Interview with Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the Council of Europe, in which we discussed the Horinzontal Facility Programme whose 3-year cycle will complete this May, and the recent meeting of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities which took place in Belgrade.

EWB: The Horizontal Facility, a programme funded by the EU and the Council of Europe and implemented by the Council of Europe, is ending its first phase after three years. How do you rate its success?

Tobias Flessenkemper: The first three years of the Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey, which was launched in May 2016 by the European Union and the Council of Europe, are being concluded in May 2019. Since 2016 we can observe two key achievements.

First, trust in co-operation between Serbian authorities, the Council of Europe, the European Union and public institutions, including school, universities and academies, as well as non-governmental organisations has developed considerably. As the Horizontal Facility is addressing needs of Serbia at various stages of the EU integration process it is important that stakeholders and partners feel that their goals and European aspirations are being supported. Countries negotiating accession to the EU, like Serbia does since January 2014, started to identify the particular challenges in ensuring justice, fighting corruption, economic and organised crime as well as in combating discrimination and protecting rights of vulnerable groups.

Under the Horizontal Facility, Serbian government and non-state sector, the European Union and the Council of Europe work hand in hand to help Serbia achieve these objectives. This process of assisting the country in its EU aspirations is founded on the wide range of commitments on human rights, rule of law and democracy Serbia already undertook in 2003, when it joined the Council of Europe.

The second achievement of the Horizontal Facility is a clearer vision of the direction of the reform efforts and that results can be harnessed. For instance, the government of Serbia has recognised that a reform of the judiciary is necessary to better ensure justice. Under the Horizontal Facility programme, it requested opinions of the Council of Europe’s constitutional experts, the Venice Commission, on the constitutional amendments related to the judiciary. We are now looking forward to a meaningful debate on how the independence of the judiciary can be strengthened.

Let me give you some examples of specific results. Important work has been done to help prisoners’ re-integration into society after their release and on improving prison psychiatric system. Some 400 patients in Vršac psychiatric hospital are now benefiting from individual treatment programmes.

There are numerous achievements in other areas, as well. Half of all labour inspectors in Serbia were trained for the first time on prevention and combating trafficking in human beings for labour exploitation. More of them shall be trained during this year. Representation of national minorities in textbooks for primary and secondary schools has been improved. 19 pilot schools, 2150 students and 250 teachers worked on making their school environment more democratic.

EWB: How do you see Serbia in relation to other countries included in this programme?

TF: The Horizontal Facility includes the Western Balkans and Turkey. The Facility is not rating countries. It helps them identify their priorities, and works with them on achieving them and ensuring a positive effect for the region as a whole. The Western Balkans countries have benefitted considerably from the membership in the Council of Europe and the Stabilisation and Association process led by the EU since the beginning of this century.

Yet, in addition to the progress required in the field of judiciary which I mentioned already, Serbia will need to step up efforts in combating discrimination and protecting the rights of vulnerable groups in a sustainable manner.

The Council of Europe’s expert body – European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) – found, for instance, that more needs to be done against hate speech. In the area of fighting corruption, economic and organised crime, all Western Balkans countries are facing challenges as illustrated by other Council of Europe experts bodies GRECO, the group of states against corruption and MONEYVAL – the Committee of experts on the evaluation of anti-money laundering measures and the financing of terrorism.

If Serbia succeeds in improving the situation, it will mean that approximately one third of the Western Balkans population will enjoy a better judiciary system and will be confronted with less discrimination and corruption.

Given close ties in the region, an improvement in one country will have a positive effect on its neighbours, in particular as they are working towards the same goals themselves, as part of the Horizontal Facility. This is the essence of the work of the Council of Europe, safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are the common heritage to achieve progress together.

EWB: Leaving the question of political will aside and focusing on capabilities and expertise necessary for reforms, what do you see as the main problems on Serbia’s European path?

TF: Indeed, new challenges the European continent has to handle are becoming more and more apparent. Let me highlight one of them.

The worrying trend that we can observe in many European states that face, like Serbia, a rapid ageing of the population and a significant youth emigration, is that not enough focus is put on preparing for the future. This includes in particular investment into education, training and research – all of which essential for building up, retaining and renewing capacities and expertise in the public and private sectors.

According to UNESCO and the Eurostat, Serbia is spending far less than 1% of its GDP on research and development. The World Bank reports that the percentage of GDP of Serbia used for education is decreasing. Yet, we know from the experience of our Horizontal Facility programme on fostering a democratic school culture in Serbia that investment in education and science pays off in spades. Dedicating attention and resources to the needs and aspiration of children and young people and developing with them the society based on active citizenship while improving employment opportunities will help to shape a better future for Serbia and strengthen Serbia’s contribution to European unity.

EWB: Is there going to be a follow-up on the Horizontal Facility programme? Will your office stay involved in supporting the EU accession process of Serbia?

TF: The next phase of the Horizontal Facility will start in May 2019 and is expected to run until 2022. The Council of Europe office in Belgrade will remain engaged in its implementation for Serbia.

An important addition to the Horizontal Facility will be actions focusing on the media sector and freedom of expression. Here we are building on the experience gained with joint EU/Council of Europe JUFREX (Reinforcing Judicial Expertise on Freedom of Expression and the Media in South-East Europe) programme.

On 4 and 5 April media and judicial experts will discuss issues related to the freedom of expression and the media in Sarajevo during a regional JUFREX conference which will contribute to designing our future work in this important field.

EWB: There was recently a visit to Belgrade by Council of Europe’s Congress for Local and Regional Authorities, which was organized after mayors belonging to the Serbian opposition complained of unfair treatment by the central government. How do you see the results of this visit?

TF: The Congress organized one of the statutory meetings of its Monitoring Committee in Belgrade on 7 February 2019 on the invitation of a member of the Serbian delegation to the Congress. The Monitoring Committee meets in one of the 47 member States when it is invited by Congress members, which was also the case of the meeting in Belgrade. So, there was no direct connection between this meeting and the issue of relationships with mayors from the opposition.

At the margins of the Committee meeting the Chair of the Monitoring Committee met with the Minister Public Administration and Local Self Government to discuss the follow-up of the latest monitoring report on the situation in Serbia, which dates from 2017. The members of the Congress suggested opening a post-monitoring dialogue with Serbia. Minister Ružić agreed to consider further steps to develop the political dialogue with the Congress through a post monitoring.

The European Union and the Council of Europe will also remain engaged in this area. We are supporting this also through projects supporting local self-government. Concretely, on 12 March we will launch a three year project of the European Union and the Council of Europe in cooperation with the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities and the Ministry for Public Administration and Local Self-Government to strengthen the human resource management in some 50 towns and municipalities.

EWB: Among recommendations of the Congress was for the Serbian government to improve relations with the opposition at the local level. Do you expect that this visit could improve the situation?

TF: The meeting with Minister Ružić was constructive and fruitful. The Congress welcomes political dialogue in order to implement its recommendations and ensure a good application of the European Charter on Local self-Government. During this meeting the importance of further adoption of measures aimed at implementing all the Congress recommendations was underlined, as well as, indeed, the need to improve the relationships with the opposition at local level.

The Minister emphasized that the Public Administration reform is among the government’s priorities. From this perspective, he also reaffirmed that the proper functioning of municipalities is crucial for the government and that citizens need to be better involved in policy making. This entails good relationships between the different levels of governance. Let us trust that the situation will improve through mutual efforts.