Serbia can and should be a true area of stability in a region where the situation remains fragile: the still open-ended outcome of the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, the ongoing proceedings regarding the implementation of the Macedonia-agreement, and the challenges in Bosnia Herzegovina create a context that requires responsible leadership. Belgium is built on a permanent search for compromise solutions between our (language) communities, with respect for minority voices as the cement for the stability of our democracy. I believe such a mindset could also be beneficial to bringing lasting peace and stability to this region.
With regard to reforms, and as was rightly said by your Prime Minister, they should not be merely looked at as a ‘Brussels imposed obligation’, to gain an ‘entry ticket’, but rather as instruments to improve overall living conditions and governance, irrespective of the ultimate accession goal. The process is of a transformative nature, and I do believe Serbia is on the right track, but there is still a lot of work to be accomplished. At the end of the day EU will welcome a more performant Serbia, that can play its due role in the EU family.
In which specific areas Belgium may support the Serbian EU accession process?
– The financial support of my country is mainly channelled through our contribution to the EU assistance via financial instruments such as IPA. As a founder father of the EU, and with Brussels as the host of the European institutions, Belgium has knowhow and experience to share with any newcomer to our European project. We already do this in the areas of police and border cooperation, the fight against organised crime and terrorism. There is an excellent cooperation between both our prosecutors’ offices, and on parliamentary level both Belgo-Serbian friendship groups are in regular contact.
Earlier this year a group of Serbian officials came to our Ministry for an in-depth training. These are very good channels to assist Serbian counterparts in the process of aligning with EU principles and norms in all those areas. At a diplomatic level I believe it is important to improve our communication, collectively and as individual member states, to explain to the Serbian public what is at stake: the benefits of accession but also what the EU stands for, as a community of shared principles and values. This can create more confidence in the outcome of often difficult transformation processes. Adequate expectation management is a responsibility of the Serbian government as well as of its European partners.
Where do you see a possibility for more robust economic cooperation between our countries?
– We have to look at the Serbian own development priorities and strategies, to which our companies’ attention can be drawn. I notice for instance the enthusiasm with which PM Ana Brnabić is promoting the digital agenda. The same goes for the Serbian focus on renewable energy, an area with already important Belgian investments, in particular in wind farming. But let’s also remain realistic: these companies are in grand majority SME-sized, eager to find commensurate Serbian partners to launch often small scale projects at local level. This is a process that requires, against the backdrop of economic and legal stability, some delicate confidence building, and good matching, a process that is accompanied by our regional Economic and Trade promotion section, and by the Belgian Business Association (BSBA).