European Western Balkans
European Integration

EWB Interview, David McAllister: More attention should be paid to assuring judicial independence, fighting corruption and strengthening democratic institutions

David McAllister

On 9 January 2017, David McAllister, European Parliament (EP) rapporteur on Serbia, will present the draft report on Serbia’s progress towards the EU to the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the EP (AFET). Members of EP will propose amendments in January and in March the EP will adopt a non-binding resolution on Serbia, based on a draft prepared by the rapporteur on Serbia.

In an exclusive interview for European Western Balkans Mr. McAllister explained what can we expect from the draft report, and also how much the lack of judicial independence, fight against corruption and the media freedom can slow down the European integration process of Serbia. Also, he talked about how the fact that Serbian Progressive Party became an associate member of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which McAllister is vice president, can affect Serbia’s path towards the EU.

European Western Balkans: Your draft report on Serbia’s progress towards the EU is expected on Monday. What are the most important recommendations that the draft EP Resolution will give to Serbia?

David McAllister: My objective is to present a draft report which draws a fair and realistic picture of Serbia’s path towards the European Union. I believe that it is not my task as the standing rapporteur to lecture Serbia in any way. I rather aim to assist the country to reach its goal of EU membership. Since the adoption of the 2015 resolution on Serbia, the country has opened the important chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security), the overall economic situation in the country has improved and Serbia remained committed to regional cooperation and reconciliation. However, in order to align with the acquis, more attention should be paid to, for example, assuring judicial independence, fighting corruption and strengthening democratic institutions.

EWB: In the European Commission’s Report on Serbia it is said that there is a strong political influence on the judicial authorities by the “highest political actors”. It is also said that Serbia achieved no progress in the previous year in the fight against corruption. How can this data affect or slow down the European integration process of Serbia?

DM: The rule of law is at the very centre of Serbia’s accession process and the overall pace of the negotiations will depend in particular on further progress in this area. When countries respect the rule of law, their citizens, businesses, state institutions and the economy as a whole are protected from crime. Reforms, including the commitment of an independent judiciary, are of vital importance, in particular for the Serbian people. In the upcoming year, Serbia should continue tackling challenges related to the independence, accountability and effectiveness of the judicial system and establish a track record of investigation, prosecution and final convictions in corruption cases. This is a long and challenging process but the European Union is committed to assist Serbia along this way.

EWB: It was also stated in the Report that Serbia does not enable full freedom of expression and that there are more frequent attacks of pro-government tabloids on investigative and independent journalists who are labeled as “foreign mercenaries”. Is perhaps the EU, for the sake of dialogue with Pristina and economic reforms, too lenient towards the Serbian government when it comes to media freedoms?

DM: I am frequently asked whether the European Union neglects important policy areas such as the rule of law or media freedom for the sake of progress in the dialogue. This is not at all the case. The guarantee of media freedom and freedom of expression are of vital importance for Serbia’s EU path. The new European Commission report on Serbia was very clear on this topic, stating that “no progress was made to improve conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression as well as that the overall environment is not conducive to the full exercise of this right.”

EWB: Serbian foreign policy is frequently criticized because it is not fully in line with EU foreign policy. However, Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that Serbia does not know what it is asked to do because one third of EU member states blocks the screening report for chapter 31 for a year. Why is there a blockade? The degree of compatibility of Serbia’s foreign policy with EU foreign policy is 59 percent. All other countries in the region have a significantly higher level of compliance. How do you, as rapporteur for Serbia, see this information?

DM: In total, Serbia aligned itself with 24 out of 41 EU declarations and Council decisions, representing an alignment rate of around 59 percent. Pursuant to chapter 31 of the acquis, Serbia should progressively align its foreign and security policy to that of the European Union. The EU is willing to maintain and develop the dialogue with Serbia on a range of Foreign Policy issues and is keen to see progress in this area.

EWB: We frequently hear from the Prime Minister and other government officials that Serbia will be ready for EU membership by 2020. The data shows that Serbia is quite lagging behind in adopting and implementing EU legislation (for example, the Parliament did not work for 9 months). How do you assess the current situation in this field and whether it is realistic for Serbia to achieve EU standards in the next three years?

DM: I am convinced – Serbia is on its path towards the European Union. How fast the country will move forward mainly depends on Serbia itself. Serbia has shown great progress on the path to the European Union, but there are still major challenges to tackle. The overall pace of negotiations will depend in particular on further progress on the rule of law and on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

EWB: Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is in crisis in recent months. President Nikolić even calls for its termination if Kosovo becomes a member of UNESCO. Are you worried about this attitude of Serbian officials? How do you see the future of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina?

DM: I believe that both sides, Belgrade and Pristina, should – step by step – move forward with the implementation of the already reached agreements. Progress has to be made on key agreements, namely on the establishment of the Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo, on energy, on telecoms and on the Mitrovica Bridge. I welcome that both parties under the EU facilitation reached an arrangement in November which ensures that a three-digit dialling code is allocated by the International Telecommunications Union to Kosovo. In the upcoming year, both sides should identify new areas of discussion for the dialogue with the aim of improving the lives of people and comprehensively normalising relations.

EWB: Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) became an associate member of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which you are vice president. What should be the consequence of this for Serbia’s path towards the EU?

DM: After a long process of monitoring, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has been accepted as an associate member of the European People’s Party (EPP). This is a positive development and I am confident that the SNS can benefit from the close exchange with its new “sister parties”, such as the German CDU. Serbia’s path towards the EU depends on the country’s ability to adopt and implement important reforms in order to align with the EU legislation.

N.T. Štiplija, Nikola Burazer and Mihaela Šljukić

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