European Western Balkans’ interviewee this time was Jadranka Joksimović, Serbian Minister Without Portfolio Responsible for European Integration. She is also Secretary on International Affairs of the Serbian Progressive Party.
European Western Balkans: What do you see as the biggest challenges Serbia is facing on its way towards becoming a full member of the EU?
Jadranka Joksimović: The most important goal we want to achieve by becoming a member of the EU is a growth of standard of living, and growth of our economy. Our citizens can see the challenges we are facing in achieving these goals. I am sure that they appreciate openness and sincerity, even when it is not popular, and this is the reasons Aleksandar Vučić won presidential elections by a landslide.
Our biggest investment is still going to be investment in stability. There is no better investment in stability than strengthening mutual trust and working on joint development projects. Only development can make difference in comparison to the previous times. It is important to add that people in Serbia are able see the region far beyond our immediate surrounding – the Western Balkans. It is in our interest that we do not lose from sight equally important cooperation with other neighbours, such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and even with countries beyond our immediate neighbourhood, such as Austria, Slovenia and Greece. I am afraid that if we do not start to make a difference we might come to a conclusion that the region is developing in two speeds, and we would like to avoid that. Therefore, the Berlin Process is, with its connectivity agenda, a good form through which those divisions can be avoided.
EWB: So far, Serbia has been successful in opening negotiating chapters. Do you think Serbia is ready for opening new ones? If it is, which chapters do you expect to be open by the end of this year?
JJ: Each negotiating groups and the Negotiating team is doing their job. This also applies to the chapter 31 (Foreign, security and defence policy) and chapter 10 (Information society and media) for which we still have not got an invitation of the EU to deliver negotiating position. Other groups are working hard on preparing negotiating positions and meeting the criteria. We have delivered negotiating positions for chapter 7 (Intellectual property law) and chapter 29 (Customs union) to the EU, and it is now up for the member states to discuss and reach a consensus. For considerable number of chapters, drafting of negotiating positions is in the final stage. Those are chapter 6 (Company law), chapter 30 (External relations) and chapter 33 (Financial and budgetary provisions).
As it is obvious that the focus is on opening new chapters, I just want to point out that we must not lose sight from a major work which takes place in the chapters we have opened. We still have a work to do regarding chapters 25 and 26, even though they are closed. In these areas, it is also necessary to keep an eye open on implementation of programmes of the EU and acquis.
EWB: How do you assess cooperation with other state institutions involved in the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU, primarily with the Negotiating team, European Integration Office, and The European Integrations Committee of Serbian Parliament?
JJ: I must point out that the Negotiating team and European Integration Office are not secondary institutions. Those are institutions which are responsible to the government and whose work is coordinated, with the authority of the Prime Minister, by minister assigned for European Integrations. This is a well-coordinated team that has professional people, established tactics and whose dedicated work is based on strategic and political commitment of the Government of Serbia to pave its European path with reforms.
On the other hand, the legitimacy of the Government lies in the Parliament. Therefore, it is our job to regularly present activities and results that are achieved in the field of European integration to to the Parliamentary Committee for European Integration.
It is a cooperation in which the Committee and government institutions dealing with European integration have initiative and it takes place in an organized and orderly manner. The Committee is being reported on the course of the negotiation process, and we are frequently presenting activities and results in the process of European integration. This parliamentary body is an important link with citizens and civil society organizations that are gathered in the form of the National Convention on the EU. Before adopting any negotiating position, the Government consults the Committee. I think that is the only way we can ensure the legitimacy and maintain political and social consensus in the process of European integration of the Republic of Serbia.
EWB: In which ways Serbia is using IPA funds? How successful are we in using these funds in comparison with other countries of the region which are already members of the EU, and with those who have the same status as Serbia?
JJ: Serbia is the first country in the region which introduced National Committee on Investments and the unified database for infrastructure projects. The aim of this Committee and the database, is to use development funds on best and the most effective way. To achieve that, we introduced criteria according to which only well-prepared projects can be financed by IPA funds. That is one of the reasons we are good in planning allocation of funds, but that does not mean we are not facing challenges. Those challenges are not different from the ones Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and other countries were facing. These countries needed time fully absorb funds allotted to them. For that it is necessary to have well trained personnel who is working on contracting of EU funds and on the managing of EU projects.
This specially applies to programs which we are using for the first time, such as IPA program for rural development. As for the IPA programs which have been completed to date, utilization of funds is very high and it is approximately 94%, which certainly ranks Serbia among the most successful countries which are in the process of European integration.
EWB: How do you assess Serbia’s progress in the chapters 23 and 24?
JJ: Chapters 23 and 24 are one of the most important chapters. I consider them significant not only because they may affect the overall dynamics of the negotiations, but primarily due to the positive effect they might have on the rights of citizens and strengthening society which is based on the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. Many institutions were involved in working on these complex chapters. Around 60 institutions from all branches of government were in involved in the preparation of the Action Plan for Chapter 23. Responsibility for the implementation of action plans is not only on the government but also the judiciary, independent institutions, parliament. Chapter 23 is the best example that European integration is not just a matter of the government, but it is the matter of whole country, and because of its effects, eventually on the whole society.
For the purposes of monitoring progress in these chapters, we introduced special reporting mechanisms. Some call them the ‘traffic light’ reports. Depending on the colour of the light, a certain measure is implemented, or it is in one of the stages of its implementation. For now, dynamic is good. Percentage fulfilment of action plans in the second half of 2016, for Chapter 23 is about 71%, and for Chapter 24 is about 82%. This includes measures that have been implemented or are in the process of implementation.
More important than the statistics is that we will be satisfied once our citizens feel that the state is fighting against organized crime and corruption more efficiently, or when cases in the courts are being effectively resolved. At the end of the day, it is about concrete issues, not just statistics.