Serbia turned the attention of the European Union to itself because of many concerning developments happening at the moment – the need for EU facilitated Inter-Party Dialogue last year, the boycott of the upcoming 26 April election by the opposition, the decline of the rule of law and freedom of the media, the slowdown in the European integration process, strong statements by the ruling party against the EU and its representatives, as well as the future choice of whether to opt-in to the new proposed enlargement methodology. EWB talked about these issues with the Chair of the European Parliament Delegation to EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee Tanja Fajon (S&D).

European Western Balkans: Recently we can hear a lot of negative comments directed towards you by the members of the ruling party. Do negative comments discourage you when it comes to your work and future cooperation in Serbia’s EU accession negotiations?

Tanja Fajon: The negative comments that I hear I take more in the context of domestic political campaign. The politicians that are in many cases using narrative that is quite often dangerous or populist are doing that to get their domestic points. I don’t feel unwelcomed in Serbia, the opposite, I think we have a lot of things we share and common values and I am more disappointed when I see that we can not reach any progress.

We as European politicians coming to Serbia can sometimes be misused or manipulated for different interests. But nevertheless after my three visits to Serbia in the last couple of months my impression is – yes, there is some progress but we do not see the results we want to see. It is a difficult situation I would say, more that we are coming towards elections more tense it is.

Sometimes I feel there are two parallel worlds, two parallel institutions, two parallel media and coming from the outside when you really want to help, support and facilitate in the talks between the opposition and the government, which was our role, it was not an easy task. But I hope we brought some results. The time will show whether there is an implementation. There are promises done by the government, but we will have to see whether in reality there will be some changes especially when it comes to the freedom of media. How much we know the opposition is still in boycott.

I would like to see that the next parliament will be really a place of democracy, where is possible to work and not that the opposition will again go to the streets. And of course I would also like to see progressive, democratic forces in the country join these elections.

EWB: We can see that the ruling party has almost completed the “implementation table” required in the European Parliament facilitated Inter-Party Dialogue held at the end of last year. Is that enough for the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for 26 April to be held in fair and democratic conditions?

TF: It is obviously not enough for the part of opposition that is still announcing the boycott. They claim that the conditions for the fair and democratic elections are not met. They claim there is no freedom of media – these are concerns we have to take seriously. And we are doing that. We will have an international observation mission that will be monitoring the elections and the European Parliament will be a part of the mission.

But again, the EP Rapporteur for Serbia Vladimír Bilčík and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, we are here with the attempt to support, to facilitate and to establish better conditions. I regret to see that from December until today there is even more political parties on the side of the opposition saying – we will not go for an election. We made some progress, but the boycott is still there, the concerns about the freedom of media are strongly present.

EWB: Recently, we can hear different comments on reaching the conditions for a free and democratic elections from you and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi. Can different comments affect the ability of the EU to successfully assist in establishing fair electoral conditions?

TF: It often feels that the EU doesn’t speak with one voice. But the European Commission was very critical in the last report on Serbia, when it comes to the freedom of media, the rule of law in the country, corruption and so on. Commissioner Várhelyi very strongly stressed these criticism. I don’t think he meant that all conditions are met. But, he is closely following, he tries to understand and be of help to Serbia because we are all aware together that we need to see fair and democratic elections. We need to see that the citizens will go to the elections and feel safe and free how to cast their vote and will have at the end of the day political diversity and choice to vote for.

For us, Serbia is a very important partner in the region, for the enlargement, for the stability and we are maybe in a crucial year of how the enlargement will go on. That is also why we are closely monitoring. If you remember the last country reports from the European Commission, we have clearly stated inside the Commission that in the region we see signs of captured state and captured media. We have to work against it to protect our democratic and pro-European values.

EWB: According to that, is the strong emphasis on the rule of law in the new proposal of the EU enlargement methodology an indication that the EU is concerned about the state of the rule of law in the countries with which accession negotiations are already underway under the existing enlargement methodology, in Serbia and Montenegro?

TF: The rule of law is the toughest nut for the whole region of the Western Balkans, as well as several member states of EU. We were already focused on the rule of law in accession process, opening Chapters 23 and 24 at the beginning of the process was exactly with the purpose because these are the most difficult chapters about fighting against corruption and organized crime and these are challenges that persist all over the region.

I see the new enlargement methodology’s positives and negatives. It is clear that we need to bring some new dynamic in the enlargement process, it is clear we need more carrots and stick on both sides. And having this possibility throughout the process following the rule of law – I think it is crucial. Because this creates a healthy environment for things like economy or social issues. I also see positive the chance that we can be opening clusters sectorial – politics and integration on different levels.

I see risk in the option of reversing the process or even stopping it. I do hope that the member states will sincerely continue with the enlargement process and first proof will be during the March Summit, where now in a short time after we developed a new methodology they will have the political courage and willingness to start the accession negotiations with both North Macedonia and Albania. Because we all recognize it was a historical mistake done last October.

EWB: When it comes to North Macedonia and Albania, do you think that this proposed change in the enlargement methodology will make skeptical member states change their minds and agree to open negotiations with these countries?

TF: It can be good for the enlargement starting in March if we get this signal from the EU that North Macedonia and Albania can start accession negotiations. We have the EU-Western Balkans Summit in May in Zagreb, so it can be a good year for the enlargement if we really show that the process goes on.

We now have elections in North Macedonia and Serbia and we have to get stable, democratic governments that will really sincerely push the European reforms. I think that it is important that after several years and all the work North Macedonia and Albania have done, to start the accession process, because this will be a positive signal for the whole region.

EWB: Should Serbia and Montenegro adopt the new proposed methodology?

TF: The good thing of the new methodology is that it is up to them. It will not affect the accession process, they are already a part of it. But they are given the option if they want at point of time to enter into some sectorial policies, if in that way they can bring the benefits thinking about the economy and social issues, they can do so. I think this opt-in for the two countries is the positive side of the methodology.

EWB: Do you think that the two countries should use the new methodology in their interest and maybe as a boost for their reforms?

TF: They should use it in their interest, they should take the best out of new methodology which would make the progress towards the EU faster. Both countries are on a good way. I can imagine with the sincere commitment from the side of both governments the process can be faster, but of course we also need political willingness in the sight of EU, we need to see in the side of EU to have trust and confidence back. I think that in the last few years we have lost a lot of confidence and trust on both sides – in policies and in leadership of the countries. And of course in credibility whether we are able to deliver the results – when we give promises also then to respect and deliver out promises.

EWB: Did you expect that the EU enlargement process would go faster when you first became an MEP in 2009?

TF: I am an MEP for almost 11 years and I have been following the enlargement for much longer before as a journalist. It is very clear that with each next enlargement the process became more challenging, more politically difficult, more conditions were on the way and the process became slower. I remember that several times in the last 10 years we were mentioning the dates which have already passed and in that time only Croatia joined the EU. So it is clear that we lost a lot of precious time.

One can doubt about the commitment and seriousness of the whole process. But I think we are coming with some new dynamism because the awareness on the side of EU governments is again there in a way that we need a stable region, that we are all part of Europe and that we need each other maybe more than ever before because we have big common challenges around us that we can strongly fight better like security, migration, climate, energy, instabilities in our region and unpredictable authoritarian leaders around us.

I would be very disappointed if in the next five years when it’s my third mandate in the EU, we do not see any concrete progress in the side of acceleration of any of the countries on the Balkans towards the EU so I hope we will have some bright examples.