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Interview with Geoffrey Barrett, head of the EU delegation in Belgrade

Geoffrey Barrett has headed the EU delegation in Belgrade since October, 2000. He spoke to B92’s Danijel Bukumirovic about Serbia-Montenegro’s bid for EU memberhip and how the presidential election on June 13 will affect Belgrade’s relationship with Brussells.

B92: Mr Barrett, Tomislav Nikolic just left our studio. He believes he will be the next president of Serbia. What could that mean for this country, in your opinion, in the future. As you know, Javier Solana said recently that Nikolic would not have the support of the European Union?

Barrett: Well, I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of the election which is going to take place, or the first round of which is going to take place in a few days’ time. Basically, from an EU perspective, what we want to see happening in this country is that stability be maintained, that the reforms, which have recently picked up again, be continued into the future, because this is the path which will take this country to the European Union. And I think it goes without saying that in order to achieve those goals, to be able to deliver that agenda, we do need to continue to work with democratic authorities in this country as we have done over the last three and a half years. And therefore the outcome of this election is very important, and I think the citizens of this country should really think hard about where they want this country to be in ten years’ time, and what it takes to get there. And I think, from an EU perspective, we have made it abundantly clear that we want to maintain the reform track, that we need to see continuity in all levels, and therefore it’s very, very important that it be understood, that this message be conveyed. Remember that in a recent poll, eighty per cent of the population of this country said that they wanted this country to become a member of the European Union. And therefore it is normal that they express this preference when it comes to taking an important decision like voting on the presidency of the country.

B92: Eighty per cent of the people want to see Serbia in the European Union. So that means that even right wing voters have the same goal, or at least some of them have the same goal, to see Serbia in the European Union. Could Nikolic really be an obstacle to achieving that goal.

Barrett: As I said, there is an election taking place in a few days’ time, there are a number of candidates, and we obviously want a democratic candidate to win the election because that would continue to deliver the agenda which I’ve just sketched out for you. So, again, it’s a matter for the electorate to take stock of the realities. There’s a real choice on the thirteenth of June because, as we all know, this election will succeed, unlike previous editions which have failed. So it’s very, very important that this country continue to convey a message to the outside world that it really means business when it says that it’s embarked on a reform trajectory, that it wants to do everything necessary to consolidate democracy in this country. But above all it’s extremely important for the population of the country to be aware that the outside world, and in particular the European Union, is watching very closely what is happening here and will obviously draw conclusions from the choice that is made. I don’t want to say any more than that at this time and I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of the election by commenting on an individual candidate. Having said that, I will repeat that we expect a democratic candidate to win the election in order to be able to continue the policies that we’ve been supporting for three or four years now.

B92: You said we all want to see a president who is doing business for this country in the next few months. Is cooperation with the Hague Tribunal crucial for this country in the next few months?

Barrett: Well it is. We had our commissioner, Commissioner Patten, here as you know a short while ago and he spoke to your station and he made that point very, very strongly. There are two or three things which have to happen in order for us to move on in the relationship. One is precisely the question of compliance with the international obligations of this country and the Hague Tribunal, of course, is paramount among those. Why is it so important? Well it’s important of course because it is an international obligation in the first place. It’s important also in terms of building the rule of law, in terms of building respect for the law within the country itself, and I think Mr Patten made a very interesting comparison, well not a comparison exactly, but he said there is a choice there as well. Do you want to be seen as a country which is moving down the road towards membership of the European Union alongside the other countries of this region which will also get there, or do you want to be seen as a country which continues to harbour war criminals? I mean, this is a real issue which we feel very strongly about alongside other members of the international community. It is a key issue for the feasibility report which we’re writing to see whether this country is in a position to start negotiating a stabilisation and association agreement. That’s one issue. Another very important issue is the whole question of economic harmonisation where we now expect Serbia and Montenegro to work quickly, with the accent on quickly, to finalise implementation of the action plan on the internal market and the trade regime. Why? Because if we are to negotiate a stabilisation and association agreement we must have a single interlocutor sitting across the table from us who is able to bind the republics to a number of commitments which Serbia-Montenegro takes as a state. That’s it, the state is the state union of Serbia-Montenegro. This is the partner we work with and this is the partner we expect to negotiate an agreement with. That’s very important, and obviously one hears many things, notably from certain political quarters that the state is having viability problems. Well we say the state exists, all the institutions are there. They need to work. They need to demonstrate that the political commitment taken by the top politicians in this country through the Belgrade Agreement and the Constitutional Charter can be made operative because it is their responsibility. We have been shadowing this process. We have endorsed it. We think that the continuation of the state as it is is the right way to go. After all, European integration is all about integration. It’s not about disintegration. And it’s very difficult for people in Europe to understand that there’s a debate going on in this country about the viability of a state which the constituent republic have only a short while ago set up. It’s very difficult for people to understand that. And therefore it’s so important that we see progress there, functioning institutions of the state, economic harmonisation to happen quickly, full compliance, i.e. full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. We will be satisfied that that cooperation is indeed full when the tribunal tells us that it is. It’s as simple as that. These are three very important things for our feasibility report. We have said that we would not bring it out as quickly as… at the time we intended because it was very important to ensure that the new Serbian Government got its feet under the table and started to work on things. This is now happening. We now expect the three very important conditions that I mentioned to be rapidly implemented so that we can come out with a positive report, because we do want that report to be positive, we want to give an encouraging signal.

B92: When are we going to see that report?

Barrett: Well, again, it’s not a question for me, it’s a question for the politicians of this country. They have to realise that when the commissioner and the president of the commission and everybody else says these are the key issues for the European Union that we mean business, that we are prepared to write a positive report, that, of course, we want to write a positive report, but it has to be only on the basis of compliance with those requirements

B92: Is there any deadline?

Barrett: No, we haven’t set a deadline. We’re waiting to see what happens. We’re encouraged, for example, by the fact that when Commissioner Patten was here he had a meeting with the European Integration Council and there was an undertaking given that Deputy Prime Ministers Labus and Ivanisevic would work on the remaining outstanding issues in the action plan. Now we’re waiting to see what’s going on. We’re waiting to see results. We need to see results, concrete results, in terms of economic harmonisation. We need to see concrete results in terms of compliance with the requirements of the Hague Tribunal and we expect to see the institutions of the state functioning properly. These are all very, very important issues for us.

B92: When we hear local politicians speaking in public it doesn’t seem that the Hague Tribunal is a priority. Are they giving different signals when they speak to European officials?

Barrett: I think one point… I mean, just take a parallel. We take the parallel of Croatia, for example, which has been given a positive opinion on its membership application by the European Commission and this is a very important signal, not just to Croatia but to the whole region. This was the undertaking that we gave in Thessaloniki last year, that the door really is open once you meet the requirements. And Croatia had to take a number of difficult and courageous steps. It had to do a certain number of things vis-à-vis the Hague Tribunal in order to get a positive opinion. And it was very simple. There were certain clear linkages between the way we perceive a country and the way it behaves in terms of fulfilling certain obligations, and the speed at which it moves closer and closer to Europe. There is a real link, which people have to understand. Now, one thing which we see in the other countries, and we certainly saw it in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in the countries that joined recently is that there is a total political ownership of the process of European integration. The government and the whole country takes on the responsibility for driving the country forward, dealing with the difficult issues. You can’t cherry pick those issues that you like and leave others which are more difficult politically. You’ve got to take it as a package. We understand that certain things take time, but there is a time to take positive, courageous steps in order to give a clear signal that you really do understand what we need in order to be able to develop a closer and closer relationship. And that is something which we need to get here as well. We see it in the other countries, we need to see that more strongly here in Serbia and Montenegro. And when our policy for the country is contested by certain political quarters, well then it’s a problem, both vis-à-vis ourselves, of course, but also vis-à-vis the general public. So what we’re trying to say is that we now have a very clear policy. We have something called the European Partnership agreement which is about to be adopted. This will spell out very, very clearly those things that we think need to happen in order to be able to move faster down the road, and we expect there to be a very positive response to that partnership from the government, because that is what we will undoubtedly get from the other countries and we want to get it from Serbia and Montenegro as well.

B92: So basically, if the government starts cooperating with The Hague, doing business, sending the generals for example, could we then expect a much faster report from the feasibility study than we expect today?

Barrett: Well, I mean, as I said, there are several issues. One is that and it’s very, very important. Another is the economic harmonisation where work really needs to be done. I mean, we have not yet got a single tariff, we have not yet got harmonisation of levels. There are a number of things which really have to be done in that area which are very, very important. So let’s not underestimate what has to be done. There’s no point in saying that the report can come out on a particular date. We will be able to take stock once those three conditions have been fulfilled. We’ll say right, those are the most important things for us, now we can assess at what point we bring this thing out. As I said, we want it to be a clear “Yes”. We don’t want it to be a report which has a whole string of conditions. It needs to be a clear message that we can then give to the member states because that’s how it works. The European Commission writes the report. We give the report to the member states of the European Union. They look at it, they look at our recommendation, which will be, you know, yes, yes but, no but or no. And they will look at this and what happens then is that the Commission gets a mandate to start negotiations, assuming the member states are satisfied with the report. So there are several steps here. But it would be very important to get to that stage for Serbia-Montenegro, really, because Croatia has just been given a positive opinion on membership. FYROM has just submitted its membership application. They’ve already got agreements. Bosnia-Hercegovina has got a feasibility report already. Albania’s negotiating. Serbia-Montenegro is not yet in a position to get a feasibility report. I mean, there’s a lot of work to be done here, and that’s why we need continuity, that’s why we need the reforms to continue. We need to see a clear trajectory leading towards eventual membership of the European Union. And this has to be clearly understood by the political forces in this country.

B92: And now, finally, how do you explain that dramatic change, just a year ago. The previous government was saying they could manage to get Serbia into the European Union by 2007. Okay, not many people believed that date. But there were signals from the European Union that it could happen, perhaps by 2009 or 2010. Now everybody’s talking about 2014, in ten year’s time. What…

Barrett: Well, just to be clear. I say ten years because it’s a… I wasn’t sort of talking about membership, I was sort of saying, take a longer-term view, citizens, look at what lies ahead, what you could achieve. That was my point. I’m a Commission official. We never guess dates. We never do, because if we do then we have a problem. What we see, however, we’ve seen this in the accession countries, the countries that joined. In the mid-nineties they were setting dates for themselves. And this can be healthy. Because if it serves to drive the reforms, if it helps to set internal targets to be reached in order to convince the public that we have to do certain things in certain areas which may be difficult, then it can be quite positive. But we will not do that. I think that the simplest answer to the question is that when Serbia-Montenegro has fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria, which have a lot to do with the things we’re talking about for the feasibility report, functioning democratic institutions, rule of law respected, full respect for minority rights, a functioning market economy in which an outside company can come and invest safely, knowing that he will get a fair return for his money. But not just that, the ability to compete with European manufacturers and producers. That is not easy. That is something which is a real challenge for the countries which are joining, which have just joined. This has to be demonstrated. And finally, and this takes time, inevitably, in absolute terms, there are large amounts of legislation which have got to be imported into your internal legislation, and there is no quick fix. It takes a long time, which is why we don’t make prognoses about accession dates. Right now we have to concentrate on the next step, which is for Serbia-Montenegro to do what is needed to get a positive feasibility report. Then we can look at the possibility of starting negotiations on the stabilisation and association agreement, and that will already be a very, very good step in the right direction.

B92: One more short question. You have been living in Serbia for quite some time and you’ve got to know not only politicians but quite a lot of ordinary people. As an EU representatives you’re sending messages to politicians right now. But what would be your message to the ordinary people? Is there something we need to change in our way of thinking in order to get closer to the EU?

Barrett: I think we’ve just been talking about that a little bit. It’s this… it’s greater self-belief, it’s also greater belief in what we are saying, I think, generally, because… I mean we saw this in the countries which joined as well. Initially there was a tendency in some places for the incentives we were giving to be seen as some form of propaganda which was not really taken on board, it wasn’t absorbed. And what I always say to everybody when I travel around the country is that European integration is a project for the whole of society and it will effect everybody very deeply, over a long period of time. It’s not just for the governments and the parliaments, although of course they’re very, very important in our whole panoply of contacts. But it’s also for the judges, the judiciary, they have to understand European laws, they have to get inside what we’re talking about. It’s a question of mindsets as well as knowledge of the legal content. It’s a matter for businesses, who need to understand why we’re insisting in our directives that you’ve got to clean up your environment. It’s a matter for schoolchildren, I talk a lot to children. Often my best audiences are the sixteen and seventeen and eighteen year olds. I think one of the most gratifying things that we’ve done here is the competition that we ran over the last two years, Hello Europe, where we were able to reach out to large number of school kids, and also to their parents at the same time, because they were all looking at the material. And it’s this process of engagement with the general public that I would have liked to be able to do more of and, obviously, you know, one does what one can. But there needs to be a stronger response from the government, from those in authorities, to try to engage with the details of the agenda that we keep promoting. And then I think you will see this positive surge forward in the coming period. So these are some of the thoughts that I’m having now as I approach the end of my mandate. But, certainly, it’s been a fantastic, thrilling time for me here. I’ve really enjoyed immensely the excitement of working in Belgrade and in this country. It’s been very, very good and it’s been a great privilege, of course, to be working in a country of such great importance for our relationship not just with this region but with the whole of Europe.

 

 


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