Will there be any changes in the EU path of Kosovo after the election of a new government, what the EU should do to help improve the level of democracy in Kosovo and what is the future of Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, portal European Western Balkans spoke with Nataliya Apostolova, Head of the EU Office in Kosovo and the EU Special Representative.

European Western Balkans: Do you expect some changes on the EU path of Kosovo after the election of a new government?

Nataliya Apostolova: Kosovo is Europe. It has a clear European perspective. This was reiterated earlier this month by the High Representative Federica Mogherini. The Prime Minister, the new Ministers that I have met, have all been clear about the European path as the only way for Kosovo.

The people of Kosovo want and deserve the same opportunities, the same safeguards and rights as all citizens of our own countries. It is crucial that Kosovo continues to make headway on its European path. Kosovo has no time to lose. We expect the new Government to speed up the reforms related to its European agenda. The Kosovo policymakers need to show responsible leadership and to deliver on the expectations of the people.

The formation of institutions in Kosovo, following weeks of political uncertainty, is a very important step. Kosovo faces many difficult challenges, including corruption and weak rule of law, high unemployment and a low performing education system. These are serious impediments to developing the economy, attracting sustainable investment, and creating employment opportunities. The EU wants Kosovo to succeed, and calls on policymakers to focus on these everyday issues important to the people.

The EU urges the newly-formed government to start working immediately on strengthening the institutions and implementing the necessary reforms, particularly on the rule of law, fight against corruption and improving the economy, in line with the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, the European Reform Agenda, and other relevant EU-Kosovo agreements.

It is essential that Kosovo delivers on the remaining visa liberalisation conditions by moving forward on the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro, and by taking action against corruption and organised crime. The EU expects the new government to play an active and constructive role in the region and work together with Belgrade to ensure that a qualitative leap forward is made in the EU facilitated Dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. The agreements reached in this context need to be fully implemented.

EWB: What do you think about the level of democracy in Kosovo and what the EU should do to help improve the level of democracy in Kosovo?

NA: Kosovo is a young democracy and as such it still needs time to reach the societal standards of older democracies. Kosovo naturally wants to close the gap as soon as possible, but this takes time, as the changes to political system, economic system, rule of law standards, and the behaviour, take time. They are not just mere decisions you put into a law. It takes time for the people to start feeling those laws as part of their societal achievement which they want to invest all their energy into implementing.

This is what I believe will happen once Kosovo starts fully implementing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), and the instruments associated with it, the European Reform Agenda (ERA) and the Economic Reform Programme (ERP).

An example is environmental protection. If you ask the people, everyone will say they are in favour of protecting the environment, but will they do it in their everyday lives? Will they throw garbage into trash bins only? Will they separate to recycle? Will the government do its best to shut down heavy polluters and move to a cleaner energy? In the older democracies, the answer and the action by the people and the government to all these questions would probably be yes. In Kosovo, the action is yet to happen in a more massive way.

The governance follows this pattern. The will to lead Kosovo to a better future is there but the understanding of what it entails in everyday life and decision-making still needs to evolve. The behaviour change takes time, and the action in many cases is still lacking.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful about the future of Kosovo. Energy felt on the streets of Kosovo cities, produced by its young population is the best guarantee. The youth is Kosovo’s greatest asset: unburdened by the past and ready to learn and change the patterns for the future.

For now, the present times require a stronger vision and leadership, as well as a higher level of responsibility and accountability towards the people, to make sure that they get the best possible public service.

EWB: How does the EU Office in Pristina/EUSR communicate about mass movements of the people from Kosovo towards Western Europe?

NA: The EU is closely monitoring the situation following media reports on migration. We do not have a confirmation that there is any significant new wave, though. Still, it is sad to see any young people leave Kosovo.

We are in close touch with Kosovo authorities and encourage them to take action to explain to the people the risks and obligations when entering the EU. Kosovo people should be aware that there is no legal entry into the EU without a valid visa, and there is no work available in the EU without a valid residence and work permit. Any attempt to migrate illegally would likely result in being returned from the EU borders, and denied entry in the future. There is also a danger to fall prey to human traffickers.

The EU has supported Kosovo authorities in launching a public awareness campaign in March 2017 to provide Kosovo citizens with relevant information on the risks of irregular migration to the EU, and on opportunities for the youth to stay in Kosovo. As I said, Kosovo faces difficult challenges. It is the obligation of political leaders to create conditions in Kosovo for the young people to stay, by providing education which will make them competitive on the job market, and by securing jobs for them and their families. For this reason, better education and more employment are top priorities for the EU in Kosovo.

EWB: Do you think that civil society in Kosovo is enough involved in the reform process of the society, as well as state reform on the EU path?

NA: Kosovo needs its best and brightest from government, opposition, businesses, academia, civil society, the media, etc. to engage in and support societal reform Kosovo needs to move ahead. I spoke about the SAA as the engine for such a change in Kosovo. We are still waiting for all these actors to recognise the power of such an engine and start implementing it properly.

Time is of essence since Kosovo has lost a lot of it over the past few years on political bickering and blockages. Kosovo also needs to recognise the wider context. If Kosovo loses time while others in the region move forward, it creates a gap which is then increasingly difficult to close. Instruments such as the SAA are the right tools to address Kosovo’s challenges and to move Kosovo forward. Progress will be achieved only by focusing on concrete issues of everyday concern to the people.

The Stabilisation and Association Agreement provides concrete tools to improve the economy, create jobs, fight corruption, strengthen democracy and rule of law, and increase political and institutional stability. It is up to Kosovo to make it work for its citizens. The more Kosovo implements the SAA, the closer its standards will be to those in the EU. We want civil society to be engaged in these processes, as their involvement is essential for the development of Kosovo’s democracy.

The sustainability of reforms necessary for Kosovo’s European path largely depends on the level of engagement of civil society. It plays a key role in stimulating inclusive and participative processes getting citizens closer to decision making. This is why the EU has an intense dialogue with civil society in Kosovo on the political agenda (ERA, Kosovo Report, Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, etc.) and in relation to the priorities of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). There is a need to continue strengthening capacities of civil society actors to become more specialised and effective. Civil society should establish closer and more transparent links with their constituencies, so that they feel that civil society organisations genuinely stand for and promotes their interests and not particular interests of a small group of people as is still a perception present in relation to civil society.

Since last year, we have observed important steps forward in the context of the dialogue between Kosovo Government and civil society. A mechanism of public consultation has been established and a new regulation on financing NGOs is being implemented enhancing transparency and a more efficient use of public funding. The EU welcomes such initial achievements and continues to work closely with all stakeholders to ensure that such achievements are effectively implemented and not only at the level of central government.

As far as our financial support to civil society is concerned, between 2014 and 2017 the EU has implemented assistance equal to 15.3 million euro, through more than 50 projects in education, social services, environment, gender equality, human rights, anti-corruption and rule of law, youth engagement, ethnic reconciliation, children’s rights, social dialogue, etc.

EWB: Do you expect the formation of Community of Serb municipalities in Kosovo, in accordance with the Brussels agreement, in the upcoming period?

NA: Kosovo and Serbia have committed to making progress on the European path and in this regard they have both agreed to normalise their relations through the EU-facilitated Dialogue.

The Dialogue is about free exchanges and contacts between officials, neighbours, citizens and communities. It is about re-building trust, through concrete action, with long lasting benefits for the region at large. The Dialogue serves the interests of both Kosovo and Serbia. Through normalisation, Kosovo and Serbia contribute to improving their own security and stability, and progress, as well as security, stability and progress in the region as a whole.

For Kosovo, the Dialogue is making Kosovo’s institutional set-up stronger, because through the Dialogue, Kosovo’s Rule of Law institutions such as police, customs and the judiciary, can fulfil their role through the entire territory of Kosovo. It is because of the Dialogue that Kosovo has access to all civil registry books; it can participate in regional fora; trade flows without hindrance; customs revenues are collected; the border/boundary is controlled through the establishment of the IBM (integrated border management) posts; justice and policing are delivered Kosovo wide; a dial code is allocated by the International Telecommunications Union to Kosovo; citizens can benefit from freedom of movement.

The agreements entered into through the Dialogue by Kosovo and Serbia are international obligations. Non-implementation would have a negative impact on the credibility, reliability and standing of Kosovo and Serbia. Under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, Kosovo is legally bound to work on a further normalisation of its relations with Serbia in the framework of the EU-facilitated Dialogue. Kosovo has a contractual obligation to implement what was agreed. For Serbia, normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is addressed under accession Chapter 35 “Other issues”. The normalisation will go hand in hand with the accession negotiations and through Chapter 35 detailed requirements are set by the EU, Serbia needs to fulfil throughout the accession negotiation process.

The Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities will not be a parallel government within Kosovo and it will not pass its own laws. It will be set up within the existing legal and governance framework of Kosovo. It will follow the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which provides guidance to ensure that the Statute of the Association/Community will reflect Kosovo’s laws when it is drafted. The integrity of Kosovo is not under threat from the Association/Community. On the contrary, the Association/Community can strengthen and enrich Kosovo.

It will allow the Serb community of Kosovo to integrate and participate in Kosovo society, within the Kosovan constitutional framework and it can be a step towards a stronger Kosovo, not a weaker one, in a more stable region. It will allow the Serb community to feel at home in Kosovo. It will allow the Kosovo Serb community to manage and coordinate aspects of their community life and will thus give them a feeling of comfort, security and local ownership. The Association/Community should offer the Kosovo Serb community independent, yet transparent ways of managing and financing some of their daily needs.

The April 2013 agreement was concluded in full respect of Kosovo law; all municipalities in Kosovo should function in accordance with the relevant Kosovo legislation and they should have thus the right to form associations.