Statement to the press by Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands, during his vist to Serbia
I want to thank my colleague Ivica Dačić for his hospitality. I am very glad to be in Belgrade. I had the chance to go running this morning and I am very impressed by the city’s special character.
Earlier today I also had a fruitful meeting with minister for European integration Joksimović and I am looking forward to meet president Vučić later this afternoon.
My colleague and I spoke about a range of topics, such as EU accession, rule of law, security and stability in the Western Balkan region and our economic relations.
About Serbia’s economic and fiscal reforms: the results are impressive and these reforms strengthen bilateral trade relations. For example, trade between our counties is consistently increasing with an annual rate of 7-10%, now having reached almost 700 million euro per year. Dutch companies are for example active in agriculture, shipbuilding, IT and construction and employ over 15.000 people in Serbia.
Actually, if you look at the bigger picture the EU is Serbia’s most important partner; in trade, foreign investment and financial support. It is clear that Serbia belongs to the European family.
The support from the Netherlands for the EU perspective of Western-Balkan states, including Serbia, is unwavering. But at the same time we believe that countries should be truly ready when they join the European Union; accession of candidate countries should of course strengthen the Union. This is the reason why we insist on an enlargement approach based on merits and actual progress in the implementation of reforms.
The European Union is founded on the rule of law. A solid rule of law system will protect the rights of citizens and is at the foundation of any democratic system. A functioning rule of law system is key for economic progress; it provides certainty and will, for example, increase the incentives to invest. This is why I will continue to stress the importance of progress in this field in particular, in all candidate countries.
In Serbia much has been done, but in a number of crucial areas we expect more. We note a slowing down or even stagnation of reforms when it comes to the Rule of Law, which was also noted by the European Commission. Crucial areas in that respect are the fight against corruption, the independence of the judiciary and independence of the media.
This morning I spoke to representatives from civil society and media. The safety of journalists remains an issue of serious concern in Serbia. In cases of pressure or attacks on journalists, it is necessary to bring perpetrators of all attacks to justice and make sure that journalists and civil society organizations can do their work without fear for their safety.
I know the Netherlands is a critical partner, but it is also a solid partner. One of our longest running bilateral assistance programs, is the Netherlands MATRA program, which we offer in all candidate countries, including Serbia. Complementary to the EU programs, MATRA projects are focused on strengthening democracy and the rule of law.
A long-standing element of MATRA is the exchange and dialogue of experts. This has strengthened Dutch-Serbian cooperation and it is a pleasure that we often encounter Serbian professionals who have a link to the Netherlands. At the same time, we always hear from the Dutch professionals who participate that Serbia has a lot to offer to them.
It is on this note of good cooperation I would like to conclude.
Thank you again for your hospitality.