Serbia’s big day has come. Today, the European Commission will be giving the green light for the country’s EU accession bid. Minister Frattini, on an official visit to Serbia, will be in Belgrade to welcome the news.
Today Serbia will obtain a favourable opinion on its bid for EU membership. Does Belgrade deserve this success?
Of course it does. As the Commission has recognised, Serbia has made significant progress on the internal reforms needed to comply with the accession criteria. With the arrest and extradition of Mladic and Hadzic, it has met the requirements – posed by the EU and the international community – to collaborate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Encouraging developments have also been seen on the regional reconciliation front, with the opening –with EU mediation – of a dialogue with Pristina. The Serbian government has therefore shown political will and commitment in pursuing its European goal, and has overcome obstacles and differences of opinion. Today’s decision is not just the crowning event for the efforts the country has made over the years – it is a stimulus to continue along this path.
What role has Italy played in supporting Serbia’s European integration?
Italy has always been in the front line in supporting the Serbian people’s European aspirations, in keeping with our favourable view of the European integration process for the Western Balkans. Serbia is a priority country in the region and Italy has fought to see it advance along the path to Europe.
At the political level, in November 2009 Prime Minister Berlusconi and the Serbian Prime Minister signed a Strategic Partnership Declaration in Rome. This underscores the special nature of our relationship.
In economic-commercial terms, Italy is the first destination for Serbian exports and the third exporter to Serbia. In the first half of 2011 alone, bilateral trade grew by 23%. We have 250 Italian enterprises in Serbia and, notwithstanding the economic crisis, we are the country with the most significant foreign investment there.
To date, much of the progress envisaged in the 8-point plan for the Balkans that I proposed in summer 2009 has been achieved: visa liberalisation for Serbian citizens; entry into force of the Interim Agreement on trade and commercial questions; opening of the ratification process for the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. We have also pressed for the Council to forward Serbia’s accession application to the Commission as soon as possible, so that work can begin on formulating its opinion.
Serbia’s bid will have a “handicap”, in that no date has been set for the start of negotiations with Brussels. How do you interpret this decision?
Italy has always hoped that the Commission would indicate a definite date for the start of negotiations, to enable Serbia to make rapid progress towards full membership. If the Commission decides to made the opening of talks dependent upon progress in relations between Serbia and Kosovo, then that is a consequence of the different approaches taken by member states vis-à-vis this delicate question.
The crucial point for Belgrade is to ensure the Commission’s recommendations are implemented concretely and in full, to smooth the way for the talks. Italy will continue to support Serbia’s efforts and will go on pressing the EU to set a date for them to start as soon as possible.
Some EU member states, and Germany in particular, have been urging Belgrade for months to cooperate more effectively with Kosovo. There’s also talk of recognition of Pristina being a final condition for Serbia to enter Europe. If that were the case, would Italy support the German position?
We strongly encourage the dialogue process currently under way between Belgrade and Serbia, with facilitation by the EU, to resolve the many questions on the table to the benefit of the populations concerned. Further concrete results in this area are essential if both Serbia and Kosovo are to advance in their EU membership bids. That said, explicit recognition by Belgrade has never been formally posed as a condition for its EU accession. Moreover, it is in the interest, and the hopes, of all concerned for relations between Belgrade and Pristina to be normalised at the earliest possible date.
Don’t you think that using Kosovo as a “stick” to hit Belgrade could alienate Serbian sentiment towards Europe?
It’s clear that Kosovo is still a highly sensitive topic for Serbian public opinion, but the country has already shown that it can overcome the problems of the past in a constructive and pragmatic spirit. I’m convinced, therefore, that on this occasion too the Serbian people will set aside their differences and nationalist aspirations in favour of their European future. Serbia’s government and the electorate have already chosen Europe.
In Serbia, the proportion of euro-sceptics has risen to nearly 50%, after the summer crisis in northern Kosovo. How do you interpret these figures?
I think these percentages need to be considered in light of the emotions aroused by the incidents in northern Kosovo, not as a change of opinion on the decision to enter Europe. During my numerous visits to Serbia I have had ample opportunity to see at first hand the Serbian people’s desire for Europe.
When do you think Serbia could realistically enter the European Union to full effect?
At present it is difficult to make realistic forecasts. The timescale for the European integration process depends on the effort made by each country in implementing the required reforms to bring them into line with the Community’s standards and structures. Serbia is already at an advanced stage. And if it can maintain the determination and energy it has shown thus far in its reform process, it will make rapid progress
Translation courtesy of MFA