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Commissioner Hahn: “Serbia has made remarkable progress”

Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Johannes  Hahn give Serbian national news agency - Tanjug an exclusive interview. European Western Balkans republish this interview in full.

Johannes Hahn; Photo: Tanjug

Tanjug: Mr Commissioner Hahn, where is the EU today, 60 years after its foundation? In Your opinion, in which direction should a possible “reconstruction” of the EU go?

Johannes Hahn: After 60 years, the EU is still the backbone of a solution to many of the challenges we face in Europe and its neighbourhood: it continues to make us stronger together in tackling cross-border problems that cannot be effectively dealt with by individual countries. The basic reasons of European integration – peace, prosperity and security – are more relevant than ever. These are precious achievements that we take for granted today. Despite all the pessimism that often glares from media headlines, the facts are indisputable: the EU is the largest trading block in the world, producing nearly a quarter of the world’s GDP with only seven percent of global population. We are the biggest trading partner of some 80 nations all over the world. And we have, despite all issues, maintained a high quality of life for our citizens and a unique social model. Therefore, personally, I do not see Europe’s ‘reconstruction’ as a one-off radical change but more as a pragmatic, step-by-step process that builds on and consolidates these solid achievements in today’s unstable world. This process is ongoing and actually will never be complete – we will always have new challenges to which Europe will have to adapt. This is a sign of strength and resilience rather than weakness.

T: The EU leaders in March concluded that the Western Balkan region is vital for Europe and that “the EU door is open” for the countries of region, including Serbia, which is referred to as “anchor stability in the Balkans”. What does the EU, in this critical moment for the future of the EU, expect of Serbia?

JH: The EU perspective of the whole Western Balkan region is firm and unquestionable. This is what the EU leaders repeated at the European Council on 9 March 2017 that you refer to. They did so because the EU’s future cannot be conceived without Serbia and all other countries in the region, just as Serbia’s future is inconceivable without the EU, whose membership is Serbia’s strategic goal.

Geography is destiny. We all aspire towards a better future for our children, where prosperity, equal opportunities, peace and stability prevail. And we need Serbia to play its part as a driving force in the region in this respect, be it in terms of economic growth, adherence to EU values, or good neighbourly relations. This is what the EU expects of Serbia.

T: On the other hand, what Serbia can expect on its EU path in future? Can there be new conditions or “uncertain yard” in which candidate countries could enter with changes in EU?

JH: Serbia has made remarkable progress in the last few years. The country has come a long way from isolation, recession and instability. Serbia is nowadays a very respected key player in the region. It has engaged on a reform path which is already paying off! Serbia is attracting investors from all over the world, with the prospect of new job opportunities. It is engaged in ambitious reforms which are impacting directly on Serbian people’s lives. Serbian youth is getting better prepared to match labour market needs. Serbia is better connected, with important infrastructure projects in the pipeline.

This did not come by chance. The EU perspective anchored such progress. The EU is Serbia’s first economic and political partner. More than two thirds of Serbia’s trade exchanges are with the EU. More than two third of foreign direct investments in Serbia are also coming from the EU. Serbia’s EU perspective is a unique factor of attractiveness for investors. Serbian students and teachers are the biggest beneficiaries of Erasmus programmes in the region. The EU is also by far Serbia’s biggest donor when it comes to assistance – I still have a very vivid memory of travelling to Obrenovac in the aftermath of the tragic floods in 2014.

This is what Serbia can expect on its EU path. A continued commitment from the EU to a shared future. The EU is an honest broker in the region. This will not change.

T: HR Federica Mogherini, after returning from the region, said that the EU has the instruments for overcoming the difficulties and the ability to offer desired future and perspective to people of WB. Is there an effective EU response to tensions in WB countries? What are those mechanisms?

JH: We place great emphasis on good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation – they are in fact essential elements of the Stabilisation and Association and enlargement processes. The EU facilitates intensive contacts and cooperation at bilateral and regional level, including in sensitive areas such as war crimes, missing persons and refugee return, to overcome the difficult legacy of the conflict in the region.

Of course the High Level Dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade serves the same objective to support the normalisation process between the countries and establish good bilateral relations which will also have a positive impact on the whole region.

Equally important is to build bridges in other areas, with concrete results and benefits for local populations. This is why we initiate and support various new regional cooperation initiatives, such as the connectivity agenda which includes important transport and energy projects of common interest to foster economic opportunities that will only materialise if the region works together to attract international investment. We are encouraging more people to people contacts notably among the youth, through participation in Erasmus, the setting up of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office and the new pilot scheme for exchanges among young civil servants. We are also investing in improving the media landscape and the participation of civil society to build a more inclusive social and political culture in the region.

T: What can the EU or is willing to do concretely regarding last messages from Mr Rama and Mr Thaci who are talking about changing borders in region in case of ”closed EU door” for their countries?

We have made it clear several times that we do not accept statements which imply changing borders or other inflammatory rhetoric.

T: The public in Serbia often wonders what Serbia should do more to prevent them from often being characterised as “Serbian ultra-nationalists”. Is it, in view of the situation in neighbouring countries in the region and some EU countries, even possible today to complain on Serbian ultra-nationalism? If so, can You tell us where You see the examples of Serbian nationalism and for whom it is dangerous?

JH: Of course ultra-nationalism is a dangerous phenomenon when it appears. But let me be clear: nobody in the EU is talking in these terms about Serbian people. Personally, every time I have been travelling to Serbia, and it has been often, I have been impressed by the Serbian people’s hospitality and openness to others. Take Serbia’s very humane treatment of refugees, for example. Or, to take another example, Serbia’s constructive contribution to the so-called Berlin process. All this has nothing to do with ultra-nationalism: on the contrary, Serbia sets an example. Serbian people are proud of their identity, of their history, of the place of their country in the world. They are entitled to feel so and should not be afraid that the EU – whose motto is precisely “united in diversity” – will put this in danger.

What I am really concerned about, in general, in the whole Western Balkans region and elsewhere, including in Europe, is the rise of populism and the promotion of simplistic proposals to solve complex problems. Isolation and looking for “guilty” ones is never the right answer. All of us as Europeans have enough suffered the devastating effects of populism in the darker times of our history; we do not want to see it again. The challenges Serbia, the entire Western Balkans and the EU are facing are global challenges – unemployment, migration, terrorism and other security risks, legacies of the past. The only way to address them is together, through cooperation and dialogue, not through escalation of rhetoric and threats.

T: We can see clearly pro-European policy of Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, government implementing reforms, there are concessions to reduce tensions in the region. Is that not sufficient enough for Serbia to receive greater support from EU?

JH: Indeed, Serbia, in particular under the leadership of PM Vucic has made good progress in the past years towards its strategic goal of EU membership. It is implementing an ambitious economic and structural reforms agenda, which has already yielded results and it has demonstrated its commitment to regional cooperation, including on the EU connectivity agenda which we aim to enhance further at the Trieste summit in July. This hard work paid off, with eight chapters opened and two provisionally closed. But this is not the end of the road.

I know people in Serbia may feel impatient or that this is not going fast enough. I understand them. And you can count on mine and the European Commission’s continued strong commitment for this path. But the pace of negotiations is in Serbia’s hands. Conditions are clear, and they have not changed. We need Serbia to help us build a positive narrative so that Member States agree unanimously to open more chapters in the coming months. Now that Serbian presidential elections are behind us, I am confident that all energy in Serbia will be devoted to the implementation of the reform agenda, particularly in the area of rule of law, which remains key to progress in the negotiations overall. The same goes for Serbia’s commitment to peace and stability in the region, good neighbourly relations and the continuation of the dialogue with Pristina. Whatever the difficulties, and they are real, Serbia should not lose sight of its strategic objective of EU membership.

T: Can the reason for the absence of greater support of Serbia in EU be Serbia’s commitment to a policy of military neutrality and non-introduction of sanctions against Russia?

JH: I completely disagree with the assertion that there is no support from the EU towards Serbia. EU perspective for Serbia is firm and real. This has been repeatedly stated by all leaders of the EU Member States. And these political declarations are supported by facts: the EU is Serbia’s first provider of financial assistance, as well as political and economic partner.

These prove that any allegations that Serbia’s military neutrality or ties with Russia are seen as an obstacle from the EU side are completely unfounded.

What is expected from Serbia as a candidate country is to increasingly put EU interests first in the period up to accession. Nothing less, nothing more. In this respect, I can only take note of the fact that Serbia is a constructive partner to EU’s overriding objective of increasing stability and security in the Western Balkans, that Serbia is increasingly participating in EU and international peace keeping missions, and that Serbia is currently revising its national security and military strategies to align them with the EU global strategy, for example. All this is going in the right direction, from our EU perspective. And I am convinced that Belgrade will ultimately align with all EU measures in the process up to accession.

T: European think-tanks and Balkans experts are referring to “crisis in democracy, authoritarianism and stabilocracy” in some WB countries, namely in Serbia. Their thesis is that EU “turning the blind eye” on democracy problems in Serbia in order to keep stability provided by Aleksandar Vucic and his government. In this light, Mr Commissioner, how would You evaluate state of democracy in Serbia and EU approach to Mr Vucic in that matter?

JH: I heard about this before and I am glad you give me the opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding. Democratic values and the respect of rule of law, dialogue with the civil society, freedom of expression and of the media are core European values. They are key conditions for EU membership, and are simply not negotiable. It is also obvious that preserving peace and stability in the region is, and should be our priority. Who could dare to say the contrary and would encourage instability? That would be totally irresponsible! But the reality is that those two fundamental angles cannot go one without the other. You cannot have stability without economic growth. And this cannot happen without building a climate conducive to investments, respecting rule of law. And it goes the other way round: without stability, democracy and the rule of law cannot prosper. Nobody in the EU is turning a blind eye to rule of law issues in Serbia, and I would be the last one to do so. The Serbian leadership is perfectly aware that this is a key condition on Serbia’s EU path and I am committed to continue supporting their efforts, for the sake of peace and stability.

T: For the end, Commissioner Hahn, what do you think of the proposal of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico that the European Union should take one of the candidate countries of the Western Balkans and accelerate its entry into the Union, in order to give incentive to others? In Your opinion, which country could it be?

JH: If by acceleration you mean that this country would speed up the implementation of reforms and the delivery of concrete and irreversible results of these reforms for its citizens – I would be the first one to support such commendable efforts of any of the current candidates! If by acceleration you mean taking shortcuts and doing the reforms on paper only to speed up the process – definitely not. This would never work – not for the EU, and not for the country itself, which in the end would not be really ready to reap the full benefits of EU membership. Therefore, as I always say: quality before speed. The best incentive is to modernize your country so that it can offer a better life for its citizens, and a better future for its young generations.

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