December 6, 2015
In this comprehensive new interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso speaks with Vesna Arsic, Serbia’s ambassador to both Belgium and Luxembourg. The embassy is based in Brussels, and complements Serbia’s missions to NATO and the EU, which are also based in the Belgian capital.
Ambassador Arsic’s distinguished career has included leading technical reforms in the banking and pension funds systems in Serbia’s ministry of finance, drafting important legislation, and leading the negotiating team in the process of Serbian WTO accession. She also served as the head of government representatives for negotiating free trade agreements with the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkey and the EFTA countries.
In this interview, Ambassador Arsic discusses the Serbian bilateral role with Belgium and Luxembourg, cooperation on security and migration-related issues, and how the two countries continue to support Serbia’s EU accession goals. Also discussed are some interesting, little-known facts about the countries’ historical relationships and cultural cooperation initiatives.
The Importance of Bilateral Ties
Chris Deliso: When the discussion turns to Brussels, everyone talks about Balkan countries’ diplomacy with the EU. So in contrast, how is it to be the Serbian representative to the state of Belgium? What are the key issues?
Vesna Arsic: It is very important to Serbia to have a strong diplomatic presence in Brussels: currently Serbia has three ambassadors, including the EU and NATO missions. My position is to cover the bilateral relations. This fact means that the Serbian government has assessed it as a high priory to be more strongly represented in Brussels and Belgium in general.
It is essential to note that in Serbia, not only the government but all parties have the common interest of EU accession as a top priority, and Belgium is one of those countries among the founding members of the EU. My MFA and I myself see my role as very important in that we have direct relations with our counterparts in the Belgian MFA.
We also have developed networks in Belgium as a whole, which is partly due to the complex structure of Belgium, its decentralized and multi-ethnic nature. This means there are other levels of authorities who are also involved and we must have engagement with them too.
CD: What sort of legacy do the two countries have in terms of historic relations?
VA: Our bilateral relations are very historic. They were first established in 1879, and in 1886 further, during the Kingdom of Serbia, when we had a diplomatic envoy to Brussels. Also, Belgian investors were active in Serbia in the 19th century, in mining. And in fact the first railway in Serbia, in Negotinska Krajina, was built on Belgian concession.
Further, the first privileged national bank of Serbia, back in 1884, was developed with the support of skilled staff from the Belgian national bank- and the first Serbian bank notes were even printed in Belgium.
CD: Really! That is quite extraordinary.
VA: Yes. And also, the first democratic constitution in Serbia was made following the Belgian constitutional model. So we have long and rich ties.
CD: Also, in addition, Luxembourg is a country in your diplomatic remit. What specific interests and challenges does this portfolio entail?
VA: It is also essential for us to have direct communication with Luxembourg, and we have seen this year with the Luxembourg COE presidency the positive results of their support. They called all EU candidate countries, not only Serbia, to participate in the majority of ministerial councils. This means that similar to the Belgian bilateral relationship we seek to cultivate, the goal is the bilateral relationship here. The role and experience of Luxembourg as another country that was in the group of the first EU founders, like Belgium, is important.
CD: Can you tell us if there are a certain number of Serbian citizens living in Luxembourg presently?
VA: Yes, we have a certain number of Serbs present in Luxembourg- many of them moved there as a result of the conflicts of the 1990s. The number is estimated at around 5,000 to 7,000 persons.
CD: In the past, Luxembourg has played a somewhat complicated role- we know for example that in the run-up to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, the Americans were heavily using Luxembourgish diplomats to coordinate European states’ recognitions process behind the scenes, in the months before the decision in 2008. Obviously this was against Serbian interests. How have things proceeded now in the seven years since? What is the state of the diplomatic relationship now?
VA: It is still an important matter for Serbia, the process of countries’ recognition of Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. But it didn’t ruin our bilateral relations with Luxembourg at all. Although it is also important for Serbian foreign policy to know how many countries, generally speaking, recognize Kosovo, because that decision is something that was unprecedented.
On the other hand, Luxembourg was very important and helpful for Serbia in regards to the Stabilization and Association Agreement we reached with the EU. They helped to push for this agreement at a time when some states were referring to issues such as Srebrenica to try to block Serbia’s SAA. This was back in 2010 and 2011. But Luxembourg helped a lot as it pushed some of the more reluctant countries, and we are grateful for their support.
In general, Luxembourg and Belgium have been able to show us their examples regarding reconciliation attitude after WWII, and used this case to point out their experience regarding how to improve attitudes to other regional countries. In fact, they have noted that Serbia, being the biggest country in the Balkans seeking membership, should be the role model for the region. And in the process of dialogue, both countries said they supported this approach, as only through dialogue and reconciliation will all countries in the region achieve better prospects and prosperity.
CD: Does Belgium provide any kind of political diplomatic support to Serbia that is unique or different than other countries, in terms of initiatives, programs etc?
VA: They stress the importance of dialogue to achieve solutions we should reach for Serbs in Kosovo, for example. But at the same time, over the last few years officials like the minister, Didier Reynders have visited the whole region, including Serbia, and in a lot of his speeches and appearances he has emphasized the need to support the EU integration of the whole region. Serbia and Montenegro are on top of this agenda currently.
Security Cooperation Developments between Serbia and Belgium
CD: Security has obviously come to the top of the European agenda after the Paris attacks. In late November, the Jerusalem Post reported that “a week before the Paris attacks, Serbia announced that Serbian and French security agencies had rounded up a major gang running guns between the two countries.” Do you have any further information on this case?
VA: This kind of case is as you know managed between the special services of the two countries, so they would have more details. But I can say that Serbia and Belgium are in the process of completing a new agreement on police cooperation.
This is to be finalized by the end of this year and signed next year. It will provide for deeper cooperation between the MOI in both countries, in all cases regarding extradition and readmission, as well as regarding concrete cases involving activities such as human trafficking and weapons smuggling.
The bilateral security relations, we should note, have been long established and have had excellent results in past. The two police forces have recorded high success rates in important cases.
CD: So the current planned agreement was agreed before the Paris attacks, and the implementation was envisioned already before that event?
VA: Oh yes, it was agreed before the Paris attacks. Those attacks emphasized the importance of closer cooperation. Because you can see now that problems are becoming more and more international and global in nature; there might be weapons produced in a certain country, sold in another, with an entirely different final person or group using them somewhere else. And so it is something normal and necessary to develop direct communications with specific countries like Belgium, and not only through Interpol and similar institutions.
CD: The Israeli newspaper’s report also specifically mentioned Serbia and other Balkan countries as routes for weapons trafficking into the EU and particularly Belgium, and reported that the EU is thinking of imposing some restrictions on Balkan countries. Do you have any information on this, and what possible developments could occur?
VA: They will be focused on better border controls- not regarding restrictions of the visa liberalization that our citizens enjoy, but on stricter measures in controlling the border. We can see 500,000 migrants passed through Serbia this year, and this created an enormous problem: how to manage a problem which impacted our budgets for police, health care for migrants and so on. In the latest EU progress report you can find a very good appraisal of how Serbia managed the crisis, even compared to some member states that have much more capacity than Serbia does for crisis management.
CD: That is interesting to note. We will consider the migration issue a little later but first I would like to ask if in general, after the Paris attacks, has the direct security relationship between Serbian and specifically the Belgian security services stepped up? If so, has it led to any tangible effects? What do you expect for future cooperation?
VA: There are several channels for cooperation on a bilateral level, as I mentioned, better checking via borders and of persons who had experience in fighting in Syria and other countries suffering from wars. We are now trying to exchange data about such persons at a higher level than before.
This is the priority on the national levels, but at the same time our embassy has had a lot of communications with concrete departments in Belgium like the anti-terrorism force, with the public prosecutor’s office, with the crisis center. We wanted to pick up their legislative framework and inform Serbian institutions how Belgium manages legislatively in fighting against terrorism. In fact, Serbia will finish a 2020 security strategy for fighting terrorism.
CD: Really? When can we expect to see this?
VA: The strategy will be finalized soon. Again, because of the possible smuggling from the Balkan region and generally globalizing nature of security threats, Serbia will be more focused on cooperation with European countries, which also need more cooperation with us on the bilateral as well as international institutional levels.
Cooperation on Migration-related Issues
CD: Obviously the migration issue is a major topic for Serbia and Macedonia now, and for Europe as a whole. Here at the embassy, what do you cover regarding common plans to deal with this, compared to the Serbian delegation to the EU?
VA: The matter is channeled through the part of government concerned with it. All criteria and recommendations, and also laws that are actually enforced within the EU framework, are implemented in Serbian legislation and practice. We have been in direct contact and had lots of meetings with the EU commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and with different offices in Belgium, like institutions for social protection.
CD: You mention Avramopoulos who of course was nominated by Greece, the frontline country in this whole migration crisis during 2015. Has this fact been helpful at all for Serbia, considering it is a traditional ally of Greece, in terms of getting support from the EU?
VA: I couldn’t say that support from the EU comes especially because of his origin, but this year he has had a complex role to carry out. And this job is also shared by the EU External Action Service, while Commissioner Mogherini also plays a big role. At the recent EU summit in Malta, we finally got more concrete measures to improve the situation.
CD: Migration is also a controversial subject for domestic politicians in Europe, and Belgium is an interesting case because of its decentralized, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic composition. Does this mean there are any challenges for you in communicating Serbian policies or getting cooperation? Is there a unified Belgian position that can be understood and assessed?
VA: Regarding foreign policy, Belgium has a formulated standpoint through its MFA, and we have a direct channel through the MFA where we can find general approaches to concrete matters. Also, our embassy has developed very good relations at all levels throughout the country, so regarding the majority of issues, we have direct contact and can see clear policies.
Investments in Serbia from Belgium and Luxembourg: a Promising Development
CD: How does your background in financial negotiations help in your current posting? Are there any trade deals that you have worked on between the two countries? How do these countries measure up as trade partners for Serbia?
VA: Regarding trade agreements, we have a free trade agreement with the European Union, so it covers all states- there is no need for separate treaties with individual states. And we can say the EU is our most important economic partner; the volume of Serbian trade with EU countries reaches 67 percent.
Regarding the volume of trade with Belgium- it is among the first 20 countries for Serbia as a trade partner. And especially in the last few years, you can find a very positive trend in the export growth rate. This is going from five to eight percent annually from Serbia to Belgium. Trade is especially increasing in processed food and Fiat cars- in central Serbia there is a factory for the Fiat 500L model, a car that you can see frequently driven in the streets of Brussels.
CD: I also understand there is a Belgian-Serbian Business Association in Belgrade. How active are they, and do you work with assisting them? In general, how is the Belgian investment scene in Serbia today?
VA: Yes. This club for Belgian investors in Serbia was established seven years ago, and is very active. Investors from Belgium include major companies like Delhaize, a supermarket chain, food processing interests, Metes in the metal industry, and Puratos in the bakeries industry. Another major company from Belgium is ElectraWinds, active in the renewable wind energy sector.
We are also in the process of attracting cooperation between the three countries’ ICT sectors, examining potential areas and matching possible interests. This is done by looking at relevant sectors and chambers of commerce, matching them with representatives of relevant companies. For example, in one case with a Luxembourgish ICT interest, we have already found interest on both sides. And we agreed that in April 2016 a special conference will be held in Belgrade- a certain numbers of companies from Luxembourg will participate.
Also in the ICT sector, Microsoft established a big center in Belgrade for outsourcing some of its European activities. They are happy with the quality of Serbia’s skilled engineers, and now you have more than 500 Serbian engineers working for Microsoft around the clock. And we see matching possible interests from ICT companies in Luxembourg.
Aid and Technical Assistance from Belgium and Luxembourg
CD: You have also worked in banking and pension reforms. Are there any specific programs or perhaps lessons learned from your Belgian and Luxembourgish counterparts that have been implemented?
VA: Well, the two national banks have constant bilateral programs and technical support experts from Belgium have trained Serbian banking staff in annual programs. Also important to note is that between Luxembourg and Serbia, there was important cooperation on the stock exchange infrastructure. This permanent cooperation involves the software that the Belgrade Stock Exchange runs on.
CD: So, you mean the actual software Luxembourg’s stock exchange uses was brought in to also power the Belgrade one?
VA: Yes. And it was financed on the bilateral level by Luxembourg. They gave us their software, which is quite sophisticated and has improved our own stock exchange technically.
CD: On another subject, Luxembourg’s Catholic charity Caritas has for several years run aid projects in the cross-border Serbian and Montenegrin Sandzak/Raska region, in poor and multi-religious areas. This is interesting considering that there are other areas of Serbia where poverty is worse and development also necessary, that would seem equally or more deserving of such aid. Do you have an awareness of this program, and how it was decided? How do you assess the situation?
VA: Yes, we know they are present there. I believe that they concentrated there because some 70 percent of the Serbian diaspora in Luxembourg came from the Raska area. So it is normal that Luxembourg as a country is taking efforts here to help it integrate these foreigners in society. But also this choice was because of the relative openness of society; Luxembourg assessed that the openness of this part of our diaspora was less than other parts, so they want to help them regarding integration. We should add that this activity is being done there at a high level, compared to other EU countries.
Diplomatic Benefits of the Relationship and Future Expectations
CD: It is well known that Luxembourg as a wealthy and influential country has many connections globally in the political and business spheres, while Serbia has historically been noted for its diplomatic acumen. Is there any benefit your country gets, therefore, from its partnership?
VA: Diplomatically, we do have support based on the kind of communication we maintain. But we can also have political support through company channels. For example, the European Investment Bank, which is headquartered in Luxembourg, has financed several Serbian infrastructure projects.
CD: Do Belgium and Luxembourg have any particular or different approach to Serbia compared with other western European countries? What are the ramifications of this, if so?
VA: They are both very supportive of Serbia. We need and we value their support, not only for keeping up the current EU enlargement momentum over the next several years, but also because of their understanding over our position regarding Kosovo and the need for dialogue in resolving that issue. Further, Belgium and Luxembourg have indicated their support for our proactive role in regional cooperation.
These three matters will be priorities in the next three years for the Serbian government and people. We therefore need the continuation of support from these two countries. The main focus of these three key matters – EU accession, Kosovo dialogue and regional cooperation – is to point out this message. We need continued understanding, and a continued level of support, like Belgium and Luxembourg have continually expressed.
CD: How do you see the future of Serbian relations with these two countries, especially in regards to the EU accession process?
VA: We are sure that Luxembourg and Belgium will stay on a similar course in future. Towards Serbia’s EU membership, they will help with the further opening of more and more negotiations chapters. In the last few years we have seen real support and understanding from both countries for greater Serbian prosperity and progress.
But it is not only a matter of directly joining the EU; we also want to make sure we stay in a position whereby the gap [between Serbia and EU members] does not become wider and wider. It is important to follow the progress, and to be aware of the EU’s own developing legislation and policies. If you stay behind, the gap tends to get wider and wider.
This is also vital for all countries in the accession period, for candidate countries, which nowadays need more and more time since the EU didn’t put enlargement on their agenda in the next few years. Now, you can let yourself be disappointed by this, but no- we look at this situation as one in which we have to continue our reform efforts. But we also need understanding of our situation; maybe the European Union and Commission can establish new methods and models to involve candidate countries in the meantime in some processes. Luxembourg did this in some capacity during its EU presidency.
It is also in the interest of the EU to act not only through handing out IPA funds, but also to include candidate countries through a broader scope. Belgium and Luxembourg in this regard participate and have an important role. This imperative is particularly necessary in a globalized world.
It is important that both countries have recognized that it is important that the momentum keep up for Serbia, and that after those efforts we have done regarding accession reforms, proactive dialogue and engagement with regional reconciliation. They have also noted our improvements in the economy, especially in the field of fiscal adjustment.
The point is that it is important that you have two countries that recognize how much effort we have made, and how hard it is to implement reforms in a transition country. Sometimes, this understanding and their presence in important meetings is enough to prove to us that they support Serbia.
CD: That is very important to note indeed. Now finally, I am always interested to ask about any unique or little-known aspects of the bilateral relationship that readers might not know about. Is there anything you would like to add here?
VA: Well, you can feel both Belgian and Serbian societies have a similar feeling for history. Like the Serbian people, Belgians like history and to be present at commemorative events, especially because both of us suffered a lot during the First and Second World Wars. Many civilians as well as soldiers lost their lives then.
This legacy is still in the mind of ordinary Belgian people, small children are presented with it and this means they grow up with this essential awareness of the heroic history of their country. It gives us this special feeling. Very often, our embassy is invited to share our history here.
For a concrete example, we have very tight communications with the Belgian city of Liège, not only because of our diaspora, but also because it holds the graves of Serbian soldiers who had been held in prisoner of war camps. They are buried in Robermont Cemetery.
CD: Wow, that is interesting. I did not know there were any Serbian war graves in cemeteries in Belgium.
VA: Yes, and it is also important to note that Belgrade and Liège are two of only five cities in the world to have received the French Legion of Honor medal for their role in the First World War. So we have a common and distinguished history that is commemorated.
CD: What about cultural events and other happenings that people might not know about? Does your embassy help organize any such things?
VA: We have a lot of exchanges of cultural heritage and exhibitions and movies from Serbia presented here. Cinema festivals like Balkan Trafik or the Mediterranean Film Festival, for example. And from time to time, there are concerts- the music of Goran Bregović, for example, attracts the attention of not only Serbs but Belgians too.
So we can say that all channels of communications are open. Between our universities, we have agreements, and a memorandum of cooperation exists between the National Library of Serbia and the Royal Library of Belgium.
CD: Interesting! What does this mean in terms of specific activities?
VA: This means that we have cooperation on a constant level; the two libraries exchange books and experts in the field of conservation. We also have very tight communications with Belgium regarding the process to establish cooperation between our respective military museums, directly or indirectly via our embassy.