Interview with Dejan Ralevic, Serbia’s Deputy Assistant Minister for EU Affairs

After having gained the backing of four European Union members from Eastern Europe for accelerated accession talks, Serbia’s point man for EU affairs sat down to talk with New Europe about the enlargement process and what he thinks will be the next stage in Serbia’s integration process with the European Union and why Belgrade must continue to be a leader in the Western Balkans, as well as why he believes Serbia will be the next nation in the region to become a full member of the bloc.

New Europe (NE): What is the current status regarding EU accession negotiations with Serbia? Is the pace of the negotiations moving quickly or slowly and what are the obstacles that have been encountered?

Dejan Ralevic (DR): No doubt, the first country to be the next European Union member will be Serbia. Whether it will join alone or together with some other country is less important. Our commitment to EU membership is unquestionable. It is the same as the EU’s readiness to admit Serbia with full membership. Above all, EU membership is Serbia’s strategic interest in view of the fact that the European Union is by far our largest trading and business partner. Moreover, many of our citizens live in EU countries, do business or receive education there, or travel to those countries. It is also because Serbia is geographically and culturally a part of Europe.

Serbia’s negotiations with Brussels about full membership are well underway. So far, we’ve opened 17 out of 35 negotiating chapters and have provisionally closed two. I do have to note, however, that we are not pleased with the current pace of the negotiations. Come January, it will be six years since we started the accession negotiations and we expected a faster progress. We are probably partly to blame for not going faster, but I am convinced that the European Union is even more responsible for failing to conduct the negotiations more decisively and more dynamically and thus truly reaffirm its often restated readiness to admit Serbia as a fully-fledged member.

Serbia’s accession has been somewhat slowed due to internal reasons within the EU. This could be on account of Brexit or disagreements in connection with the overall operation of the European institutions, as well as the elections for the European Parliament and the formation of the Commission, which is still ongoing. We are not the only ones saying that Europe should have been faster in working together with Serbia and other Balkan countries. Many European officials, including Federica Mogherini, have confirmed that. Almost two years ago, she admitted that the Brussels neglected the Balkans and that it needed to be more invested in its integration.

Dejan Ralevic with the Executive Director of the International Visegrad Fund, Andor David.Twitter

NE: When will Serbia join the EU?

DR: Even though we can safely say that the first country to be the next EU member will be Serbia, since it has indisputably gone the farthest down that road, it is impossible to say precisely when this will actually happen. We are prepared to progress much faster and we contend that we could have opened many more negotiating chapters so far, but the people in Brussels obviously felt differently. It is unhelpful to speculate when exactly, whether it will be 2024 or 2025, or even a bit later, it is difficult to say. We are not going to make any wild guesses. Our priority is to undertake steady and in-depth reform of our legislation, institutions, and economy so that they are in line with the criteria set by the EU. We are taking into consideration that this is primarily in our own interest and in the interest of our citizens.

Full EU membership will happen, but it is not a goal in itself. We are committed to achieving daily goals and we seek to turn Serbia into a modern European state. We are not biding our time.

NE: What activities have you undertaken towards regional integration in the meantime?

Having recognised the EU’s hesitance regarding the integration of Serbia and other Balkan countries, we have launched a number of regional connectivity initiatives to avoid wasting time and energy. In the most recent few years, Serbia has been doing a job that the European Union should be doing. Serbia wants to compensate for the obvious stagnation in the European integration process by strengthening the integration among the Balkan countries themselves as well as in our immediate neighbourhood.

As the largest and most influential country of the Balkans, Serbia is in favour of integration and connectivity. We are open to this and encourage others to be responsive in this regard, as well. After all, one of Europe’s most important expectations for the region is to strengthen intra-regional cooperation. With this aim in mind, Serbia, and most notably President Aleksandar Vučić, have initiated a number of steps over the past few years to make the ties among the Balkan countries much more solid than they are today. Some of these steps were not favourably received, such as the initiative for the establishment of a customs union, but we are not giving up.

At the initiative of President Vučić, discussions will commence in the coming days between Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia on the removal of customs barriers between our states. Our economic cooperation has been excellent, but there are still too many hurdles related to customs and customs administration. As a result, we have all suffered major financial losses.

To solve this, we put forward the following proposal – let’s facilitate cross-border traffic of goods. We need not wait for Europe to do this for us given that we foster good-neighbourly relations, which means an agreement can be easily reached. I am confident that this will be a success and that Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia will, in this way, open up a perspective for similar models throughout the Balkans. We have also been putting in significant efforts with our friends in Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece in the framework of the Craiova Group towards the strengthening of our economic and cultural ties in this context.

Overall, Serbia has been at the forefront of both the integration processes and initiatives in the Balkans. We oppose and fight against blockades and walls that are regrettably still being erected. I am referring to the brutal 100% tariffs that the Pristina authorities imposed a year ago on goods originating from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The whole world has condemned this adventurous move and called for putting an end to the tariffs, but sadly, to no avail as this wall remains untouched. This is something we cannot accept.

Serbia will continue to extend its hand to all in the region as this is our interest, but also a kind of an obligation and expectation of the largest and most stable country in the Balkans.