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BELGRADE (Serbia), October 26 (SeeNews) – Public support for Serbia's European Union integration is growing but accession talks should be intensified to back the government's reform efforts, Serbia's EU integration minister told SeeNews.
"We want to hear more value-based messages about stability, peace, economic prosperity – those are substantial reasons for joining the EU," Jadranka Joksimovic told SeeNews in an emailed interview this week after the Seventh EU-Southeastern Europe Summit organised by The Economist in Belgrade.
Generally, the dynamics of the accession negotiations and the EU integration process has been solid so far and Serbia is relatively content with the overall pace, Joksimovic said. "However, we firmly believe that the enlargement process needs to be intensified, which can be clearly demonstrated by the opening of negotiating chapters which are fully technically prepared. The opening of chapters should not be a goal by itself, rather, on the contrary, it should be an additional incentive for strengthening and intensifying the reform agenda in the country."
The share of people in Serbia perceiving EU membership as positive is the lowest in Southeast Europe, according to the 2018 edition of the Balkan Barometer survey commissioned by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). A total of 22% of Serbian respondents consider the country's potential accession to the bloc to be a bad thing, while 29% are positive about membership in the bloc.
However, a series of public opinion surveys commissioned by the EU integration ministry shows an upward trend in public support for EU membership among Serbs. According to the July edition of the survey, a total of 55% of Serbs would back their country's membership in the bloc if a referendum on the issue were held tomorrow, up from 52% in January and 49% in July 2017.
The Western Balkans Enlargement Strategy, presented this year, the opening of new chapters in the EU accession talks and the successful implementation of projects supported by the EU through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) have given citizens a reason to perceive EU integration more positively than before, Joksimovic said. "The existence of objective public understanding that Serbia must change primarily for its own sake, not just in order to join the Union, is represented in 68% of respondents who support reforms that lead to EU membership."
In February, the EU Commission adopted a strategy to support the EU integration of the countries of the Western Balkans, focusing on the need for fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations. The strategy includes six flagship initiatives which the EU will launch over the next years to support the transformation efforts of the Western Balkans in areas of mutual interest.
"Although we implement reforms primarily because it is in the interest of our country and our citizens, and we would have done it regardless of our future EU membership, the concrete acknowledgement by the EU and its member states of the results we have achieved is an important positive message to the people of Serbia, as well as a sign for the commitment to the credible enlargement strategy paper presented by EC President Juncker. We need that positive message to be communicated to the citizens by opening further chapters in the accession negotiations," Joksimovic said.
LAUNCH OF TALKS ON MORE CHAPTERS BY YEAR'S END ON SERBIA'S AGENDA
The European Commission started negotiations with Serbia on the country's accession to the bloc in January 2014. Serbia has opened 14 out of 35 chapters in the accessions process thus far, two of which have been closed, namely Chapter 25 - Science & Research and Chapter 26 - Education & Culture.
The Serbian government is currently fully technically prepared for seven negotiating chapters -- Chapter 9 - Financial Services; Chapter 18 - Statistics; Chapter 17 - Economic & Monetary Policy; Chapter 2 - Freedom of Movement For Workers; and Chapter 4 - Free Movement of Capital. Moreover, it has completed the internal procedure of adopting Chapter 14 - Transport Policy and Chapter 21 - Trans-European Networks, Joksimovic said.
"We are hopeful that we will be able to open several of them during the incumbent Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU, until the end of the year. Our administration will continue working diligently and prepare further chapters for opening during the Romanian Presidency."
Serbia has so far made greatest progress on Chapter 5 - Public Procurement, Chapter 7 - Intellectual Property Law and Chapter 13 - Fisheries, but also in the areas of economy, finance, statistics, and transport, which will be the next to be opened, Joksimovic noted.
The country has adopted the National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis (NPAA), a comprehensive document which foresees full harmonisation of its legislation with the acquis until the end of 2021. "The NPAA demonstrates our own internal commitment to the process of adoption of the highest European standards in Serbia and the Ministry of European Integration is in charge of monitoring and reporting to the Government of its effective implementation," she added.
Joksimovic expects the most challenging chapters to be Chapter 27 - Environment, Chapter 11 - Agriculture & Rural Development and Chapter 12 - Food Safety, Veterinary & Phytosanitary Policy. Chapter 23 - Judiciary & Fundamental Rights and Chapter 24 - Justice, Freedom & Security, will remain open until the end of the negotiations, as they cover essential and comprehensive long-term reforms, Joksimovic said.
"A new approach also applies to Chapter 35 - Other Issues. Given that the dialogue is in its essence a political process, it runs in parallel with the negotiations and will eventually result in agreement based on compromise," she stated.
In April 2013 the governments of Serbia and Kosovo reached a deal on the normalisation of relations, the so-called Brussels Agreement. Belgrade does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, its southern province populated predominantly by ethnic Albanians. Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in February 2008 and has so far been recognised by more than half of the 193 UN member states.
SMEs EAGER TO GAIN ACCESS TO EU FUNDS
Interest on the part of Serbian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in gaining access to EU financing for projects is high, and the EU integration ministry receives numerous questions regarding the rules and propositions for different calls for proposals, Joksimovic said, adding that a growing number of SMEs are taking part in info sessions, workshops and trainings held as part of EU membership promotional activities. However, the growing interest on the part of SMEs is best exemplified by the high quality of applications received from project proponents, which allows the ministry to seek access to more EU funds and more sophisticated instruments to implement them, Joksimovic noted.
Programmes and projects financed from national allocations of IPA II allow SMEs in Serbia to apply for financial and/or advisory support. Additionally, one of the most important instruments at the disposal of companies in Serbia are EU programmes designed for the private sector of EU member states. In this way, it is possible to compete through project proposals and receive grant funds on the terms and conditions valid for SMEs based in EU member states. Such programmes include COSME or HORIZON 2020, Joksimovic said.
The Serbian government uses EU funds for mitigating business-related risks in financial transactions, lowering interest rates and easing borrowing conditions for the private sector, she noted. "For that reason, additional funds in the amount of 20 million euro ($22.8 million) have been allocated from IPA 2016 National Programme to be used as a guarantee for bank loans to the private sector. These funds will also allow for the multiplication effect, mobilizing bank resources several times higher than the original amount allocated and will be placed at disposal of SMEs under very favorable conditions."
In June, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said the European Commission has decided to increase the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) budget for the Western Balkans to 14.5 billion euro ($16.8 billion) from 12 billion euro for the period between 2021 and 2027. The IPA budget for the Western Balkans will be increased by 30% and the Commission intends to move to thematic from country-specific budgeting, Hahn said.
Serbia officially applied for European Union membership in December 2009 and received full candidate status in March 2012. In December 2013 the Council of the European Union approved opening negotiations on Serbia's accession in January 2014, and the first Intergovernmental Conference was held on January 21, 2014, at the European Council in Brussels.
Apart from Serbia, the other state in Southeastern Europe (SEE) currently holding accession talks with the EU is Montenegro. Albania has been an official candidate for accession to the bloc since June 2014, but has still not started negotiations, while Bosnia and Herzegovina formally applied for EU membership in February 2016 and is a potential candidate country. Slovenia was the first SEE country to join the EU, in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013.
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