Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, visited Belgrade on 12 and 13 September, where he met government officials, members of parliament, students and representatives of civil society. This was his first visit since the opening of the EU negotiating chapters on democracy and the rule of law. Roth emphasised Serbia’s prospects for EU accession and praised the progress the country had made. At the same time, however, he said that determination was needed to implement the reforms that have been started.
“The opening of the chapters means that an important step has been taken. I am happy about that. In the final analysis, we are first and foremost a community of shared values. Human rights, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary and the protection of minorities are not an afterthought, but rather the cornerstones of the EU. This is why Serbia still has a long way to go on the path towards EU membership. Democratisation cannot be achieved overnight. However, the necessary reforms are neither an end in themselves nor a concession to the EU. The main aim is that they will improve people’s lives,” Roth said. Roth assured his Serbian counterpart Jadranka Joksimović of the German Government’s continued support.
Serbia is demonstrating a European team spirit in its approach to refugees
Roth discussed reconciliation and the further stabilisation of the region with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. He pointed out that Serbia played a special role in this. “We are counting on Serbia to continue playing its constructive role in fostering reconciliation in the region and to maintain its commitment to good neighbourly relations,” Roth underlined. Stability in the Western Balkans was not only important for the region itself, but also in the interests of the EU.
Vučić and Roth agreed that borders and fences in Europe were not the way forward as regards solving current problems and assured each other that their countries would continue their good cooperation in a spirit of mutual trust. During his visit to Serbia last year, Roth learned at first hand about the situation of refugees in the country. As a result, he reiterated:
Serbia has demonstrated a European team spirit as a transit country on the Western Balkan route. The Serbian Government and the people of Serbia have largely supported a humanitarian approach to refugees. In view of the many tasks that the country itself faces, the people of Serbia deserve our particular recognition and support.
Reforms aimed at further democratisation in Serbia
Roth also met Ana Brnabić and Nela Kuburović, two ministers whose work is of particular importance to the further democratisation of the country. “A modern and functional administration is essential if people are to have trust in the state. That is why democratisation always starts from below at the municipal level,” Roth said. He enquired about the state of play in reforms on the rule of law and legislation on minorities and encouraged Serbia to continue its endeavours. “It is not enough to simply pass laws. Rules always need to be put into practice and made tangible so that they are of benefit to the people. That is why I am pleased that Serbia has an independent ombudsman who deals with civil rights in the country by addressing individual cases,” Roth said. The Minister of State also had a meeting with the ombudsman, Saša Janković.
Roth met Maja Gojković, Speaker of the National Assembly, and the European Integration Committee at the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia. “Strong parliaments are vital partners on the path to EU accession. They do not only serve as legislators in implementing EU standards. As elected representatives, they also have a special responsibility for the public debate on European integration and the inclusion of various stakeholders,” Roth said. He encouraged Bojan Pajtić, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DS), and other party members in their work as an opposition party, pointing out their crucial role in a democracy as regards monitoring the Government and suggesting alternatives. He welcomed the fact that the DS is working with the Government on important European issues, despite currently being in opposition.
Exchange and dialogue among young people as the basis for reconciliation
At a discussion with students at the University of Belgrade, Roth underlined how important it is for lasting reconciliation that young people in the region have a chance to meet and exchange views and experiences. “Germany has its own very complex history with reconciliation. Today, no one doubts the special friendship with our French and Polish neighbours. However, this friendship is not a matter of course. The foundations for it were laid by dialogue and exchange, particularly among young people. Our youth offices have enabled millions of young people from France, Germany and Poland to meet. That is why I am very happy that a Regional Youth Cooperation Office will soon commence its work in south‑east Europe,” Roth told the students. He called on them to get involved time and again, to stand up for their own rights and to make demands of policymakers. EU membership was not a bureaucratic act, but rather a project for society as a whole.
Minorities’ place is at the heart of society
The Minister of State’s programme also included meetings with representatives of the Roma minority, civil rights activists and LGBTI activists. “I particularly welcomed the opportunity to learn about the work of the members of the Roma Centre for Democracy. These young people make a very important contribution to an inclusive society through the services they provide. Thanks to their network, they help many young people to do professional training or study for a degree. They are simply a role model,” Roth said.
Several events promoting the acceptance of sexual minorities have been held in the run‑up to the Belgrade Pride Parade. Roth attended an exhibition opening and met the organisers in order to find out for himself whether there have been any problems with the preparations for the parade. After his meeting, he said:
Whether we are talking about ethnic minorities like the Roma, religious minorities or sexual minorities, all of them belong at the heart of society and not on its margins. The aim of the Pride Parade is to foster this idea. That is why I do not only hope the event will pass off peacefully, but also that other minorities and above all members of the majority society will express their solidarity. This is a chance for people to meet and get to know each other. Only in this way will it be possible to end prejudices and to meet the diversity in our societies with respect and tolerance.“