Where there is a will, there is a way
Interview with his excellency Mr Laurent Stokvis, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Republic of Serbia, also accredited to Montenegro.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: What were your first impressions of Serbia when you were appointed Ambassador there in 2010? And what are your impressions now?
I think that Serbia has made important progress since 2010. Full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has been ensured. Accession to the European Union is Serbia’s strategic goal. The dialogue with Pristina led to the Brussels Agreement and its follow-up agreements. There is commitment to continue the dialogue until all outstanding issues regarding normalisation of the relations are solved. Serbia became a candidate country to the EU. The accession negotiations have started. We are now waiting for the opening of the first chapters. As to economic governance I would highlight that an agreement with the IMF was reached. Laws on bankruptcy and privatisation were adopted in order to enable the restructuring and privatisation of a large number of state companies. The procedures to implement these laws have been set in motion. Laws have been adopted to modernise the labour law and to make it easier to obtain building permits. So, when I look back I see a lot of progress. When, however, I look forward I still see quite a road ahead. Rule of Law issues will need a lot of attention by the government, the reform of the judiciary to strengthen the independence, professionalism, effectivity and efficiency will require much effort. There are still many measures that can be taken to improve the business climate further and thus attract investment from Serbia and from abroad. The fight against corruption will continue to be of high priority for the government. There are unsolved issues with the media and it is important that the reforms that are now being implemented will be carried through. Work on the reform of the administration will have to continue. We are clearly at the beginning of the road and much effort of the government and the Serbian people lies ahead. However, as someone who worked in Poland and Slovakia during the accession process I know that the Dutch proverb “where there is a will, there is a way” is very much applicable to Serbia.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: Serbia officially applied for membership in the European Union on 22 December 2009 and received candidate status on 1 March 2012, following a delay in December 2011. Following a positive recommendation of the European Commission and European Council in June 2013, negotiations to join the EU commenced in January 2014. Is there a commitment to continue the dialogue with Pristina and how big is the social support in Serbia for joining the European Union?
All parties that are currently represented in the Serbian parliament are supporting joining the European Union. The screening of the Serbian laws and regulations has been completed. In certain areas the Serbian authorities are now drawing up action plans in order to bring Serbian law and regulations into conformity with the European Laws. Once these action plans are ready the European Union will formulate if necessary negotiating chapter by negotiating chapter benchmarks that will have to be reached in that chapter. It is a process and the goal – membership of the EU – is clear.
As to the dialogue with Pristina there is commitment to continue the dialogue until all outstanding issues regarding normalisation of the relations are solved. Implementation of the agreements that have already been reached is of great importance. We should encourage the dialogue to continue and speed up its work on outstanding issues. We should encourage speedy implementation of the agreements.
The level of support for Serbia’s accession to the EU in the opinion polls appears to hover at about 50% of the population, though opinion polls also show that about 70% of the population believes that Serbia will become a member of the EU. The Serbian government and civil society clearly still have much work to do in order to raise this level of support.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: The Netherlands supports Serbia’s efforts to join the EU, e.g. through bilateral projects. What are these projects?
There are different ways in which the Netherlands contributes to projects that support Serbia’s effort to join the EU. First of all there is the IPA (Instrument for Pre-Accession) -support that the Commission provides to Serbia. This is funded by all EU Member-States, including the Netherlands. IPA is a means by which the EU supports reforms in countries that aim to join the EU with financial and technical assistance. IPA funds build up the capacities of these countries throughout the accession process and aim to reach progressive and positive developments in the region.
Bilaterally, the Netherlands has the MATRA-program, through which we support countries of Southeast Europe with their EU accession prospects. Each year the Netherlands Embassy in Belgrade supports projects focusing on rule of law, media, minorities, LGBT and good governance in both Serbia and Montenegro. We were involved in the setting up of the Judicial Training Center. We supported its transformation into the Judicial Academy. We supported training courses for the Serbian judiciary and legal practitioners. We supported an OSCE project focused on trial monitoring, regional exchange, public outreach and capacity building for the judicial authorities involved in the prosecution and adjudication of war crimes. We supported projects to combat corruption. We supported the development of an anti-discrimination strategy. We helped promoting the rights of the LGBT community and supported the leading NGO ASTRA in combating human trafficking. We will continue working with the Serbian authorities and civil society on these subjects. One of the recent projects we have supported is a project by the NGO Labris, a Serbian human rights organization that identified discriminatory language in some schoolbooks for children, which describe homosexuality as a disease. Such language is not acceptable for a country that aims to join a value-based institution as the EU, which does not allow for discrimination based on sexual preference. By supporting organizations such as Labris, such issues can be brought to the attention of the broader public, as well as Serbian policy makers. We were assured by the ministry of education that older textbooks will cease to be used after the reform of the law on textbooks.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: We have already mentioned political and economic relations. I know that there is also a substantial cooperation between Serbia, Montenegro and the Netherlands in the cultural field, via SICA for example. The countries have established various joint programmes. What programmes are you proud of and would like to mention?
The cooperation in the field of culture is significant, but it is rarely a result of much funding. The important thing is fostering good cooperation between the institutions in Serbia and the Netherlands. Just a few examples: for almost 10 years we have had a great cooperation with the Belgrade Dance Festival, which recognizes the significance of Dutch contemporary dance. Thanks to this cooperation the Netherlands Dans Theater have been four times to Serbia, but also other great dance companies such as Conny Jansen Danst and Scapino Ballet. This, just to take an example resulted in staging choreographies of NDT by the National Ballet in Belgrade.
Dutch cinematography is now well-known in Serbia thanks to the festival Highlights of the Lowlands that is organized every year. Apart from documentary, short and feature films, we are also supporting the festival of unusual films. Merlinka is an example. It has to be said that this expansion of Dutch film in Serbia and in Montenegro is possible thanks to the excellent local partners.
Another project that I would like to highlight is related to the freedom of expression –we had a chance to host twice the World Press Photo exhibition where most prestigious photojournalists from around the world compete. In order to attract attention for this important topic we organized workshops for young journalists, public debates about freedom of expression and many other accompanying activities and had over 5.000 visitors per exhibition. A Serbian photographer won the prize in the Observed Portraits (singles) category in 2013. I hope this prize and our previous efforts will encourage more photographers from Serbia to be inspired by the World Press Photo competition.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: How do you think the relationships between the Netherlands and Serbia would evolve in the coming years? Do you expect the intensification of the cooperation and if yes in what fields and why?
In past few years we saw a moderately increased interest of Dutch companies for Serbia. We see encouraging developments in energy, energy efficiency, ICT and water technologies. The bilateral trade balance is growing steadily. In 2013 the overall trade was about 420 million euro. We expect that the final figures for 2014 will show a marked increase. There is however more room to bring mutual trade and investment to a significantly higher level. The Netherlands is one of the main traders of goods, services and commodities in the world, the second largest exporter of agricultural goods and the 18th largest economy in the world. Serbia has much underused potential. I think our mutual economic relations will significantly increase once Serbia has created a truly investor friendly climate, has tackled the red tape and corruption issues that are slowing Serbia down, and has reformed the judiciary. State of the art agriculture and food production, water management (flood control, drainage and irrigation), waterway logistics an underestimated transportation channel in the region – energy efficiency, inland water shipbuilding and IT are promising areas. Already now, I see some new Dutch firms are interested in locating their production facilities in Serbia. I would say that stronger economic cooperation is yet to come, and we as an Embassy, do all in our power to facilitate and support this process in both directions.
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