Jadranka Joksimović: Serbia Takes Its Candidacy of the EU Seriously

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Jadranka Joksimović, Serbian minister of European integration, believes that Serbia’s strategic role is in connecting — connecting economies, people, even policies. She spoke to Nikodem Chinowski about the EU integration process, difficult neighbour relations with Croatia and Kosovo, and about the idea of the Balkan single market.

Serbia has closed two EU membership negotiations chapters so far. Eight are still open. Which ones seem to be the most challenging for the country in the next rounds of negotiations?

Yes, so far, Serbia has opened ten chapters, two of which have been provisionally closed. Each chapter carries a challenge in terms of changing the legislative framework and in particular as regards applying new standards – namely, in changing what is considered common practice. Personally, I think that the major challenges are in the field of environmental protection, agriculture, phytosanitary control, energy…

Of course, we may all agree that the biggest challenges are Chapters 23 and 24, as these chapters cover the broadest issues concerning the rule of law and should change the most ingrained habits/practices, strengthen institutions, and enhance the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption, etc. However, due to the scope and complexity of these issues, it sometimes seems that these chapters are almost without parameters; if one is looking to find fault, then something can always be found. If judged by the same standards, I am not certain that all current member states would successfully pass the tests for membership today. But we are aware of this and we are not overly frustrated about it.

Jadranka Joksimović (photo credit: Andjelko Vasiljevič)
Jadranka Joksimović (photo credit: Andjelko Vasiljevič)

Is the pace of negotiations in line with the plan?

Well, the most important thing is that our citizens are satisfied with the progress and reforms so the trust they have for the European path can be stable and strong. The problem that sometimes arises is when the context of the integration process is influenced by flammable rhetoric, often under the pretext of a pre-election campaign. In the past four years, Serbia has had elections three times, and votes have never been won by the use of incendiary rhetoric against our fellow citizens and neighbours. This is a characteristic of a country that takes its candidacy of the EU seriously.

Now, Chapter 35 — the Kosovo issue. First of all — do you consider it as a big obstacle in the negotiations?  Or is it only distant observers who treat it as a big deal?

In terms of issues that are very sensitive for all our citizens, such as the issue of Kosovo and Metohija, Serbia’s stance of seeking answers through dialogue is beyond reproach. Even during the volatile period, when Albanian leaders were making innumerable incendiary statements and demanding border changes in the region, Serbia called for dialogue. The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is the only viable way to resolve points of debate and the issues that matter to the citizens of Kosovo and Metohija.

Crucial to this is a respect for agreements made, such as the one for establishing the Community of Serb Municipalities. Serbs have been waiting for years for this Community, which will enable them to exercise their rights. That is why we have always drawn attention to the fact that Chapter 35 is not and should not be a substitute for dialogue, because it would mean that Serbia is not only negotiating EU membership with the EU, but also with representatives of the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government in Pristina. That is not in accordance with the principles of the accession process.

Are you afraid that eventually the EU will demand that Belgrade recognise Kosovo? 

Serbia does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, and that is why we are involved in the process of dialogue with Pristina. The dialogue and the Brussels Agreement reflect the fact that Serbia has not recognised the independence of Kosovo, and neither have five EU member states.

Furthermore, I personally do not think that even potential recognition would mean an accelerated entry into the EU. Therefore, it is not productive to bring this up in the context of the citizens’ support for Serbia’s EU membership project. I am convinced that the Copenhagen criteria in terms of reforms and standards are of the utmost significance. Or, at least, they should be. Our policy is primarily a responsibility to our citizens.

What about the relations with Croatia and Slovenia — aren’t you afraid that those governments may veto negotiations on some points?

Our cooperation with Slovenia is very good and comprehensive, especially in the field of European integration. We do not have any outstanding issues, and so far Slovenia has been very constructive in terms of Serbia’s membership negotiations.

And Croatia?

Relations between Serbia and Croatia are more complex, not only in the context of historical relations, but also in view of the current bilateral relations, which are almost continuously marked by provocative rhetoric from Croatia. Excuses are constantly made that this rhetoric is due either to election campaigns or specific historical dates over which Serbs and Croats disagree.

Of course, our reaction then follows, and it just goes in circles. Therefore, this issue goes beyond the significance of opening chapters, and I do not consider it rational that European integration should be used as an instrument for conditioning the improvement of bilateral relations.

After all, there is so much history of conflict among the current EU members, but everyone still agreed that it was better to sit down at the same table and negotiate about the most important interests of your countries and the European continent, at least. I do not know why we could not do the same. Serbia demonstrates its readiness for this. We anticipate that Croatia will share this stance in the future.

How do you see Serbia’s attractiveness for direct foreign investments? Does every closed chapter make the Serbian economy more attractive, or do those negotiations have no real impact on its appeal yet?

Opening, and even more important, the closing of chapters in the EU accession negotiations are clear indicators that you are meeting the EU standards in every area of EU law.

For example?

There are numerous examples. I will mention the most recent ones. Serbia has opened Chapter 5 on public procurement and Chapter 7 on intellectual property protection. This means that the degree of protection of tenderers’ rights in the public procurement procedure or copyright and related rights is very similar to that of the EU. However, a well-designed investment and development policy at the EU accession stage involves much more than harmonisation and implementation of legislation.

We strive to provide the best conditions in the region through national investment policy measures. Simultaneously, in order to make such an environment attractive for all investors in the long-term, we are working to reform and improve the education system, which should become increasingly capable of responding to the needs of the market. Scientific and technological development, with the assistance of the EU financial instruments, is also very significant for creating a scientific and research base for improvement of existing investments.

Are you satisfied with the way Serbia spends the pre-access funds, which is about €200 million per year?

For us, European integration is not only a foreign policy orientation of the state, but also an instrument of domestic, local and regional development. That is why my Ministry for European Integration is also in charge of coordinating the programming of Instrument of Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) and other European and bilateral development assistance funds. The total amount of funds is important, but not the most vital aspect. What’s most important is the utilisation and ultimate effect of the development policy. I’m satisfied with the way we are planning and programming funds. We are investing the greatest efforts in order to contract all available resources in a timely fashion.

In which sectors is most of that money allocated?

This year’s priorities are the reform of public administration, the justice sector, internal affairs, and transport infrastructure. As from the next annual IPA allocation, priorities will be competitiveness and innovation, environmental protection, judiciary, support to educational reforms (strengthening links with employment and social inclusion) and integrated border management.

Regarding pre-access funds: what about the upcoming years? The same budget? The same sectors?

Serbia’s developmental policy is dynamic and well-planned. Priorities are determined in accordance with the Framework Strategy Paper and on the basis of the needs in the negotiations. The Needs Assessment Document (2014-2020) — a document defining national priorities for international assistance, which concerns the entire funding cycle of the IPA Fund – has a significant role in planning. Thus, the sectors using financial support are changing due to priorities for each year, as well as depending on the readiness of the projects to be financed.

On my own initiative, Serbia is the first country in the region to introduce the National Investment Council and a unique database of infrastructure projects. The Minister of Finance and I, as the minister in charge of coordinating the programming of EU funds, are co-chairs. The aim of this Council, as well as of the database, is to use development funds at our disposal in the best and most efficient manner. In order to do this, we have introduced a criterion that only ready-made projects could be financed with development aid resources. This is also one of the reasons why we are good at planning and programming funds.

What positive effects may occur in the Serbian economy after implementing some reforms enforced by the EU?

Every investor that comes to Serbia knows this is a state characterised by political stability and a strategic commitment to EU membership. Serbia is a candidate for membership, deep into negotiations with the EU on membership, and it has been aligning its national regulations with the EU law for a full decade. These facts demonstrate that the legal framework for potential investors is familiar, stable and predictable.

Moreover, through measures of the national investment policy, we are acquainting all investors with the fact that Serbia is ready to offer the most favourable conditions, comparatively, for investment. This requires a persistent investment policy and a stimulating investment environment. The government of the Republic of Serbia has been working on this over the course of the past few years. This has resulted in the growth of Serbia’s rating, both on the “Doing Business” list of the World Bank, and also in terms of its credit rating.

What negative effects may occur in the Serbian economy should the EU enforce the implementation of ‘painful’ reforms?

First of all, I would like to point out that no measure taken by the government of the Republic of Serbia has been implemented under pressure from the EU. The EU has never been an excuse for undertaking unpopular measures. The Serbian government confirmed legitimacy for everything that it is doing at the Serbian elections, and not at elections in the EU, and for all its actions it is liable to its citizens.

We commenced with these activities knowing that positive effects and significant progress would occur in the medium and long term. This expectation was realised and is confirmed every day through clear indicators of budget revenue growth.

Are you satisfied with the way Serbia fights against corruption?

I am satisfied with the manner in which the fight against corruption is being systematically regulated. From the position of European integration, Serbia had an institutional framework for the fight against corruption before all others in the region, and long before the opening of Chapter 23. Our priority is to improve conditions for a decent, professional and effective judiciary in the fight against corruption.

Jadranka Joksimović (photo credit: Andjelko Vasiljevič)
Jadranka Joksimović (photo credit: Andjelko Vasiljevič)

And that is why your government has established the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA)?

The draft of the new Law on the Anti-Corruption Agency confirms a strong political will to improve things. The most important changes made by this law relate primarily to politicians and officials. These are changes that are based on the principle “one person, one function”.

Personally, I try to promote the basic tenets of professionalism and ethics in politics by doing my work. Would I be more satisfied if the outcome of fighting corruption was more substantial? In terms of the number of cases that the media and politicians speculate about, certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. There is a saying in Serbia that “justice may be slow, but it is viable”. It is up to us to expand the climate of justice, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Let’s move to international affairs. What role would Serbia like to play in the Balkans region? Especially with reference to Belgrade being the main city between Budapest and Athens.

Your question provides a framework for my answer. I see Serbia as a central part of South East Europe, which enables us to develop cooperation in several directions in the region. As far as we are concerned, the directions of such a cooperation policy are open to everyone from the Balkans. Through these directions the Balkans will be open to all parts of Europe and the world. For Europe, the route from Budapest to Athens has been important since the time of the Roman emperors.

And today?

This route should represent an artery connecting Asia and South-East Europe – what participants of the “sixteen plus one summit” named the “Silk Road”. In the language of European integration, it stands for the key transport corridor on the Trans-European Network of Southeast Europe. Therefore, I believe that Serbia’s strategic role is in connecting. In connecting economies, people – even policies, if you wish. 

The Balkan single market — what is your opinion on that idea?

In theory it is a good idea. As the Minister for European Integration, I always support the idea of economic integration, because this was the fundamental idea that once gathered war-torn European countries, allowing them to launch their economic growth. However, for me it is significant that we have been assured that this will certainly not be a substitute for the full process of European integration, because not everyone in the region is at the same phase of negotiation. Some have not even opened negotiation, and do not have the candidate status. And that should be kept in mind.

So implementing that idea must take some time, right?

In the journey from idea to realisation, one must travel a certain distance. The establishment of a customs union, and in particular that of a common market, implies comprehensive work and the establishment of joint institutions. I think that this is a major political challenge. However, we have good intentions; and it’s worth remembering that this idea was first launched by the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, who, along with his responsible international and regional positioning, stabilised the course of Serbia via comprehensive economic and social reforms, and contributed significantly to regional initiatives and cooperation.

(Main photo: President Aleksandar Vucic — then Serbia’s Prime Minister — and Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, hold a joint press conference,  September 2016)

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