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[EWB Interview] Bilčík: Inter-Party Dialogue is an integral part of Serbia’s progress towards EU

European Parliament facilitators were back in Serbia last week to hold the first live session of the Inter-Party Dialogue in the country since December 2019. The ongoing political crisis in Serbia, in which the parliament was left without viable opposition in 2020 following partially boycotted elections, continues, and the Inter-Party Dialogue will attempt to bring about its resolution, with results still hard to predict.

We met with one of the facilitators in the Dialogue, Standing Rapporteur for Serbia Vladimír Bilčík (EPP), whom we interviewed the day before the start of the session, on 8 July. In addition to the topic of IPD, we spoke with Mr Bilčík about Serbia-EU relations during his mandate, lack of progress on Serbia’s EU path during that time, as well as regional and some other issues.

European Western Balkans: Let’s start with a general question. You’ve been a Rapporteur for Serbia for almost two years now, since October 2019. How would you assess EU-Serbia relations during that time? 

Vladimír Bilčík: If there is one defining point of my mandate as a Standing Rapporteur and EU-Serbia relations, a big game-changer which none of us anticipated, it was the pandemic. It changed so much of the political landscape in both Europe and in Serbia; it changed even the date of the elections in Serbia, and, of course, it fundamentally changed the way that we interact.

Once the pandemic eased up, I managed to meet Serbian officials and diplomats in Brussels, and these meetings underlined our very good relations. I think that President Vučić’s visit to Brussels was a good sign and I hope we can pick up on the momentum which the visit brought in the EU-Serbia relations and especially the recent work which has been taking place on the important reforms in the area of the rule of law, but also economic areas which are a part of the important conditions for opening the clusters under new methodology. This is, I think, the most important thing.

By the end of 2019, we had important expectations for the dynamic of the enlargement process. They have not materialized. We are still discussing the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, we are still discussing the full-fledged application of the new methodology. I think the relations from now on in terms of the dynamic, intensity and also results could become a lot better in the coming weeks and months and I hope that we can contribute to that also through our engagement here on the ground in Belgrade.

EWB: Talking about improving the relations, do you think that the relations between Serbian authorities and the European Parliament have been on a good level in the past year or so? We have seen some tensions, let’s say harsher criticism than expected of the EP Resolution in March, we have seen verbal attacks on some MEPs. Do you think that there is room for improvement here?

VB: Relations between Serbia and the EU are based on one simple prerogative – and that is the fact that Serbia has made a strategic choice to which the current Serbian government remains strongly committed – and that is EU membership for Serbia. Our relationship is based on how we can help Serbia in these reforms, but much of the development of the relationship is in the hands of Serbian politicians.

European Parliament is one of the institutions which follows Serbia’s EU accession. There are relations with Member States, with the European Commission. This is the wider context and I just wanted to make it clear. And the European Parliament is a political body; it has a wide array of political views based on political affiliation of its Members. Of course, there are a number of verbal exchanges which take place in discussing Serbia in the European Parliament as much as there are number of verbal exchanges which take place in discussing the European Parliament, the EU institutions and European politicians in Serbia itself.

But I am quite frankly not interested in spending much time in discussing these verbal exchanges. What is important for me is the result, that’s what counts. Every relationship has ups and downs. And the process of entering the EU is like the process of entering a marriage, because this is a binding entry. So, when you have a boyfriend and a girlfriend, you often have disagreements, you have arguments, you may raise your voice, you may be very emotional, and this is a natural part of the relationship.

EWB: You’ve mentioned that the whole region has not advanced in its European path in the past year or so. Serbia has not opened any new chapter since December 2019. It expected to open a new cluster following the adoption of the new methodology this June, but this also did not happen. What is your view, why hasn’t Serbia opened any new chapters?

VB: I think the reasons have been clearly stated by the EU institutions. I wish that the Member States could be a bit more open to opening chapters and understand the importance on moving forward in this process. Opening chapters, and I will again use the parallel of a boyfriend and a girlfriend and marriage, is like setting a new date to discuss the arrangement of the new household, to discuss the arrangement of the common future life. The ongoing negotiations between the EU and Serbia is a discussion on how quickly Serbia can adjust to what is already in the European house.

At the same time, we do have some basic benchmarks. The opening of the clusters depends fully on fulfilling these benchmarks. These are not simple chapters and of course they also depend on important progress when it comes to the rule of law, the quality of public institutions, the quality of democracy. This is particularly important when a number of Member States want to see a delivery on the commitment and the words which have been repeated by the Serbian politicians. I am very pleased that there is this political commitment and, based on the conclusions by the EU Member States, there is a real window of opportunity throughout the Slovenian Presidency when it comes to the opening of clusters. But the work has to be done by the political authorities in Serbia.

I know that some of the Member States, especially the skeptical ones would like to see more convincing results.

I would take the message from the Inter-Governmental Conference, from the conclusions of the Council of the EU, from the Reports which have been issues by the European Commission and European Parliament as a sign of encouragement – that in the next few months based on Serbia’s real commitment and delivery on some of these reforms, those clusters could be opened.

Aleksandar Ivković and Vladimir Bilčik; Photo: EWB

EWB: I’ve asked you this because there is an overwhelming assessment of the civil society in Serbia that the country has not opened any new chapters or clusters in the past year and a half because there is not enough progress in the rule of law, state of democracy, that the EU Member States are not satisfied with these areas. On the other hand, there are messages from the Serbian government, saying that Serbia has done enough and the EU simply doesn’t recognise that. So, one could say that the public does not know the exact reasons why Serbia is not progressing. Do you think that maybe clearer communication on this is warranted?

VB: I think that the fact that Serbia has committed to a number of reforms in recent weeks and months only indicates that a lot more work needs to be done by Serbia. I think that Serbian authorities recognize this very clearly. In my EP Report, we also say that communication on the priorities and especially on the commitment to the European perspective of Serbia should be consistent and should be clear. European perspective is about the commitment from within, from inside of the country. When my home country Slovakia joined the EU, we had a very high support for EU membership; we spent a number of years going through some very hard reforms which required a constitutional majority and which actually really surpassed the internal political divisions on particular issues. This was a strategic choice for the country. The political elite understood it, the population understood it, this was also confirmed in a referendum with a very clear positive result.

I just think that there is a lot more space for the government, but also other actors in the country, to work on good quality public communication on the European perspective.

I am always a bit puzzled when I hear the voices blaming the European Union. Yes – the European Union could and should do more, and especially during the pandemic this was very difficult and we could be a lot more convincing when it comes to enlargement itself. However, real work on enlargement has to be done by the accession country. It is, as I said, a path to a marriage, but that marriage is asymmetric, because it is not about the European Union joining Serbia – it is about Serbia joining the EU. So, we clearly expect that Serbia adheres to the rules which we follow in the EU. I am often speaking up about issues linked to foreign policy, security issues, where Serbia’s alignment is low compared to other countries in the region. This is about the choices that are made here, in Serbia, not about something that the EU doesn’t or does decide.

EWB: But we could also look at this from a different angle – you have North Macedonia, which has taken hard decisions, societal, political, and it has not been rewarded so far. So, why would both political elites in Serbia and the citizens want to commit to hard choices if this is not getting rewarded? 

VB: I think Serbia is in a different position. There is no question about Serbia’s candidacy. North Macedonia is a different issue, and I think rather unfortunate, and I hope that this fall we can finally break the deadlock when it comes to opening the accession talks with the country. The accession process is and should be based on very clear criteria, and for me the criteria are political, economic and legal, and they of course have to do with preparedness of the EU for a future enlargement, but we shouldn’t add new source of criteria based on particular bilateral issues.

But really, Serbia is in a different position, and I think that if Serbia starts running domestically, the reward is there.

We are ready to offer it, particularly with the new methodology. And then the pressure will be on Serbia to start delivering on the closure of chapters. This is by the way something that we are asking hard of our partners in Montenegro.

EWB: I also wanted to mention Montenegro, because you are, of course, also the chair of EP Delegation to EU-Montenegro SAPC. Recently, we had this resolution on Srebrenica genocide – how do you see the tensions which have risen between Serbia and Montenegro following the resolution? 

VB: Tensions in the region do not help the European perspective. European perspective is, I think, very much tied to bilateral and regional cooperation. We have a large number of issues from the past across the European Union, and we would expect that the issues from the past and the issues of reconciliation would be settled before fundamental progress when it comes to European perspective.

There are no winners of raising tensions, there can be only losers, which we saw in the 1990s. It is important to put the past behind, it is important to reconcile it in a way where everybody in the region comes out feeling that they can move ahead with dignity and respect, but it also means a strong self-reflection.

EWB: Do you think that the adoption of this resolution by the Assembly of Montenegro was a step in that direction?

VB: I read the entire resolution adopted by the Montenegrin parliament. I really appreciate that the resolution made it clear that the crimes committed in the past are crimes committed by specific individuals. It was also a good thing that the resolution explicitly said that there is no such thing as a genocidal nation. The genocide in Srebrenica was an absolute tragedy and this July we are commemorating 26 years since this tragedy unfolded in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is important that also in politics we are reminded of this; we politicians have to understand and to study what happened, it is important to know the facts and analyze the facts. And for me, that resolution that was adopted by the Assembly in Podgorica was really not a resolution causing some fundamental new tensions. When I read it – it is a short document, everybody can read it, everybody can understand it – I certainly don’t see how this document would cause such tensions.

EWB: As a member of the European People’s Party, how do you see the participation of the Serbian Progressive Party, which is an associate member of the EPP, in the celebration of the 100thanniversary of the Communist Party of China few days ago? 

VB: I haven’t followed it very closely but I can tell you that the European People’s Party is a party based on clear values. We are proud of these values and we defend these values. They are deeply European, deeply humanistic and deeply democratic. And just as I said that Serbia’s alignment of EU’s foreign and security policy is an issue where we have been for a number of years critical, honest and open about our expectations, I also find the issue when it comes to celebrating values which are tied to a really totalitarian past deeply problematic.

EWB: How do you think that the outcome of the Inter-Party Dialogue will affect the overall progress of Serbia on its EU’s accession path and can you confirm that, to your knowledge, September is the deadline for an agreement?

VB: We come here with an open mind and we are very pleased to be here. We are ready to be engaged in the dialogue as long as it takes – we have no deadlines – to help Serbia achieve improvement in the quality of political competition and democracy and to facilitate the dialogue which will result in the participation of all full-fledged political actors in the next elections. This is our goal and we understand that the solution is in the hands of Serbian politicians.

What we do here is help create space and we have been committed to this since 2019. We will continue to create this space for as long as it takes.

We come here with constructive expectations because we’ve had many online meetings with all the interlocutors in the runup to this session  and everybody has expressed strong commitment to the Dialogue.

EWB: You are not concerned about the Dialogue reaching a point where it is too close to the elections in April next year and there is still no agreement?

VB: We have no idea when the next elections will take place. The presidential elections and the local elections in Belgrade must take place by the spring of 2022, but, of course, the Inter-Party Dialogue aims to improve conditions for all elections. We understand that the parties will be running in the biggest electoral competition when it comes to the parliamentary elections. And yes, we do have to look at the calendar and at the moment it appears, based on what the President has announced, that the elections will be held in the spring of next year. We are not setting any deadlines because we do not have any pre-made solutions. We want to create space for the Dialogue and for the ability of everybody to listen to each other. Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and based on that, we can come to the key issues which need to be tackled, the ways in which they can be tackled, and also within a reasonable time period. But setting a deadline and an outcome before we even have a deeper understanding of the issues would be a wrong way of approaching the Dialogue.

What is positive is that I also hear from the political spectrum in Serbia that the parties are keen to participate in the political competition. This is encouraging. I hope that with this dialogue we can overcome the period of boycott. There is only one “train” of Serbian politics and if certain parties decide not to jump on that train, it will keep on moving regardless of what these parties do. So, I hope that we can also convince the opposition to be a part of this “train”.

EWB: Is the outcome of the Dialogue going to be important for the progress of Serbia on its EU accession path?

VB: Absolutely. The Dialogue has a strong support of the European Parliament, of the European Commission, of the Member States and I would say that, alongside the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, the Inter-Party Dialogue is an integral part of overall work on its European perspective.

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