H.E. Dagmar Repčeková, Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to Serbia, has compiled an ambitious list of tasks for herself to do during her mission, which started last autumn. Among them are improving the already good bilateral relations, assisting Serbia in its euro integration in areas where Slovakia has had ample experience, helping to double the level of bilateral trade, and in establishing contacts and cooperation between the two countries’ academia and research institutions.

You commenced your term as new ambassador of Slovakia in Belgrade last autumn. What have been your impressions so far?

– Serbia is truly a multifaceted country – not only in the sense that it surprises the first-time visitor with its many faces, from the richness of nature to the delight of Serbian cuisine, to the multitude of folk traditions and the flash-and-bang of city nightlife, but also in the multifariousness of opinions on every single issue that comes up in everyday life. I don’t think there was even a single issue that could be put up for a YES/NO vote. You would have to throw in a whole gamut of qualifiers: “if this, then yes…”, “to a certain extent”, “no, but…” etc. Even public opinion pollsters seem to play along, giving respondents at least four or five possible answers to choose from. This leads to a situation where it’s sometimes rather difficult to get a straight answer to a very simple question. However, otherwise I find your country enjoyable and colourful.

What priorities have you set for yourself during your term in Serbia?

– Slovakia has traditionally maintained very friendly relations with Serbia. My aim is to foster bilateral political dialogue; assist Serbia in its euro integration in areas where Slovakia has had ample experience, especially in the fields of public administration reform and fiscal decentralisation; help establish contacts and cooperation between our two countries’ academia and research institutions, and a range of other tasks, including the attention we traditionally pay to addressing the issues raised by the Slovak national minority in Serbia. As of 1st July 2016, Slovakia will take over the Presidency of the EU Council for a six-month term and we are already preparing some activities aimed at promoting tourism, developing R&D cooperation, introducing our culture abroad etc.

Serbia and Slovakia enjoy good bilateral cooperation, but there is still room to boost economic cooperation between the two countries. In which areas is this attainable?

– Along with the recovery of the public finance sector in Serbia, we also note growing interest among Slovak companies in penetrating the Serbian market. Slovak companies are already represented in Serbia in heavy machinery, the energy sector and water management areas. The closeness of both countries, the sizeable Slovak minority, living mainly in Vojvodina, and the growing stability of the Serbian business environment, are factors attracting even small and medium-sized Slovak companies investing in tourism and local services. Slovak companies are also interested in waste management cooperation and establishing joint ventures in traditional sectors – the textile industry, food processing etc. Slovakia also needs suppliers for the growing automotive industry and from Serbia it is possible to get even just-in-time deliveries. Bilateral trade reached just 505 million euros in 2014 and my personal goal is for this figure to have doubled by the end of my mission here.

The EU has already identified ways and means of stemming the flow of migrants to Europe. The main task is to respect existing rules and, if necessary, write new ones and enforce them vigorously Often in talks with Serbian partners I hear the claim “we want to be in Europe”, but you are! Look at the map: We cannot consider the integration of Europe finalised without the Western Balkans Bilateral trade between Serbia and Slovakia reached just 505 million euros in 2014, and my personal goal is for that figure to have doubled by the end of my mission here

Both the EU and Serbia have had to deal with an influx of Middle Eastern refugees. Do you think a solution to this problem is in sight?

When it comes to EU integrations, we are strong believers in the carrot: if Serbia makes and sustains reforms, and succeeds in changing itself, then there should be a finish line clearly defined and a trophy presented at the end of it all

– Yes I do. The EU has already identified ways and means of stemming the flow of migrants to Europe. One of these means is to cooperate with the countries generating refugees and those on the transit route. Another is creating “hotspots” along the route. Number three is to protect the EU’s external borders, including stricter rules for entering. Number four is the speedy settlement of conflicts in countries that generate large numbers refugees. And there are other tools on the table. The main task here is to respect the existing rules and, if necessary, write and agree upon a set of new ones, but then also enforce them vigorously.

Why are Slovakian officials so adamantly opposed to establishing quotas for the permanent placement of migrants?

– Because the quotas don´t work! The quota mechanism, as originally designed, called for the relocating of 160,000 people. How many have been relocated under this system to-date? Two hundred and seventy two, a number representing 0.17 per cent of the defined total. Would you call this a working system?! Even if we had successfully relocated all of the proposed 160,000 people, we would not have solved anything, since a million others entered Europe in the meantime. It’s like carrying water to the sea… Interestingly enough, today in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and elsewhere, quotas are no longer a topic of discussion. The debates are focused on how to protect the EU’s external borders, how to cooperate more closely with so-called refugee source countries and with the countries along the transit route. Those are the exact topics that Slovakia has been putting on table from the very start of the migration crisis as an alternative to quotas. It proves we were right then, and now. You know, it is much fairer to say up front – as we have said all along with our partners from the Visegrad group – that we oppose the quotas, rather than paying lip service, publicly embracing the mechanism and then failing to implement it. Migrants are not loaves of bread to be allotted to respective countries by numbers. The real problem here is whether or not they are able to integrate themselves into their new environment, whether and what they can contribute to the society that accepts them.

Prime Minister Fico has even spoken about preventing the formation of a Muslim community in Slovakia because that could be detrimental to the country’s stability.

– Let me put the quote in context. Slovakian PM Robert Fico gave an interview for a Slovak daily in which he highlighted the continuing uncontrolled influx of migrants to Europe. He voiced security concerns stemming from the fact that we do not know for certain who is actually entering our area. So-called “hotspots” have failed to work. So, if a large group of individuals enters your country, larger than one you are capable of integrating, then you face the danger of a parallel society being created inside the regular one, a structure that you have no control over and, thus, security risks cannot be excluded. PM Fico said that the Slovak government will not accept the quota system and will not voluntarily adopt decisions which could result in the forming of “a compact enclosed Muslim community”. The accent here is on the “enclosed” as in “self-contained” or “parallel”. This has nothing to do with faith, Muslim or other, but everything to do with security implications.

Do you think the migrant crisis could permanently damage internal relations within the EU?

– No. The EU has a long history of fighting various crises and always coming out on top. Be it the financial crisis, the Greek loan crisis, the rise of terrorism, the Ukraine crisis, now the migrant crisis… I’m sure we’ll overcome and emerge from this crisis stronger than we were when we entered it. Of course, we have to stop using half-hearted measures and put our collective shoulder to the wheel in order to stop the influx of migrants by solving the problem at its roots – in the countries that generate refugees.

Late 2015 saw Serbia open the first chapters in its EU accession negotiations. What is Slovakia’s view on this process and do you think Serbia will continue to receive EU accession support?

– It needs to be pointed out here that there is no alternative for Serbia than EU accession. This has been stated repeatedly by a number of European politicians and decision makers, and, more importantly, by Prime Minister Vučić and other Serbian government officials. Slovakia is a devoted advocate of the European perspective of the entire Western Balkans region, including Serbia. We are committed to making that happen, to welcoming Serbia – and other countries of the region – into the EU family. Dividing Europe into more and less successful nations – or, if you prefer, more and less fortunate ones – would be unjust and ultimately disadvantageous for the future stability of the whole continent. But let me be clear, so that there is no misunderstanding here: although Serbia has all the preconditions to join the EU in the foreseeable future, it is up to Belgrade to continue with its current trends and maintain its pro-European trajectory. Even more importantly, the government needs to actively communicate to the Serbian people the advantages, but also the responsibilities, of becoming an EU member. That is a difficult task. Changing the mindset of even a single man often takes much longer than, say, building a bridge.

What will be Slovakia’s priorities once it starts presiding over the EU on 1st July? Will EU enlargement still be on your agenda?

– Short answer: yes. Of course, the EU is changing, as is the world. New challenges arise every day. Three years ago we were talking to Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. Two years ago we thought the trickle of migrants might be easily manageable. And look where we are today. Therefore, it is precarious to predict anything one hundred per cent. Who knows what new challenges will await us in the second half of 2016? But from a practical standpoint, yes, Slovakia is committed to promoting EU enlargement, and we sympathise with Serbia and other Western Balkan countries, because we have our own unique integration experience in which we had to sprint to catch up with our neighbours, who’d had a head start of 30 months… We are strong believers in the carrot: if you deliver, you need to be rewarded. If Serbia delivers on its promises, makes and sustains reforms and succeeds in changing itself, then there should be a finish line clearly defined and a trophy presented at the end of it all. Other priorities of the Slovak EU Presidency include the Energy Union and energy security, employment – especially youth employment, the common digital market etc.

The closeness of both countries, the sizeable Slovak minority – living mainly in Vojvodina – and the growing stability of the business environment in Serbia, are factors that are attracting even Slovak SMEs investing in tourism and local services

Many EU members are apparently suffering from “enlargement fatigue”, namely they are apprehensive about the possibility of further EU enlargement exacerbating existing problems. What is your view on this?

– Yes, so-called enlargement fatigue is a term many use to describe the ongoing discussions within the EU about bringing new members aboard. On the other hand, the entire EU philosophy is based on strengthening peace, stability and security in Europe, on fostering cooperation through dialogue. To succeed in that, you have to speak in many voices, not just your own. Without the enlargement process, the EU wouldn’t be what it is today: a global player with a market of 500 million souls. Often in talks with Serbian partners I hear the claim “želimo u Evropu” (“we want to be in Europe”), but you are! Look at the map: the Western Balkan countries belong in Europe, both in a geographical sense and in terms of values. We cannot consider the integration of Europe as being finalised without the Western Balkans.

Serbia has embarked on accession negotiations regarding chapter 35, which is about Kosovo. Some suggest that Serbia will have to somehow recognise Kosovo’s independence in order to become an EU member. What is your view?

– There is no EU document – let me repeat, not a single one – that would ask Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s independence. There is no such condition. And you know that among the 28 member states there are five that have not recognised Kosovo, Slovakia among them. Thus, we could hardly ask of Serbia that which we ourselves have not done. However, given that one of the EU’s core issues is securing stability and prosperity in the common area, it is only natural that we cannot afford to accept a new member with unresolved relations in the region. Nobody is requesting that Serbia recognise Kosovo, but we ask Belgrade to normalise relations with Pristina, to bring order to matters, especially where the everyday life of the people is concerned: diplomas, vehicle registration plates, judiciary, movement of people and goods, etc. Therefore, a legally binding written accord of some kind, settling these relations, would be in order.

There were some indications that Bratislava might also officially recognise Kosovo’s independence. What is the country’s current stance on this issue?

– What indications? There was no indication of any change in this respect. The official position of the Slovak Republic remains unchanged, stemming from the decision of the Slovak Parliament from March 2007.

The EU members that still haven’t recognised Kosovo as an independent state have been urged to do so repeatedly, whether officially, from the office of European Parliament rapporteur for Kosovo Ulrike Lunacek, or unofficially. They have also allegedly even been pressured into doing so. Has Slovakia experience such pressure?

– Again, I have no knowledge of any “pressure” as you put it. Of course, the political developments in Kosovo, especially with respect to the latest events characterised by acts of violence, have brought Kosovo to the fore in many discussions within the EU and without. We have no reservations about discussing the Slovak position with our partners and explaining why we see things the way do.

Was Slovakia criticised for voting against Kosovo becoming a UNESCO member, despite the fact that most EU countries voted in favour? What were Slovakia’s reasons for voting against Kosovo’s membership in UNESCO?

We value highly the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and we believe issues such as the membership of Kosovo in various institutions, such as UNESCO, should have been tabled in Brussels first

– Let me remind you of the fact that the EU did not vote as an entity at the UNESCO General Conference, nor had a common position been adopted by the EU 28. It was up to the respective countries to cast their votes the way they did. Slovakia has made its position known clearly enough: we are of the view that complex and sensitive political issues should be resolved by finding common ground in dialogue, which we hope to foster. We value highly the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and we believe issues such as this should have been tabled in Brussels first.

Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák has been mentioned as one of the favourites to take over the position of UN Secretary General. If that is the case, will Slovakia expect Serbia’s support for his candidacy?

– Minister Miroslav Lajčák has not decided yet whether to join the race, so it would be premature to ask for the support of any nation. However, the Slovak government made it clear that, should Mr. Lajčák decide to run for the position of UNSG, he would have the full support of the Slovak government.