“Serbia’s path to the EU – next steps after opening Chapters 23 and 24”. Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth to students in Belgrade

12.09.2016 - Speech

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Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m glad to be here with you today in Belgrade and to have the opportunity to talk with you about Serbia’s path to the European Union. I would like to thank the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Faculty of Political Science for organising this event.

I’m aware that it has been quite a challenge organising this meeting during the summer break. And I’m impressed that so many of you have decided to spend this lovely day here with me and not somewhere on the banks of the Danube. I hope you will not be disappointed.

The fact that you are here today during your summer vacations shows your sincere interest in your country’s future development. I’m convinced that Serbia’s EU accession is not only a topic for the political elite or legal experts. Becoming a member of the European Union is a process that affects society as a whole – it is your process! And it’s up to you to get involved and contribute to the country, to the society and to the European Union that you want.

Today, I want to support you in that endeavour by presenting some thoughts about Serbia’s path to the EU from a German perspective.

As you all know, Germany is a founding member of the EU and its predecessors. With 65 years of integration experience, you might think that we’re already close to retirement. And looking at all the challenges the EU is facing at the moment, I’m sure that many colleagues have got grey hair over the years. Nevertheless we are not old and tired, but still full of enthusiasm and determination to make the European Union better and stronger.

We are indeed facing serious challenges, but we should never forget one invaluable achievement of European integration: peace and reconciliation. We have overcome war and mistrust between countries such as France and Germany or Germany and Poland. For more than six decades now, many problems have been solved through dialogue and compromise in the European framework. This is what Europe is really about.

Serbia and other countries in the Western Balkans also have a vivid memory of the terror that comes with war. Now that your countries are seeking EU membership, former enemies can reach a new level of mutual understanding and cooperation.

But peace is more than just the absence of war. The European Union has always been more than a peace project and significantly more than a common market. First and foremost, it has been a Union of values. Tolerance, pluralism, non‑discrimination, democracy, and rule of law are the core values of the EU. That’s why they are also at the heart of EU accession processes.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me be very clear: Germany remains committed to the European perspective of all countries in the Western Balkans, including Serbia. We want to see you, our fellow Europeans, with us in the European Union. This was also the key message of the Paris Conference this summer.

Enlargement is a unique success story. It has helped define the European Union as we know it today: a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Union of nations. The “big bang” of 2004 was a breakthrough in overcoming the division of Europe deriving from the Cold War. But the European Union will not be complete without the countries in the Western Balkans.

We need countries in our immediate neighborhood that are stable, peaceful, democratic and oriented towards the EU. This is why the EU has very good reasons to remain focused on the Western Balkans. And this is why Serbia, as a crucial player in the region, is of major importance to us. Your relations with Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo – yes, Kosovo – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania are most valuable.

But we have to keep in mind that the enlargement policy is not running like clockwork. A type of “enlargement fatigue” has set in over the past years.

Especially in the light of the economic and financial crisis, many Europeans ask whether we should not focus on dealing with our internal issues before inviting new members to join our club. We cannot ignore these widespread concerns if we want to strengthen acceptance of the enlargement policy.

First of all, the European Union has to do its homework. In order to remain capable of action and to be prepared for further accession rounds, we have to implement internal reforms.

Secondly, the EU has to learn from the mistakes of previous accessions. In future, we must not give any sort of special treatment to candidate countries. Especially when it comes to the most fundamental issues, such as democracy or the rule of law, our message has to be clear: the accession criteria have to be met in their entirety before a country can join the European Union.

The criteria for membership are not some obstacle invented by eurocrats. They are intended to help Serbia stand on its own feet and become fit for Europe, for the common market and for the global economy in general.

Talking about the negotiations: this is not primarily about the EU, it’s about Serbia. It’s up to Serbia to meet the criteria for EU membership. You are in the driver’s seat und you alone determine the pace of the negotiations.

I’m convinced that a credible and effective enlargement policy is a catalyst for reforms in the region that are in our common interest. It helps promote stability, democracy, rule of law and prosperity.

The Serbian Government has embarked on a journey of crucial reforms. I’m well aware that these reforms are certainly not always popular. Therefore, I’m glad that a majority of voters reaffirmed their support for this reform course and EU integration at the last general elections in Serbia a few months ago.

You have Germany as a reliable partner by your side. Much has been achieved in the last years. In my view, the Serbian action plans on chapters 23 and 24, the so-called rule of law chapters, are an absolute milestone because they concern the key accession issues: judicial and constitutional reform, freedom of the media, human rights, as well as the fight against corruption and organised crime. The Government’s action plans are the blueprint for the implementation of the necessary reforms in the upcoming months.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If I didn’t mention policies that still need a closer look, you wouldn’t believe that I am a Minister from Germany: it’s crucial for EU accession that the political dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo produces results soon. The European Commission is monitoring progress on bilateral relations with Kosovo very closely. We are aware of the domestic problems that each side is facing. But we also know that a normalisation of relations is absolutely necessary.

Another issue where we would like to see more movement from Serbia is the alignment of your country’s foreign and security policy with EU positions. It is Serbia’s declared intention to join the European Union. And we support your country in this purpose. But the Union has a Common Foreign and Security Policy and we expect Serbia to align its positions accordingly step by step. This doesn’t mean that Serbia needs to cut all its special historical, cultural, economic and political relations with other countries such as Russia. But we have to pull together in the same direction when it comes to the main foreign policy issues.

There are other issues we need to work on. “United in diversity” is the guiding principle of the European Union. It pays tribute to the many different cultures, languages and traditions inside the European Union. It is precisely this diversity that makes us stronger.

Serbia has a rich culture. Your national minorities contribute a lot to this richness, for example the Roma. Unfortunately, they still experience a lot of discrimination and rejection. As a values-based community, the EU has pledged to protect minorities. Roma as the largest ethnic minority in Europe belong in the midst of our society, not on its margins.

The same is true for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. A few years ago, the LGBTI rights movement initiated the first “Parada”, a demonstration for LGBTI rights – a manifestation of peace, diversity and equal rights. Last year I had the chance to participate in the parade and was impressed by the peaceful and joyful atmosphere.

I could continue to name other examples but my point is: NGOs and activists engaged in supporting human rights, minority issues, environmental protection or European integration fulfil an important function in our modern societies. They channel the views and interests of different groups and bring them to the attention of the authorities. Governments can therefore take well‑informed decisions that are far more likely to be accepted by society afterwards.

I would like to call your attention to another topic that is close to my heart: the countries in the region need to come to terms with the past. True reconciliation and mutual trust are only possible after confronting your own history. This has been our own experience: in the last century, Germany and France were enemies in two devastating world wars. It was only through a continuous and direct dialogue and cooperation that we built the foundation for mutual trust and a close partnership.

I’m convinced that the former enemies in the Balkans need to do the same in order to build a common future. Some very good steps in this direction are already underway, for example the foundation of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) at the Paris Summit this July. Once this Office is operational in 2017 it will have a tremendously positive impact on relations between the countries in the Western Balkan region.

In the case of Germany and France, the Franco-German Youth Office, which was founded 18 years after World War II, played a tremendous role. Millions of young German and French people have visited each other’s country since then, have got to know each other better and have become friends. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the cornerstones of the reconciliation between France and Germany.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are talking about changes that demand a lot from governments, but also from citizens. I am aware that reforming this process goes far beyond a purely economic transformation. It is a truly social transformation. But I’m convinced that this reform process is worth every effort.

You can get directly involved in many of the issues I have mentioned: fight for your civil rights, hold your government to account, demand free media and confront your own past. Becoming a member of the European Union is a project for society as a whole! We need a strong and active civil society to make the accession negotiations a success. I’m counting on your support!

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