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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Address to the Serbian Parliamentary Assembly
Serbian Parliamentary Assembly/ Belgrade, Serbia
18 July 2013
Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to warmly thank you, Mr Chairman, for your invitation to address this Assembly today. It is an honour at a historic time.
On 28 June, the European Council opened accession negotiations with Serbia. The opening of accession negotiations has great significance not just for Serbia, but for the entire Western Balkans region. This step was only possible because Serbia delivered. And the list of achievements is impressive.
Although one should rarely dwell on past achievements, let me nevertheless go back in time.
When I last addressed this Assembly in March 2011, the Commission was preparing its Opinion on Serbia’s membership application. I then listed eight priority areas where progress needed to be made in order for Serbia to be able to open accession negotiations. You were successful in delivering the initially required results. Now you need to continue working on the same issues with the same vigour and perseverance to complete the tasks fully.
Let us remember:
Priority number one was judicial reform. Following the decisions of the Constitutional Court in July 2012, the government and this Assembly put judicial reform at the top of their agenda. I welcome your recent approval of the new judicial Strategy for 2013-2018. With its action plan and several related pieces of legislation, you should have a sound and comprehensive basis to conduct judicial reform successfully. This is first and foremost in the interest of the Serbian citizens. You will also lay the foundations of a sounder and more predictable legal framework, indispensable to enhance Serbia’s attractiveness to investors.
Let me turn at this point to one particular issue. We welcome the efforts put into reforming the criminal code as regards the notion of abuse of office – former article 359, where abusive implementation caused many concerns. That said, the ultimate aim has to be a fully credible reform, rather than a formal one. Therefore, we now expect to see all former cases for private operations re-examined on an individual basis in accordance with the new legal framework.
Priority number two: the fight against corruption. Serbia has been most active on all three points I made back in March 2011.
The third key priority was a change to the electoral law: the composition of your assembly, with over one third being women, is a testimony of this significant reform. Many Committees are also chaired by women, both by coalition and opposition parties.
Let me mention here my appreciation to the former Chair of the Committee for European Integration Milica Delević. I welcome the appointment of her successor, Nataša Vučković. As the Stabilisation and Association agreement will enter into force after the summer, it will be your task to co-chair the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee, whose inaugural meeting will take place in Belgrade in the coming months.
In general, we appreciate the Parliament's now regular practice of holding public hearings on key pieces of legislation. It would be good if both government and parliament can agree to keep urgent procedures to the strict minimum.
This links to the fourth priority – to ensure the proper functioning of independent regulatory bodies. This Assembly has taken the work of such bodies increasingly seriously, either in appointing or reconfirming high level appointments on time or in ensuring a more active interaction with relevant parliamentary committees. We wish to see such close relationships continue, based on trust and respect for the role of these independent bodies. More can still be done to follow up their findings and recommendations.
There was also significant progress made on the fifth priority – legal clarity for property rights – and the sixth priority – protection of human rights and minorities. Again, the good work achieved to date will not stop: we took note of the recently adopted strategy for anti-discrimination and the Action plan for Roma inclusion and hope to see that translate into proactive approaches by State institutions and concrete measures on the ground.
On all these priorities, let me stop here and reiterate the key expectation of the Commission that reforms will be sustained over time. This will require attention, resources, consistency and above all sufficient political will and guidance. I appreciate that this parliament has become more active in its oversight of the work of the government as it allows key issues to be debated publicly and contributes to increasing public confidence.
Let me now continue. Among the 8 priorities I highlighted two years ago, the seventh was fulfilled back in the summer of 2011: the full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The eighth priority is an on-going process concerning
The Commission Opinion, endorsed by the conclusions of the Council, made it clear that Serbia needed to take steps towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations with Kosovo*1. This has been a demanding process. But it is an indispensable effort to consolidate stability in the region and to open new opportunities for all people living in Serbia and Kosovo. This has been truly a game changer which profoundly reshaped Serbia’s image in political circles across Europe: one of a country breaking with the past and embracing its European future.
I welcome that this Assembly has regularly debated the dialogue and its outcome and expressed overwhelming support after the April agreement. I wish to pay tribute here to the Serbian leadership for their vision and courage. We look forward with confidence to the continuation of Serbia’s engagement in the dialogue and its implementation.
By addressing these eight key priorities, Serbia has now opened the door of an entirely new phase in its relations with the European Union.
At the core of the decision made on 28 June is the credibility of the enlargement process: the European Union delivers on its promise when the applicant countries take the necessary steps towards complying with the membership criteria and delivering on reforms.
From now on, the European integration process will become increasingly concrete and tangible for all in Serbia. This is particularly true for the administration, civil society, business people, students, researchers. But it is also true for the society at large, for all citizens of Serbia, as the reforms related to the European agenda will touch upon a large variety of sectors and directly or indirectly influence many aspects of their daily lives.
It is important that the accession process does not remain an exclusive domain of the experts in the state administration, but truly a public property. The changes will be subtle and progressive. Citizens should not just expect wonders at the very end of the process, when Serbia will actually become a Member State of the European Union, but feel changes that the gradual alignment to EU standards will bring to their daily lives. It is the virtue of the negotiating process itself, during which Serbia will be meeting more and more membership criteria, to lead to gradual improvement of the life of citizens. And that is the actual aim – for Serbian citizens to feel tangible change, tangible improvement of their living standards, and for this improvement to be irreversible.
Let me now mention the important role that civil society has to play in this process. It is actually two-fold. First, it will be part and parcel of the negotiations process of finding solutions to the challenges, and second, it will continue monitoring implementation of the reforms and legislation the government and parliament will be committing themselves to. Involvement of all various stakeholders during the whole negotiating process is key to achieving irreversible progress and sustainable reforms.
We will open the negotiations with chapters 23 and 24 on judiciary and fundamental rights. You will be one of the first countries where this new approach will be used for the benefit of the country and its citizens. I can assure you that it will not just be a box ticking exercise. By adopting laws and establishing institutions you will be changing the lives of your citizens. And let me underline that these benefits will be felt during the process and not just at the end.
Experience with other applicant countries tells us that while this transformative process is demanding and sometimes painful, it is also conducive to economic growth and social development. The most obvious measure is the increase in trade and business opportunities of the single market, which translates into more growth and jobs.
The opening of accession negotiations is the beginning of a new story. Next week, the Commission will present the draft negotiating framework to the Member States. After Member States discuss the framework, in line with the June conclusions, it should be adopted by the Council and confirmed by the European Council in view to holding the first accession conference with Serbia at the very latest in January 2014.
In the meantime, the screening will start in September. And tomorrow, Commission officials will go through the whole negotiation process at a seminar with Serbian officials.
Allow me one final remark: the negotiating process is very demanding - it is a process for which continuity and determination are indispensable over years. This is why European Union accession is a question that requires a nationwide and cross-party consensus. Serbia is already a good example, as cross-party support was secured on a number of key decisions for its European future.
I know and I trust that the country is ready and eager to engage into substantial and consistent efforts. This is because the aim is highly ambitious: preparing Serbia to take its place as a Member of the European Union.
Let me assure you that the Commission will remain alongside you in reaching this objective.
Thank you for your attention.
* Under UNSCR 1244/99