Civil society in Serbia and the members of the green-left opposition group were the first ones to sound the alarm over the new security cameras in Belgrade, a part of the Safe City project. It reportedly includes setting up 1,000 surveillance cameras, believed to be equipped with facial recognition technology and procured by the Chinese company Huawei, at the undisclosed locations in the capital of Serbia. The mapping of the potential locations of the cameras has so far been carried out by the CSOs, as the Government has classified most of the key information.
The project has also attracted the attention of the international community. Member of European Parliament’s Greens/EFA group Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield visited Serbia recently to get further information on the project. The visit was featured deepening ties between the European Greens and a part of the opposition in Serbia, which is, for the first time, expected to enter the national parliament in April representing the green-left agenda.
We talked with MEP Delbos-Corfield about her experience with gathering information on surveillance cameras in Belgrade, as well as European Green’s future cooperation with the stakeholders in Serbia.
European Western Balkans: One of the purposes of your recent visit to Serbia was to gather information on the surveillance cameras. A lot of media reports and civil society reports focused on this project in the last couple of years. It seems that the interest of the international community and international observers in this project is high. Why do you think that is the case?
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield: It is a trend that we find in society in general, other Member States, and the rest of the world. A trend that is very concerning because it is indeed starting a civilization of surveillance, where you are surveilled in your street, entering your flat, bringing your children to school, doing everyday activities… This is something that is of more and more concern and something that public policies are trying to grasp, find a solution and see how we should legalize this. And Belgrade is an extreme example, so there is a concern that one day this city can be the example of the worst that can exist.
The second aspect is that this is taking place in a country where we, at the moment, consider that the safeguards and the basis of a democratic free country are not there. And then the third topic of concern is, of course, the fact that this is all Chinese material, that it is unclear how it came, who exactly is putting it in place, what is functioning or not…There is also the issue of Chinese influence and involvement in Eastern Europe and what implications it has for the EU.
EWB: Serbia, of course, is not an EU Member State, but if it was, would it be able to set up this kind of system? What are the current regulations in the EU on this issue?
GDC: The current regulations are not yet so clear and rigid, this is something we are working on. There are a lot of new European legislation, framework, and regulations being studied, and they will be voted on. According to the rules in place today, these sorts of devices and surveillance are legal if they are used for security means. We, as Greens, want even more transparency in those cases.
There are some very clear criteria that you must meet. The first is proportional – you must really be able to show that it is to survey traffic, that the cameras are turned towards big roads where there is traffic and you are supposed to be very clear where the images are seen, what are they being used for. You have to be very clear on the conservation of these data, they cannot be conserved after a certain time.
The very big difference in Belgrade is opacity, complete opacity on how many cameras there are, why are they stored in places where there is no traffic, what are they used for, who is behind the cameras. We have to content ourselves with the affirmation (from the authorities) that there is no facial recognition. But, to be honest, I’ve never had proof of that. I’ve never had the technical information on what is in place. I’ve just had the Data Protection Commissioner telling me that there are no facial recognition devices. The authorities are not answering us. So, that is a huge difference. In the other Member States, you wouldn’t be able to put them in every street without an explanation.
EWB: Since Serbia is an EU candidate country, it has a certain level of relationship with the European Union, can the EU actually do something to influence Serbia on this project, to incentivize it to provide the information necessary, to make the project more transparent and meet the standards that you mention?
GDC: Yes, it can. In a very usual, normal relationship we have with third countries, like we have with Norway, with candidate countries, with the UK now, if we had questions, we would get answers. So, this is our first step of influence. It is not working with Serbia. We have an EU-Serbia Delegation, where we can meet the MPs from Serbia as MEPs, we can also ask for hearings of the Serbian Government and ask questions. And in this framework, we have been asking for cameras and we have not gotten any answers. My questions are completely ignored. Some of the questions on other topics of my colleagues are sometimes answered, but on this specific topic, I have no answers.
And then, of course, a certain number of chapters are being opened in the accession process. And in these chapters, you will have more specific details and topics about surveillance or AI where we will have opportunities to ask questions. We are not there yet. Chapters have been opened to show goodwill to work with Serbia, because we want it, one day, to be a part of the European Union, but we are also aware that at the moment Serbia is not ready on a number of rule of law aspects, specifically.
EWB: Several months ago, a proposal for the Law on Internal Affairs was withdrawn following a strong reaction from civil society. That Law regulated this issue and, according to civil society, it enabled the surveillance system without proper safeguards. Do you think that the EU will continue to support civil society in the future if such legal changes are introduced once again?
GDC: Yes, we were also informed, and we were very concerned that this Law would be a way of, indeed, formalizing the surveillance, as you say, without the necessary safeguards. We have been following this very clearly, we will be going on following this. I am not the only MEP concerned about this. I had a discussion with the EU representative in Serbia, the French representative in Serbia and I have been flagging this topic, and I will continue to do it and be very aware, with my other colleagues. We will, very clearly, follow it step by step and even now before the new Law on Internal Affairs, I had the meeting with the Data Protection Commissioner. There were a lot of questions that were unanswered by him. He said that he did not know. He seemed very good-willed but he did not have the answers. So now I will follow up with a letter, with very specific written questions. He doesn’t have them all, he needs to go to the Serbian state or the Serbian police to get the info, but I will go on putting this pressure and asking these questions, and others will in the European Union for sure.
EWB: You mentioned earlier Chinese influence in Serbia and Eastern Europe. Many times, when somebody from the EU is criticizing certain aspects of the Serbia-China relationship, such as this one, pro-government media and commentators say that the EU is against the cooperation between Serbia and China in all fields, that it is a geopolitical issue. So, what is your reaction to this? What is, according to you and your group in the European Parliament, an appropriate level of cooperation between Serbia and China?
GDC: First thing, Serbia is autonomous, so it can cooperate with whomever it wants. My concern has three dimensions. The first one is that the European Union and the European Parliament have been working very seriously these last two years on foreign interference and how it has a huge influence on universities, electoral systems, monitoring of democracy, the independence of our NGOs, journalists that are being expelled by China etc. China is not the only stakeholder but is clearly one of them. And currently, we know that we in the European Union have universities that have had money from the Chinese government, and this money is used to monitor very specifically what is said on China, to prevent independent research and independent work on China, for example on the situation of Uyghurs. So, we have concrete proof in European Union and we are introducing rules and laws to prevent this, to protect our journalists, our researchers, our democracies from Chinese interference. So, that is completely normal that we have those questions for the countries who want to access the EU.
And here we have a specific domain, which is surveillance. And that is my second dimension. We know, today, for example, Uyghur families that have left China and live somewhere else in the world are still being surveilled every day. It is not a little project, it is a very ambitious, everyday scrutiny of some people, it is very conditioning, absolute. So, the fact that Serbia agreed to use Chinese devices, and we do not know, for example, if it is Chinese people checking things from behind, that is the second dimension of the worry.
And then the third thing, of course, is the money aspect. Of course, cooperation is needed, but today, the EU is investing a huge amount of money in different projects in Serbia, while China is lending money. It would be a real concern if tomorrow, Serbia was trying to do more in the way of acceding the EU, while at the same time it had big loans from China, because there again, we know how loans from China are very strict and difficult. How is this Huawei material being financed? Where is the money coming from for all of this?
So, these are the three reasons why we should be worried about this very specifically. Other investment of China in a very formal, normal way, in the areas such as infrastructure, is all right. It is not for us to judge.
EWB: I also wanted to ask you about the recent decision of the European Court of Justice to dismiss the case brought up by Hungary and Poland on the rule of law mechanism and conditionality. I think this is also relevant for the Western Balkans, because the EU is often criticized for not being credible when it comes to the rule of law internally, and that is why it is a bit weakened when it comes to the rule of law promotion in the Western Balkans. Do you think that after this decision of the Court, the rule of law will be protected more efficiently in the EU?
GDC: I am not that sure. It is a very good sign. The way this tool, this conditionality mechanism was created, it was clear that it conformed to our Treaties, so we knew that it would be a positive decision. Now we are waiting for the Commission to act, and if it does act, it will be a very positive thing.
To be honest, I have mixed views. Already on the recovery fund, Poland and Hungary are the only ones that have not received the approval and cannot access the funds. For the first time in decades, a Member State is not acceding money because it is not conforming to the rule of law standards, and now the Commission should also act on the cohesion funds. So, it is a promising sign. Now, we need action.
And yes, what I always answer to this criticism is that I am as severe with the EU Member States as with the candidates, and I am as severe even with some that are more under the radar such as France and Germany. We have police violence issues, we have surveillance issues in France, and this is being looked at.
EWB: The elections in Serbia will take place on the 3rd of April, and it seems that for the first time a green option will achieve a significant result. They aspire to become a member of the European Green family. Will you take steps of formalizing the relationship with them after the elections and what do you think will be the main challenges for them in the years to come as the new green option?
GDC: Yes, there will be steps to formalize the relationship, that’s for sure. We have never invested as much time and interest in Serbia because we didn’t really trust the previous people that we were talking with.
Something is happening in the Western Balkans, and it is a huge achievement because for years we were very worried. We had fake parties, one-month parties, and now there’s Zagreb, there’s Serbia, things are happening in Bulgaria as well. We are hoping that we will have strong partner parties in all these member states, we already have a strong collaboration with the one in North Macedonia, which we trust a lot. We want to, in time, have a clear member with all the rights and benefits that a member has.
I am very enthusiastic. I was a member of the European Greens executive committees for seven years, and I have been following a lot of member states. It is often disappointing, we have many member parties that are very weak, not strategic enough. And I was very impressed with the work being done in Serbia, the professionalism and efficiency, so yes, at the moment I do not really see challenges. I think that it could be very quick and easy. The only thing that we have seen in all these years, sometimes we had infiltration of pro-government people, and we have seen some of our parties go down because of that. So, that would be the only fear that we maybe have today. It seems for the moment, the strategy is to create an alternative fake party. That could be a challenge.