Roth: Serbia and Kosovo to normalize relations for EU membership

The relations between Serbia and Kosovo, before accession to the EU, have to be normalized in a legally binding way – says Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe at the German Foreign Ministry.

When asked whether Serbia would have to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty before joining the Union, this is what he said:

„Kosovo also has a chance of joining the European Union. We cannot import bilateral conflicts. Normalization (of relations) has to progress for the simple reason that it benefits the everyday lives of both the Serbs and Kosovars.“

Serbia has opened chapters 23 and 24. How would you rate the country’s progress so far in this aspect?

– I am glad that we were finally able to open the chapters pertaining to democracy and the rule of the law in July. The action plans that the Serbian government has submitted are an important step towards joining the EU. The EU is first and foremost a community of values. Human rights, freedom of media, independent courts and protection of minorities are not superficial values but are built into the very foundation of the EU. Although, Serbia did a lot of work, the road ahead is still long. All of these provisions need to be implemented. And when it comes to the sensitive ones that I’ve just mentioned, they cannot be implemented over night. The road is not easy but worth the effort. I am optimistic that progress will ensue through a structured dialogue. It is important for the Serbian people to participate in all of this in order to achieve sustainable changes.

How do you comment the frequent friction between Serbia and Croatia, and disrupted relations in the region?

– The campaigns that are based on the past and the games that are motivated by internal policy that is detrimental to good neighbourly relations should be done away with. The EU’s acquis communautaire provides the guidelines for the negotiations towards the EU accession. At the same time, the bilateral issues between Serbs and Croats need to be addressed in order to achieve progress in the reconciliation process. We need dialogue, we need communication, especially among young people. That’s why we have founded the Regional Youth Cooperation Office, following the Western Balkans conference in Paris. Also, there are reconciliation efforts between the Serbian and Croatian war veterans as important symbols of peace and good neighbourly relations. I really appreciate ideas like the two groups laying wreaths at the war monuments together. Remembering is certainly important for the future.

Most of the foreign companies in Serbia are from Germany and Germany is the biggest foreign investor here. Are there any concrete plans in place with the Serbian government about boosting the economic relations between the two countries?

– Yes, our economic relations are dynamic. In the last five years, trading between the two countries has been growing 10% per annum. Over 350 German companies operate in Serbia and they have more than 31,000 employees. The best way to further improve our economic relations is for Serbia to continue to work towards the EU accession. Hence, there are public administration reforms, the rule of the law reforms and modernization of the system for tenders which all contribute to creating better conditions for investors. Independent courts and professional administration are also very important for small and medium enterprises. More than 400,000 Serbs living in Germany also contribute to the closer political and economic relations between the two countries.

Refugee crisis has hit Europe hard, especially those countries that are en-route for migrants. What is your opinion about what Serbia has done so far in this matter and how is the EU going to help in the future?

– During my visit last September, I was able to see the situation for myself and noticed that Serbia, as a transit country on the so-called West Balkan route, has demonstrated the true European team spirit. Many Serbian citizens treated the refugees in a humane way maybe because they remembered what was like being refugees themselves. The EU and my country have also helped and we are willing to continue helping. We are carefully monitoring the developments on this route and are keeping regular contact with our partners in Serbia. It is very important that we have a good cooperation with Turkey so that less people decide to jeopardize their lives by crossing the Aegean Sea on their way to Europe. We are also aware of the fact that refugees are not only passing through Serbia, but are also staying here for considerable amount of time.

The refugee crisis has lead to the rise of extreme right-wing movements in Germany. How can this be curbed?

– There is this fear of migrants that is deliberately incited. I often wonder what are these people afraid of and where do those fears and worries come from? Germany is a strong country and we should not allow people to turn against each other. Undoubtedly, the attitude towards foreigners, and different cultures, religions and ethnic groups co-habiting has its challenges. We should learn about them, and this takes time and public debate. Simplified answers, pure populism and scare tactics should be eliminated. I don’t have it easy as a politician and I don’t have a straightforward answer to everything. That’s why I try to be in touch with the people on a daily basis.

What would be an optimal deadline for Serbia to become a full-fledged member of the EU?

– The optimal deadline is the one when all accession prerequisites have been met. Serbia is the most responsible for this. Faster you implement the necessary reforms, faster you’ll get to the EU membership. We stand firm behind our pledge that all West Balkan countries can join the EU. We have confirmed this during the Berlin process and we have been providing constant support in that respect.

What do you expect to happen at the upcoming Pride Parade in Belgrade?

– I am glad that the Pride Parade will take place this year too. I am optimistic when it comes to trusting the Serbian authorities to protect all of the participants so that the Parade is not jeopardized but rather held in joy and with self-confidence. The aim of these parades is to bring the LGBT community from the society’s margin to its very centre. I would like to see other people participating in it, not only the members of the LGBT community. People from other minority groups… The goal is for people to meet and get to know each other. Only in this way can we overcome prejudice.

Do you think that the EU will insist on Serbia imposing sanctions on Russia?

– As it continues with the accession negotiations, it is vital for Serbia to adopt the EU’s foreign policy views. A complete harmonization of these views is expected to happen at the end of the accession process the latest. Nobody wants Serbia to break off its traditionally good relations with Russia. However, it is inexcusable to send mixed signals too.

Do you expect Angela Merkel to run for the office again?

– You would have to ask Ms. Merkel that.

Who could replace Ms. Merkel?

– Political parties make decisions about their candidates in a democratic process. It would be in bad taste if I, as a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was to speculate about that.

(Blic, 11.09.2016)

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