We strongly believe that an EU membership is not only beneficial for Serbia but also important for the European Union
New ambassador of Sweden to Serbia and Montenegro, H.E. Annika Ben David in her first interview for the magazine Diplomacy&Commerce talks about her first impressions, priorities and development cooperation between Sweden and Serbia.
You were recently appointed the Ambassador of Sweden to Serbia. What are your first impressions?
My first couple of months as an Ambassador of Sweden to Serbia and to Montenegro have been very interesting and intense. Belgrade, my adopted hometown has so far shown its most charming side. I enjoyed the summery weather that lasted until the end of September, something that we northerners particularly enjoy. The city is full of history, eclectic architecture and many landmarks showing how East and West meet here. This gives the city a special vibe which I think that newcomers find very interesting and attractive.
It has been very interesting to learn more about Serbia. As Ambassador one has the possibility to get to know a country, its people and customs in a way that is difficult if you are a tourist. People living in Serbia are very friendly, generous and hospitable and I am enjoying myself. I feel welcome in Serbia wherever I go.
What will be your priorities in further work and cooperation with Serbia?
My mission is to further broaden and deepen the relations between Sweden and Serbia. The bilateral ties stand on very solid pillars. One of them being Sweden’s continued support to Serbia on its EU path. We strongly believe that an EU membership is not only beneficial for Serbia but also important for the European Union. Another strong pillar is the Serbian diaspora in Sweden, who over the years have contributed a lot to the development of the Swedish society and economy. The diaspora is today helping us to build bridges between Sweden and Serbia, in areas such as business and culture.
What will development cooperation focus on in the coming years?
Sweden has been supporting Serbia since 2000 through development assistance. Recently the Swedish Government adopted a new reform strategy for the Western Balkans and Turkey for the coming seven years. That means that Sweden will continue to support Serbia’s reform agenda towards EU integration through partnerships with various Serbian actors, allocating about 12m euros a year for various types of projects and programs. This is an expression of our long-term commitment to Serbia’s EU path.
“My mission is to further broaden and deepen the relations between Sweden and Serbia. The bilateral ties stand on very solid pillars”
Sweden is one of the three largest donors to Serbia. Our development cooperation focuses on institutional and economic development, environment and climate change, rule of law, democracy and human rights. Up until now, we have supported Serbia with more than 280 million euros.
We will now intensify our efforts for increased respect for human rights, strengthening democracy and the rule of law, gender equality, inclusive economic development, environment and climate change. The Swedish support shall also focus on peaceful and inclusive societies.
What do you consider to be the biggest obstacles on the path to Serbia’s accession to the EU?
The European Commission’s last annual progress report on Serbia concluded that progress has been made in the last year. In some areas, it is limited and leaves room for intensified work, such as the fight against corruption and organized crime, judicial reform, freedom of expression and harmonization with the common foreign and security policy. In conclusion, a new cluster in Serbia’s EU accession process was opened.
There are several reasons why no chapter was opened for two years before that, primarily due to shortcomings in the field of the rule of law. We hope that the recent opening of cluster 4 in the EU accession process will help to boost the reform process. 2022 will be the year of implementation and we will follow closely Serbia’s continued reform efforts.
What are the most important reforms that Serbia needs to implement to meet the criteria for EU membership?
Every country that aspires to join the EU is expected to agree and promote the basic values of the union – the rule of law, democracy and justice. Serbia needs to continue and deepen reforms in these areas and also in the field of freedom of expression, which is a human right. The fight against organized crime and corruption is also very high on the agenda.
Sweden is one of the largest donors in the field of environmental protection. What is the situation in Serbia like in regard to that issue?
Sweden is one of the largest donors generally with approximately 12 million euros per year, but in the field of environment, Sweden is in the lead on EU environmental reform, Chapter 27. In both Sweden and in Serbia the EU environmental reform is about improving the quality of life for citizens, having access to clean air and water, to have a healthy life. But the quality of life is also about having access to information about the environmental situation and being able to participate actively as a citizen in decision-making. We work with the Government, municipalities, industry, CSO and citizens to improve the quality of life of the citizens of Serbia.
In the field of environment, we cooperate very much with the European Union. I was pleased to represent my country when the Government of Serbia recently launched the Project “EU for the Green Agenda in Serbia – Get Started, Take Action, Scale Up“.
“The Swedish companies create jobs in Serbia but they also bring corporate social responsibility, a commitment to sustainable business, trust, optimism and faith in the future”
This s a new two year initiative by the EU and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), implemented in cooperation with Sweden and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The goal is to help Serbia improve strategies and policies, take concrete action and make increased investments for green transformation, especially in the areas of decarbonization, reduction of air, water and land pollution, circular economy, agriculture and food production and biodiversity protection.
We believe that this initiative will contribute to the kick-start of the green transition in Serbia. However, we all need to engage, not just the national and local authorities, but also public and private companies, civil society organizations, scientific and research institutions, and citizens.
Over 100 Swedish companies operate in Serbia. What do you think is the advantage of doing business in Serbia and what Serbia still needs to do to attract more investors from your country?
I’m pleased that the number of Swedish companies of all sizes and industry sectors is growing. We already have more than 100 Swedish companies in Serbia employing close to 10 000 workers. Trade between our countries is constantly growing. Despite the pandemic, it has grown by 30 percent.
Serbian companies are increasingly exporting goods and services to Sweden. The Swedish companies create jobs in Serbia but they also bring corporate social responsibility, a commitment to sustainable business, trust, optimism and faith in the future. They are an important part of the business society in Serbia contributing to society as a whole.
I meet with the representatives of the Swedish business community in Serbia on a regular basis in order to discuss how the business climate in Serbia can be improved.
Generally, Serbia has taken some important steps toward improving its business environment and increasing the competitiveness of its economy. Still, a lot remains to be done for a truly competitive economic environment, where the private sector leads on growth and job creation. Competitiveness is one of the key areas where further improvements are needed to align with best practices from the European Union, which Serbia aspires to join.