Pristina/Belgrade (APA) – Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) assured Serbia continued Austrian support in the EU accession process. "We will grant our support wherever this is possible for us", Kurz said at his first official visit to Belgrade on Wednesday.
Kurz emphasised that Austria advocates Serbia's outreach to the EU not only because such rapprochement would be good for Serbia, but it would also benefit the economic and security interests of Austria. Speaking with the Austrian press, the Foreign Minister referred in this context to what is termed the Balkan route, which is still used for organised crime and illegal migration. He also stressed that Austria is the largest foreign investor in Serbia. Since the end of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, Austrian companies have invested 2.9 billion euros in Serbia.
Kurz met with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and the first Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vucic. In a joint press conference with Kurz, Vucic explained that he had asked for continued Austrian support in Brussels and added that he would also be grateful for Austria pointing out any "difficulties, errors and slowness" in the integration process.
Vucic would like to conclude the EU accession negotiations started in January by the end of 2018. Foreign Minister Kurz on this goal: "We are unable to name a fixed date." He added that he appreciated "Serbia's strong will" and urged for reforms. "The sooner changes are implemented in Serbia, the better this will be for Austrian investors."
Concrete EU accession negotiations are to begin in summer, and the Kosovo chapter is also to be opened by then. In addition to the criteria for accession, Serbia is also committed to bringing about normalisation and signing an agreement with Kosovo. The former Serbian province of Kosovo declared its independence six years ago, following the war of 1999 and after years under UN governance. Normalisation of relations with Kosovo is an EU prerequisite for further rapprochement of Serbia. According to observers, Brussels could also open the judiciary chapter with Serbia, which is by no means less complex.
In his statement to Austrian journalists, Kurz explained that no referendum is planned in Austria if Serbia joins the EU. He referred to the Austrian government programme stating that a referendum would only be required after accession of Turkey. Kurz said he was not aware of any "call from the people of Austria" for the holding of a referendum in the event of Serbia's accession. Serbia with its 7 million people is much smaller than Turkey with its 74 million population, with the result that the impact of Serbia's accession would be significantly less, Kurz said.
Kurz announced in Belgrade that Austria is to more than double its financial support for the entire Western Balkans in the scope of the Accession Partnership from 1.9 million to 4 million euros. The Minister, whose portfolio also includes integration, announced that an Integration Attaché would be installed at the Austrian Embassy in Belgrade in future, following on from the example of the Embassy in Ankara. The attaché will be responsible for providing assistance to Serbian citizens whose immigration to Austria has been confirmed. In addition, the attaché is expected to establish contacts with the Austrian Integration Fund, to help with the attendance of German language courses and to familiarise new immigrants with Austrian values and laws. "We want integration to begin on day one", Kurz said. Currently some 300,000 naturalised Serbs and/or Serbian citizens live in Austria.
Kurz and Deputy Prime Minister Vucic also discussed Bosnia where the latent crisis of many years recently escalated in the form of social protests. Vucic said that Bosnia is "the only issue that worries me". Bosnia, where Serbs are the second largest ethnic group is "the most difficult issue in the Balkans" according to Vucic. Serbia is committed to the Dayton Peace Agreement and does not put the stability or territoriality of Bosnia and Herzegovina at risk. Kurz declared that the protests in Bosnia against a "system that is scarcely functioning or indeed failing" indicate that reforms are urgently needed. "If we are able to contribute our share, we will do so." He confirmed that he was in contact with other EU foreign ministers concerning the Bosnia issue.
Vucic is currently in the middle of an electoral campaign. Early parliamentary elections will be held in Serbia on 16 March. Opinion polls suggest that an absolute majority of seats is within reach for Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) - already holding the majority of votes. The former ultra-nationalist who is now pro-European will most probably become Prime Minister.
In the joint press conference with Vucic, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz also brought up the issue of history: a century after the outbreak of World War I, after the killing of Austrian successor to the throne Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists, Austria and Serbia are now ready to "come together in a unified Europe". Serbian Foreign Minister Ivan Mrkic said that people should look forward in this commemorative year 194/2014. Serbia intends to be a member of the European family. While the events that happened a century ago should be commemorated, these ceremonies "should not be politicised."
Vucic emphasised that relations to Austria are now better than ever before. When Austria supported Kosovo's independence there were serious irritations between Vienna and Belgrade.
With a view to extending bilateral economic relations, the Serbian subsidiary of the Austrian Senate of Economy was opened in the presence of Kurz and Vucic in Belgrade on Wednesday. The Senate, the Austrian Section of the Global Economic Network, sees itself as a platform of experienced political, diplomatic, economic, media and cultural leaders who wish to promote economic development "without monolithic lobbyism" by engaging in dialogue with decision-makers. The President of the Austrian Senate of Economy, former Austrian Vice-Chancellor (ÖVP) and Director of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM) Erhard Busek considers the new subsidiary to be a "business bridge" between Austrian and Serbian entrepreneurs.
Economic relations to Serbia have become even more attractive thanks to the accession negotiations. "The perspective of approaching the EU is boosting motivation, and this positive mood should now be utilised for the benefit of a European economy that is geared towards the common good", Hans Harrer, member of the Board of the Austrian Senate, said in his comment on the establishment of the new subsidiary.