EWB spoke with Vladimir Bilčik, the newly appointed European Parliament’s Standing Rapporteur on Serbia. The Slovak member of the European Parliament, a newcomer to the institution, replaced his German EPP colleague David McAllister on this position, and was also appointed as the co-chair of the Montenegro-EU Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee (SAPC). With Bilčik we discussed his role as the rapporteur on Serbia, his Slovak experience and how fast the “frontrunners” in the accession process – Serbia and Montenegro – actually run.

European Western Balkans: You have recently been appointed as the European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Serbia, replacing your German colleague David McAllister. How do you see your role in supporting Serbia’s EU accession process?

Vladimir Bilčik: First of all, my role has a formal aspect to it and my main task will be to draft annually a report on Serbia’s progress towards EU accession. But then, of course, it entails a lot of work in between and throughout the year and I am planning to follow very closely the developments in Serbia and the work on the tasks which we in the European Union expect Serbia to fulfil and to improve on in order to make the EU membership perspective a credible goal.

In addition to that, I will also be actively engaged in public communication, supporting Serbia’s ambition to join the European Union and reflecting on its path to the European Union.

I am planning to visit Serbia in the next few weeks and develop active contacts with the leadership of the country – the main political actors, but also other interlocutors  throughout Serbia who are crucial in this important time, and also difficult time in terms of the hard work which is ahead for all of us, but especially the people in Serbia, towards fulfilling the criteria for EU accession.

EWB: Media freedom is frequently singled out as a significant problem in Serbia by various EU officials and European Commission reports, while the 2019 report noted that “lack of progress is now a matter of serious concern”. How important do you think this issue is for Serbia?

VB: It is extremely important. It is one of the crucial aspects of the whole set of issues which concerns the quality of democracy and the quality of rule of law in Serbia. Media freedom is an integral part of a vibrant democratic society. It is something which we in this time and age feel is increasingly under pressure across Europe.

I come from the country which saw a murder of investigative journalist just last year, when Ján Kuciak and fiancé were murdered. So of course, we have to guard and protect the freedom of expression, the freedom of media, and it is important that we also see progress, not regress in this aspect in Serbia. 

EWB: How much do you think your Slovak experience, referring to both the transition process and the political upheaval caused by a murder of an investigative journalist in 2018 that you mentioned, help you in your work in Serbia?

VB: I have been following EU enlargement very closely since the 1990s, as an analyst, as an advisor, as somebody who was actively engaged within the civil society and academia, and now in politics. So, I certainly have a lasting working background when it comes to the subject of EU enlargement and I hope that this experience will be helpful.

Also, my Slovak background I find quite important in terms of the underlying message when it comes to advancing the European perspective: that this is fundamentally and always has been – in the case of Slovakia, it is extremely illustrative – a matter of domestic reforms, domestic efforts and domestic change. Slovakia in the 1990s was termed as the “black hole” of Europe and through our domestic political changes, efforts and reforms, we managed to catch up with our Visegrad neighbours and join the European Union in 2004.

We also see that the European perspective is something that we need to fight for constantly. It is not just a matter of the accession process, it is the matter of day to day politics. As the events in Slovakia which have unfolded since the murders of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová show, we really have to fight for a vibrant, democratic, credible and European standards in our public policies, including the areas of justice throughout, not just in the run-up to accession.

So, I guess my basic and essential point is that my Slovak background gives me a lot experience, but it also gives me a lot of good and credible examples to communicate the fact that the European perspective is primarily a matter of domestic change, domestic reform and domestic commitment.

EWB: Serbian media report your statement that “Kosovo was, is and will remain the key issue for EU integration of Serbia”. Coming from a non-recognizing country, how do you see the “agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations with Kosovo”, which is required from Serbia within the negotiating chapter 35?

VB: Let me make it clear and repeat what I have been saying to Serbian media since I got appointed as the Standing Rapporteur of the European Parliament for Serbia. I see two key areas where Serbia has to advance and show progress in order to move on its path into the European Union.

One is key domestic reforms. This has to do with the quality of democracy and the rule of law in the country. The second is, of course, progress on the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

Indeed in that sense, I see that in the months and years ahead of us, we have an important goal to see some goodwill at the highest political level – both in Belgrade and Pristina. This is what I would like to underline – to advance on mutual talks, and I am going to use my position as the Standing Rapporteur to follow this goal very closely. I think that we have some very important political dates in our calendar which I hope will allow for a fresh start and a show of goodwill, because only goodwill can produce concrete results in the dialogue.

We have new a leadership coming into power in Pristina, Serbia will have elections next year and of course, most importantly for us on the EU side, we hope to have a new European Commission in place within weeks, and of course new people responsible for the dialogue on the EU side, the High Representative and the future Commissioner for enlargement. So, it is important to also get the job done on our side to appoint the new institutions and the new actors. And I also hope to work hard towards some new dynamics in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, because this a crucial part of advancing Serbia’s ambition to join the European Union.

EWB: Speaking about the state of democracy, the European Parliament is now involved in resolving the political crisis in Serbia at the initiative of your predecessor David McAllister. Are there any plans what to do after the ongoing “Jean Monnet” talks are complete, especially since majority of the opposition refused to participate in them, requiring a more serious commitment by the EP?

VB: I will repeat again what I feel is crucial. This really has to do with the basic Copenhagen criteria for European Union membership. A functioning, vibrant democracy, requires a vibrant, competitive and functioning parliamentary political culture. This is one of the main reasons why the European Parliament got involved in the current ongoing dialogue among the parliamentary political actors in Serbia. We will continue with this involvement in the next few months in the run-up to Serbia’s elections next year, and we are hoping that through this dialogue we can help improve the parliamentary culture, the political culture and the basic preconditions for a vibrant democracy in Serbia.

We are now concentrating especially on the next steps. Once the elections take place in Serbia next year, the EP will assess the situation and come back to the dialogue, also based on demands by the political actors in Serbia. The European Union can only help facilitate the work on Serbia’s political culture. It is important that ultimately, the key domestic problems in a relationship between the government and the opposition are resolved through domestic means. This is also a telling sign of a functioning democracy that when there is a problem, when there is a political crisis in a country, there are particular internal means to resolve these issues. So, the EU’s role is to help seek resolutions to the biggest problems that the current relationship between government and opposition faces in the parliament.

EWB: Are there any plans for you to personally get involved in the ongoing talks in Belgrade besides your colleagues, former MEPs Fleckenstein and Kukan?

VB: We are intensively discussing at the moment my first trip to Belgrade. My first and foremost ambition is to fulfil my role as the Standing Rapporteur for Serbia for the next five years, but of course, that will also mean that I will very closely follow the process which was started by my predecessor David McAlister and the colleagues in the previous European Parliament. I have the personal ambition to be closely engaged in following the next steps in the dialogue.

EWB: You have also recently been appointed as the co-chair of the Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee with Montenegro. Looking at the two “frontrunners”, what similar challenges you believe they face on their EU accession processes, and what are the differences?

VB: I think that there are a lot of similar challenges and problems that are very much along the same lines in both countries. The biggest challenge really is that when we talk about the frontrunners, we need to give this word a clear meaning. Because, if we look at the experience of the past decade and especially the recent years, these two countries have been frontrunners without hardly doing any running. So, at the very least now we need to see that both the leaderships in Podgorica and in Belgrade are keen to begin jogging when it comes to fulfilling the important tasks on their respective paths towards European Union membership. Practically this means that they will actually start delivering on the reforms, which are necessary to begin closing the negotiating chapters.

Because, if there is any sign of progress, it is not about how many chapters the countries have opened. Rather, it is about how many chapters the country has been able to close provisionally in negotiations with the European Union. Especially the politically and institutionally difficult chapters which relate to the key Copenhagen criteria. I think that there are a lot of similarities in the kinds of challenges that the countries face, and also the wider region of course, in terms of the internal demands for pro-European reforms to fulfil the European perspective for the people both in Serbia and Montenegro.

EWB: Are there any significant differences? I mean, Montenegro opened up more chapters than Serbia and it is maybe expected to have an easier path to join the EU in the next couple of years. Do you see a big difference between two countries, based on the chapters opened or basically as you mentioned, closing is still practically the problem for both in the same manner?

VB: As I said and underline it, I see a lot of similarities and the similarities relate to the kinds of challenges which have to be addressed by both countries in order to begin closing chapters. Discussion and competition on opening chapters is not very relevant when it comes to assessing progress towards EU membership. What is relevant is the discussion on the substance of reforms. Then of course when it comes to the process, what is also relevant is the gradual closure of difficult negotiating chapters.

In this sense, the countries are in a very similar position and it is really up to the leadership, the society, the institutional and political actors in these two countries to begin to work on the commitments towards EU membership seriously. So, I think that this is really a similar challenge. I don’t see any major underlying differences at the moment. And I hope from my position as the European Parliament Standing Rapporteur for Serbia and also as a Chair of the Parliamentary Delegation to Montenegro that I can help get this message across in the region and also help practically to advance the goal of EU membership for the two countries.

I am a big supporter and a fan of enlargement. I think that the only a credible and sustainable future of the Western Balkans is in the European Union. But, as a Slovak, as somebody who has seen and worked in enlargement for the past 20 years, I also know that this entails some really challenging domestic reforms which do have to be carried out. In that sense again, the positions of Serbia and Montenegro are very similar because they only are at the start of fulfilling the difficult tasks of domestic reforms, which we in the European Union expect the two countries to deliver.

I will watch these efforts closely and will try to provide any help and assistance I can from my position to make sure that we advance on those reforms. My interest is really to act as a friend of the region, as the friend of Serbia and Montenegro in helping to advance their European perspective. But this also means that I will be fair, open and honest about the things that have to be done in order to make enlargement happen.