‘Serbia sets its own speed at which it moves towards the European Union (EU). When Serbia is ready, the EU will be ready too,’ says the Ambassador of Germany in Belgrade Thomas Schieb in an exclusive interview for Kurir, in reply to a question regarding Serbia’s road to the EU.
Pointing out that the Western Balkans have European prospects, Schieb says that he concluded in many meetings that he has had here that the EU is perceived very favourably, and that he could see for himself that the citizens are aware of the enormous support provided by the European Union for years here.
In addition to the EU, Schieb touches on the issue of Kosovo, the coronavirus, a possible visit to Belgrade of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, etc.
Let’s start from the election that has just been held. You followed the pre-election activities and visited the polling stations. What are your views on the election process on the day of the election?
- First of all, I would like to congratulate the election winners. SNS had a convincing result. And as a result, it took a great responsibility. The OECD election observation mission did not find significant irregularities on the day of the election. That is good news. However, the OECD Office commented on the pre-election environment at the press-conference on Monday. The colleagues from OECD Office made critical remarks regarding the fact that the election was held in the context of intense political polarization, and that the media did not appropriately represent the existing political diversity. This limited media pluralism has already been criticized in the latest European Commission progress report.
Do you think that a part of the opposition made a mistake deciding to boycott the election?
- At any rate, it is a shame that the political offerings were limited in terms of content diversity. The opposition parties which boycotted the election will have to assess the election results themselves.
Resolving the issue of Kosovo is one of the key things that Serbia will face in the upcoming period. What are Germany’s ‘red lines’ regarding the ultimate solution for Kosovo?
- Germany is not a party in that process. We are convinced that a great opportunity lies in the dialogue on the normalization of relations. If we manage to find a solution which enhances the peace and stability in the region, then this lays the foundation for an economic reconstruction of the entire region. This is about opening up prospects for all people living in Kosovo – Serbs as much as Albanians - where their homes are.
What is your view on the fact that the US President Donald Trump’s administration is becoming increasingly involved in resolving this issue?
- The dialogue format has not changed. Our American colleagues agree on this as well. The dialogue of Belgrade and Priština on the normalization of relations is held with the mediation of the EU. With Miroslav Lajčák as Special Representative for the dialogue, this task is in capable hands. Lajčák is an exceptionally experienced diplomat and expert on the region, who enjoys the support of the German Government. I am glad that he has had successful talks in Belgrade these days.
Should Russia and China, for example, join the dialogue in addition to the US?
- In the United Nations Security Council, whose membership includes both China and Russia, there is great support for the dialogue on the normalization of relations with the mediation of the EU. The Russian minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov made it clear during a recent visit to Belgrade that he sees the EU in the leadership role in this.
How does Kosovo strike you today, over ten years after the unilateral declaration of independence?
- As the ambassador of Germany to Serbia, I focus in my assessments of the situation on the host country’s circumstances. Those are the rules of diplomacy.
Could the coronavirus-related crisis slow down the EU enlargement process?
- The meeting of the EU heads of state and government with their Western Balkans colleagues, which was held on 6 May, sent a clear signal of solidarity, and confirmed unambiguously the accession prospects for the six states of the Western Balkans. This was also confirmed by the Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, who emphasized at the summit that Germany and the EU are reliable partners of the Western Balkans. What was the case before the pandemic is still the case: Serbia sets its own speed at which it moves towards the EU, via reforms which are necessary for acquiring the EU standards, especially in the areas of the rule of law and the protection of human rights and democracy. These are the objectives that Serbia - in agreement with the EU - set for itself.
It is a fact that our country has implemented many reforms …
- Serbia is implementing reforms for its own sake, and to be ready for accession to the EU, not for us. SNS has won a very convincing majority in this election – I am certain that it will continue to resolutely lead the country towards the EU. When Serbia is ready, the EU will be ready too. Germany will strongly support Serbia on its road to the EU. The commitment to a solidary European line of action in resolving the economic consequences of the pandemic within the EU, as well as with the countries of the Western Balkans, is one of the main topics of our EU presidency, as is the rule of law, democracy, and human rights, within the EU as much as in cooperation with non-EU states.
Do the states in this region sometimes have good reasons to be bitter about the slow integration with the EU?
- In the many meetings here in Serbia, I have felt that the EU is perceived very favourably. The citizens are aware of the enormous support provided by the EU for years here, including the area of Serbia’s preparations for EU accession. So, candidate countries benefit from the very process of alignment with the EU. The rate of alignment, however, depends on the candidates themselves, i.e. on the speed of implementing the required reforms. I can understand those who are disappointed over the lack of visible progress on the road to Europe. Reforms are a necessary precondition for accession, our experience so far has demonstrated that conclusively. The attainment of standards is needed for staying afloat in the EU. I am therefore happy that President Vučić recently said in a statement that EU accession remains Serbia’s strategic goal. Of course, we will offer our help in the implementation of reforms to the newly formed government as well.
The coronavirus is a big blow to the economies of all countries. How is Germany fighting it, and how long will it take to recover?
- In the first quarter of 2020, Germany had the highest decrease of the gross domestic product since the 2008/2009 global financial and economic crisis. The federal government responded quickly and decisively, preparing an unprecedented economic recovery package. We have used these funds to provide, among other things, financial aid to workers on shorter hours due to decreased workloads, preventing the laying off of 10,000 workers on account of the condition that their companies were in. Loans and subsidies have been provided to freelancers and the companies facing solvency problems through no fault of their own. Having said that, the economy will take time to fully recover.
Can Serbia count on EU help in mitigating the coronavirus pandemic consequences?
- Federal Chancellor Merkel has proposed, alongside the French President Macron, an EU economic recovery programme in the amount of 500 billion euros. The key topic in our EU presidency, which we will assume from Croatia on 1 July, will be precisely the mitigation of the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. Together we want to revitalize Europe. The Serbian economy will also profit from these programmes, as it is tightly linked with the European economy. Germany is the biggest trade partner of Serbia. The close cooperation of Germany and the EU with Serbia will continue to be a driver of the development in Serbia and the entire region.
ON THE CHANCELLOR’S VISIT ‘I would like to be Merkel’s host here’ What are the chances of the German Chancellor Merkel visiting Serbia in the near future?
- I would be very pleased to have the honour of welcoming Chancellor Merkel in Belgrade. Generally speaking, due to the coronavirus crisis, the chancellor does not travel a great deal at the moment, so we have to be patient.
(Kurir.rs / Boban Karović / Photo:Private Archives)