Natasa Dragojlovic: Without the rule of law, economic achievements are unsustainable
The year behind us was, in many ways, defined by the consequences of the pandemic which started in 2020, and the decisions made to combat the pandemic. Although it did not always seem that everything in the country was subordinated only to that goal, somehow all policies: economic, social, and others were created and implemented in the shadow of the present threat, which, it must be said, often served as an excuse for the lack of key reform interventions in numerous areas of importance for the functioning of any state, says Natasa Dragojlovic, coordinator of the National Convention on the European Union, in an interview given to Nedeljnik.
On the other hand, according to Dragojlovic, the pandemic has contributed to shifting the focus from political criteria to specific infrastructure projects supported by the EU funds, primarily in sectors such as health and travel. In the light of the role of the European Union in aiding Serbia and other Western Balkans, a narrative was created in a way that was contrary to the declarative commitment of the Serbian Government to support the accession to the European Union.
In such an atmosphere, similar statements came from opposition parties and even civil society at the expense of the European Union’s sincere commitment to democracy and the rule of law that should be supported in future member states.” In addition, the process formally stagnated until summer, when the government prepared the negotiating positions needed for opening the clusters. This comes after Serbia, the same as Montenegro, agreed to continue the negotiating process according to the new methodology. In the formal sense, the year ended with two open clusters. This finally moved the negotiation process from a standstill after almost two years. In October, the Country Report of the European Commission was published, which, unlike the previous year, was quite well accepted by the Government. However, the opposition immediately started with some heavy criticism directed towards the European Commission and EU representatives in Serbia”, states Natasa Dragojlović.
I’m not quite sure how many of them have actually read that report from cover to cover on either side. We gathered in the Convention have read the entire report and compared it with our Annual Book of Recommendations, as well as with the attitudes of citizens when it comes to detecting the biggest problems which could be solved with the help of the European Union and its funds. ”
When it comes to EU accession process, where have we made the most significant progress, and where has the progress been minor?
Formally speaking, the average grade of Serbia’s progress was 2.8, which is the lowest one since 2015. Limited progress has been made in the areas of judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime, freedom of the media and public administration reform, which is crucial for implementing other reforms. When it comes to political criteria, the situation was even worse. The opinion of the citizens is reaffirmed and once again we came up with the conclusion that the society is polarized, and that in such circumstances there is no culture of dialogue, no genuine parliamentary debate, while hate speech dominates the public discourse. The members of the Convention agree that the political criterion and the rule of law are the vital and that the work in these areas must be intensified, despite the positive assessments from the chapters that belong to economic criterion. Progress has been made in areas such as free movement of capital, financial services, consumer protection and health protection, as well as taxation, which has provided significant fiscal support over the past two years of the crisis and a significant increase in capital investment. Formally, the legal framework has been improved, but in practice a lot remains to be improved as CSOs can prove. Due to the fact that civil society organizations claimed in their monitoring reports, and confirmed by the European Commission Report, Serbia was ready to open Cluster 4 – Green Agenda, thanks to the monitoring reports of the CSOs which were reaffirmed by the Country report which the European Commission published. However, Cluster 3 – Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth on the other hand, was not open. Negative assessments are found in the domain of the rule of law and political criteria, which are preconditions for sustainable economic achievements, as well as the growth and development of all parts of society in the long term.
EU Ambassador Emanuel Giofre praised the Convention in the New Year’s issue of Nedeljnik in the context of bringing the European integration process closer to the citizens, as well as in monitoring what the Government of Serbia is doing. How has the National Convention contributed to European integration this year?
In an environment where the European Union and its role in Serbia were challenged to say the least, and often openly attacked by both government officials and the opposition, i.e. key political actors, the Convention tried to act, as well as provide credible analyzes and accurate data, in order to educate citizens about the nature and purpose of the EU, how it works, what it can and cannot do and why. In this way Convention tried to confront with both sides and mitigate the consequences of such a narrative on public opinion, whose support for the process has been declining year after year and fluctuates slightly below or above 50%, which is significantly less than in other candidate countries in the region. So, communication with the citizens was our priority, as well as making clear arguments against those who assess the role of the European Union exclusively according to the extent to which the EU supports a certain political option. Not even to the extent it supports certain programs, policies, or concrete measures, but exclusively people and parties. However, such debates are difficult having in mind that arguments are of less importance in such cases, so much so that the media fail to distribute them. Regardless of the situation caused by the pandemic, we managed to approach citizens throughout Serbia, to discuss all sorts of topics, provide data and relevant information on why the European Union is important to us and what can we gain from the accession process, especially if we know that just because we are not an EU member state, we lose more than a billion euros per year.
Another important area of our work was to influence the creation of policies, laws, strategies, action plans for chapters, negotiating positions, and even proposals for changing the Constitution through the procedures of the Government and Parliament which include Convention. At the same time those proposals needed to be in line with the requirements coming from the side of the European Union, and the real needs of citizens and the economy. Through constant pressure, continuous and structured dialogue with all levels of government, we articulated the views of civil society through our working groups and acted decisively towards the government and institutions of the European Union. Members of the Convention, alongside with the Government officials are the only ones in this country who, actually read the annual reports of the EU, resolutions and decisions of EU institutions, strategies, action plans for all chapters, negotiating positions and other important documents. Our members also analyze all of those and present their key conclusions the citizens. At the same time it is the Convention who advocated for further revision of the Constitution in 2018, and managed to withdraw of the so-called Media strategy, the Law on Police and the meaningless decree on scientific research activities of the Ministry of Defense. Convention managed to further continue public debates on the National Security Strategy, to call for dialogue but also for responsibility of the authors and actors of the “List” affair, members of the Convention accused of having ties to terrorism and money laundering also protected non-members, who were brutally attacked even from some MPs, to the point of openly calling for the repeal of controversial referendum and expropriation laws.
Unfortunately, our Books of Recommendations are the testimony, about how the negotiations on the membership of Serbia and the European Union were conducted, what were the positions and policies of the Government and what were those of the civil society. We have accurately and objectively assessed every move and decision of the Government, and of course we have become the target of both representatives of the government and the opposition, both leftists, because we are too enthusiastic about the opening of the chapter and Serbia’s progress in negotiations, and right-wingers who consider us for being traitors.
The greatest success in the previous year is that we managed to stay together, and maintain a dialogue with the Government on all topics and at all levels, and with the Prime Minister on a monthly basis and with the negotiating structures of the Government on a daily basis. This is why the Convention remained the only place for dialogue in Serbia. As much as our discussions with representatives of the government are sometimes difficult and loud, they are open, public and an opportunity for everyone who is interested to present their arguments. Even though it might not be as popular, I do hope that, we gave our contribution to reducing divisions and tensions in society and raising the level of political culture and culture of dialogue.
How do you assess the current situation in the field of energy and environmental protection?
At this moment, almost 90% of the laws of our country are harmonized with the legislation of the European Union. Formally speaking, most areas in our lives are legally regulated in the same way as in EU member states, but that is not enough. That is why civil society and the European Union insist so much on the rule of law, division of power and freedom of speech and media, as well as on building institutions that should implement those laws, on public administration reform sAmid social controversy about environmental pollution, and the collapse of the energy system, Serbia opened Cluster 4.o that services paid for by citizens through taxes are provided at an adequate level. Formally speaking, Serbia has met the criteria for opening this cluster with has four chapters, but much needs to be done to close this cluster. You don’t have to be an expert to know the quality of air or water in Serbia, where Belgrade was again the most polluted city in the world on several occasions last year, where Zrenjanin still has no drinking water and parts of the capital have no sewage.
We have all seen what the collapse of the power system looks like. In practice, the situation requires serious and dedicated work in order to reach the standards of the European Union. At the recent meeting of the Convention with the representatives of the Government on the most important economic document – the Economic Reform Program, we learned what are the priorities of the Government in the coming period. It is a document that anyone who intends to engage in any politics in this country should read. There was no word of it in the media. Our members pointed out a number of worrying phenomena: such as the one that Serbia does not have a Transport Development Strategy, which affects the accelerated expropriation for the purpose of building transport corridors, that there are no comprehensive impact assessments, and that in September 2021 bonds were issued for financing eligible projects in the field of environment to the amount of one billion euros while it remained unclear which particular projects were selected, to the point that we still do not know what the content of the Plan named Serbia 2025, or how to compensate for the lack of highly qualified human resources in Serbia, but that is why we know that there are only a couple of mining inspectors in Serbia, and until two years ago there was only one.
Rio Tinto and lithium are not the only problems in Serbia. Unfortunately. That is why the Convention will pay attention to the management of public finances during 2022, and analyze how the budget is related to planning documents and policies at the national, provincial and local levels. This is the essence of assessing everything that the Convention monitors and strives to influence during all of these years in direct dialogue with the Government, and not only in the virtual world of social networks that have become a hotbed of social pathology.
What is the stance of the Convention on changing the Constitution and the upcoming referendum?
The Convention does not have a single position on how citizens should vote, nor is it possible to achieve that even less to impose one having in mind such a complex structure with over 800 different CSOs. Neither individual organizations nor political parties, including the ruling one, think that a single position needed.
It is not always easy to reach a consensus. The divisions that exist in society are of course reflected in the Convention as well, and as we see in individual organizations on a number of issues, including:
- whether this is the best possible solution to ensure the independence of the judiciary and the equal position with other two branches of government;
- whether at this moment, this Assembly should adopt amendments to the Constitution on such a short notice or should it wait for the next convocation and further improve this act in a broad public debate alongside with informing the public
Let me remind you that the Working group (WG) for Chapter 23 discussed the Constitution with the Prime Minister when the proposed amendments were in the hands of the Government. Then the proposal passed into the hands of the parliament, and we participated in the public hearing in May as well as the public debate in September, when the Minister of Justice was present. Then I stated that the views of the Convention on the content of amendments amending the Constitution are the views of the WG for 23 and within it primarily the views of the Association of Judges of Serbia and the Association of Prosecutors, who are our members and who at our request became members of the Parliamentary Working Group for Amending the Constitution. Everyone was satisfied with the work of that working group, the way the proposals were treated, some of which were adopted and some were not. It is worth noticing that due to some political compromises, the proposals that were not adopted now lead to having these two questions in debate once more, however this time there is no time a debate.
Our members of the WG for Chapter 23 were not present at the meeting with the Prime Minister, which was also attended by the President of the Assembly, as well as numerous line ministers and representatives of the EU Delegation, OSCE and Council of Europe. The prime minister was informed of the reasons why members of the WG did not want to join the meeting, however she did not accept the explanation. When the referendum was announced and when it is no longer in the hands of the Government or the Parliament, all that remains is to inform the citizens, which our member organizations continued to do within their regular activities or special projects for this purpose. Therefore, the Convention, as an alliance of associations, can only invite citizens to go to the referendum, and all media, especially the Public Service, to enable citizens to hear various arguments and see serious debates. According to the research, only eight percent of citizens, know and understand what this is about. Huge space is left for manipulations, for placing incredible claims about what the referendum is for.