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[EWB Interview] Ben David: Fundamentals and foreign policy will shape Serbia’s progress towards EU

Sweden took over the presidency of the European Union at the moment of difficulties for European security due to the war in Ukraine, which has shaped the presidency’s priorities to a great extent. Changing geopolitical circumstances also influenced the EU enlargement policy, drawing more attention to the Western Balkan countries and their accession processes. We discussed this with the Swedish Ambassador to Serbia, Annika Ben David, who shared her thoughts about her country’s EU presidency and its priorities, but also about the main challenges Serbia and other Western Balkan countries face on their way towards the EU.

European Western Balkans: During the past year, we have witnessed a new momentum for the enlargement policy on behalf of the EU. How will Swedish presidency follow up on this momentum and can we expect enlargement policy to be high on the agenda in the next six months?

Annika Ben David: I would say that the geopolitical realities have brought a new sense of urgency in EU accession. Russia’s war against Ukraine underscores the importance of a strategic partnership between the EU and the Western Balkans. Candidate countries now have an opportunity to advance and we encourage our partners to make use of it.

However, the fundamentals apply of course: the benchmarks are there. There is a clear path, a clear methodology. We want to see the accession process accelerate, based upon reforms, fair and rigorous conditionality, and the principle of own merits. A strict and fair approach. Serbia also needs to counter the perception that it is siding with Russia. By showing progress, Serbia will make progress.

We believe there are strong reasons why countries outside of the EU, wanting in, should have strong opportunities to do so. But there are equally strong reasons why those coming in should be capable of meeting the tough criteria for membership. It will take dedication by the Western Balkans countries to make a case for themselves that they are ready to join the EU. Because the EU is not only a political union. It is a community of values that rests on the rule of law and respect for the rights and freedoms of the individual.

EWB: As security and unity of EU in light of the war in Ukraine is the priority of the Swedish
presidency, how will this reflect on Serbia’s EU path, bearing in mind the criticism it
received for poor alignment with EU Common Foreign and Security Policy? Could Serbia
achieve any progress in negotiations without introducing the sanctions to Russia?

ABD: Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine is an absolute game-changer for Sweden, the EU, wider Europe and for the world. The new war in Europe defines our EU presidency; how we view ourselves, the world and what we are doing now and next. It has prompted us to abandon 200 years of military neutrality, which goes to show the enormity of this watershed moment.

The full-scale invasion by a nuclear power on of a neutral and democratic Orthodox Slavic brother nation reminds us that freedom and democracy must not be taken for granted. This is an attack not only on Ukraine, but a war on our values, our system of governance, and the norms of international cooperation.

The outcome of this war will shape Europe’s future. Ukraine must win this war, otherwise it means that invading another country and undermining the rules-based international order pays off. Then it can be done elsewhere, or by others.

The situation requires a unified response. EU support to Ukraine – political, economic, military, humanitarian and legal – therefore constitutes a central focus for the Swedish presidency.

We believe it will be very difficult to move ahead on Serbia’s EU path without Serbia harmonizing its foreign and security policy as required in the EU approximation process. CFSP alignment and meeting EU criteria on the fundamentals will shape Serbia’s opportunities for progress.

EWB: Democratic values and the rule of law, as foundation of the EU, have been recognized as another priority of the Swedish Presidency. How do you assess the state of the fundamentals in Serbia?

ABD: The EU notes the progress made by Serbia in some areas of the rule of law but also the overall limited progress and continued delays in a number of other areas. We welcome last year’s constitutional amendments for a more independent and effective judiciary and are following closely the process as it culminates into five new laws. The key will obviously be their implementation.

On the fight against corruption and organized crime – priorities for the Swedish EU presidency – the EU underlines the need for Serbia to demonstrate political will and to step up its efforts. Serbia also needs to achieve tangible results and a convincing track record with effective investigations, prosecutions and final convictions, freezing and confiscation of criminal assets, particularly when it comes to serious and organized crime cases.

We are also following closely developments regarding media freedom. It is important that Serbia effectively implements its media strategy action plan as a matter of priority and improves the overall environment for freedom of expression and the independence of the media. We also call on Serbian authorities to communicate objectively and unambiguously on the EU, so that people in Serbia can make informed choices and opinions. Disinformation and foreign information manipulation must also be tackled in all media channels.

The handling of EuroPride did not reflect well on Serbia. We also note the Mladic mural in downtown Belgrade still stands, despite pledges to have it removed.

I want to take the opportunity to say that whenever we have a chance, we try to discuss with the general public the merits of belonging to the EU. We are convinced that the EU offers the best agenda for the future for persons living in Serbia: in terms of freedom, democracy, security and economic progress.

We explain that the EU is Serbia’s biggest trading partner, investor and donor. Serbia is one of the biggest recipients of EU funds in the world, with €200 million per year. With a €30 billion Economic and Investment Plan, we support the Western Balkans’ long-term recovery. And our €1 billion Energy Support Package tackles the energy crisis and boosts its energy transition. The roaming agreements signed at Tirana are a testament to the ever-closer collaboration. The EU will continue to strengthen and intensify its engagement at all levels to support the Western Balkans’ political, economic and social transformation. Now is the time to speed up reforms, harmonize policies and take new decisive measures for the geostrategic orientation of Serbia and the whole region.

EWB: In spite of being considered a frontrunner in the EU integration process, Montenegro has fell into an institutional crisis EU has repeatedly stressed concern about. There have also been calls for EU mediation in resolving the crisis. How can the EU contribute to the endof this deadlock in the near future and what would be your message for the political actors in Montenegro?

ABD: I think it is fair to say that Montenegro had a great head start in the process compared to its neighbours, but that is has slowed down considerably in the last years. In essence, the political parties in Montenegro need to find a way to overcome political divisions and focus on the common overriding goal – and then take concrete steps to get there.

What is urgently needed now, is the election of judges for the constitutional court, increased focus on reforms, and building a genuine political dialogue in parliament.

The political crisis that we are witnessing is to a large degree self-inflicted and we hope that Montenegro manages to get out of it sooner rather than later.

The member states and the EU will be there to help of course, but it is up to the Montenegrin politicians to lead the country out of the crisis in a responsible manner. The accession of Montenegro to the European Union is the strategic choice of an overwhelming majority of Montenegrin citizens and the publicly stated goal of a vast majority of Montenegrin political stakeholders.

Montenegro has been a frontrunner among the EU candidate countries. Continued progress on EU accession requires all political actors to support the functionality of the country’s democratic institutions and strengthen the rule of law.

EWB: Swedish presidency’s priorities also include green and energy transition. Serbia opened Cluster 4 at the end of 2021, so how would you assess the progress made in this area and what should Serbia regard as priorities when it comes to green and energy transition?

ABD: For over two decades, Sweden has provided strategic, predictable and long-term support to Serbia’s reforms necessary towards its EU path. We are Serbia’s assigned lead donor on environment and climate, and the third largest bilateral donor in total.

Our development cooperation focusses on Chapter 27, the environment and climate part of Cluster 4. We are also committed to supporting Serbia’s implementation of the EU Green Agenda for the Western Balkans through the EU for Green Agenda in Serbia project. We team up with the government of Serbia, the EU Delegation, UNDP, EIB, Switzerland and others to make this happen.

During the last years a lot has been done in transposing environmental legislation; the recent adoption of the national air pollution program is one concrete example. However, as shown in the EU progress report Serbia is still on some level of preparation, with a lot remaining, and we need to step up our joint efforts. We have seen important progress in implementing requirements for investments, not least in the areas of wastewater treatment and waste management.

For example, with EU and Swedish support, Serbia is now building a wastewater treatment plant in the City of Niš, and we team up on a large scale waste separation reform in 17 municipalities all over Serbia. With more funds available for infrastructure investments in the sector, there are important challenges ahead: safeguarding environmental standards, securing public procurement procedures and strengthening public participation in decision-making.

EWB: Kosovo has recently applied for EU membership, which happened at a time of reignited tensions with Serbia. How will the Swedish presidency approach Kosovo’s membership application?

ABD: Pristina’s application for EU membership will be handled in accordance with relevant rules and procedures, including by taking into consideration the views of EU Member States.

EWB: There has been a lot of discussion on a possible final agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, but on the ground one crisis follows another. How do you assess the current state of Belgrade-Pristina dialogue led by the EU?

ABD: The EU is working very hard to move forward on path of normalization. Dialogue under the auspices of the EU is the only way to progress and reach an agreement on the comprehensive normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

It is critical that all agreements previously reached in the dialogue must be quickly implemented. These are not only promises, but also obligations of both parties. This implies the establishment of the Association of Serbian Municipalities. The EU will continue to work towards this goal. We support strongly the tireless efforts by all involved, and particularly EUSR Lajčak, in this endeavour.

The recent statements by president Vučić seem to indicate that there is a genuine willingness to discuss the EU proposal, which is encouraging.

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