"Why Should Everybody Else Get to Join the EU and Not Serbia?"

¨Serbia deserves EU membership¨: Country wants to join despite recent rejection, says Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic

Vuk Jeremic is an energetic 36-year-old Serbian tennis fan. He speaks English with an American accent, favors elegant suits and has a warm handshake. An unlikely foreign minister? Perhaps. But Jeremic is one of Europe's longest-serving foreign ministers; he was appointed Foreign Minister of Serbia almost five years ago.

Now Jeremic faces the tricky task of convincing the EU that it should invite Serbia to become a member. Earlier this year Serbia captured Bosnian war criminal Radko Mladic, a step seen as an attempt to please the EU. But at the EU's next summit, on December 9, Serbia faces rejection. Jeremic met Metro for an exclusive interview.

At the EU summit on December 9, Croatia will be invited to join the union, but Serbia won't even be invited to continue accession talks. Are you disappointed?
Croatia started accession talks much earlier than Serbia. The question is, will there be continuity in the EU enlargement? A nice way of assuring continuity would be to have the end of Croatia's accession talks coincide with the beginning of Serbia's. From the perspective of the western Balkans, this would be a very useful signal, especially because we've satisfied all the criteria for joining the EU.

Does the EU's anticipated reaction of Serbia come as a surprise to you?
Not really. There's a conservative attitude growing in corners of the EU when it comes to enlargement. In my opinion, it's a consequence of the current crisis in the EU. It's an economic crisis that obviously has political repercussions. EU member states want to put their own house in order before deciding to invite more members. So, it doesn't come as a surprise. What's important to understand is that Serbia is many years away from being able to acquire EU membership. The next step isn't membership, but the process itself is very significant. During this process we can carry out reform to make sure we're conforming to EU standards. It's in Serbia's interest, but also in everybody's interest, that the western Balkans is fully harmonized with the EU. We'll keep working towards that goal. Then it will be less of a drama when a certain country becomes a member because it will be fully Europeanized, just like Switzerland or Norway. There's no drama as to whether these two countries will join the EU or not, because they're part of the common space anyway. We need to work hard to get there, and ongoing support for our efforts is in everybody's interest.

Did Serbia arrest Radko Mladic in vain?
No. It wasn't as we thought that bringing someone to The Hague would help us with the EU. His arrest had nothing to do with the EU. We did it because it was the right thing to do. It's like Kosovo: a lot of people are saying, "If you solve the Kosovo issue, it will push you into a higher gear in the EU accession process." But that's not going to happen. Joining the EU is about fulfilling standards, not political issues like Kosovo or war criminals.

Other former Warsaw Pact countries, like Slovakia, are now EU members and are having to assist wealthier Western European countries like Portugal. Is joining the EU even an attractive option anymore?
The best thing about the EU is that it's the most successful peace project in history. You can't imagine wars between EU states, and that environment should be extended to our part of Europe. In the past, there was also a very strong economic component. Hopefully, a country does better economically by joining the EU. Obviously that's not the situation right now, though I think the EU economy will improve in the future. But economics is not our main motivation for wanting to join the EU.

So will you be able to go to your voters and say, "We should join the EU, but you might have to help Greeks and Spaniards"?
That question is many years away for Serbia. Maybe the circumstances will be better when it's time for us to join; maybe they'll be worse.

Kosovo is a stumbling block in Serbia's relations with Europe. Would you consider giving up Serbia's claims on Kosovo?

Why should the EU invite Serbia to become a member?
Every country in Europe is eligible to become a part of united Europe. There's no reason to draw the boundaries of the EU in a way that doesn't coincide with the geographic, cultural and historic boundaries of Europe. Why should everybody else get to join the EU, and not Serbia?

You're one of Europe's youngest foreign ministers in modern times. Did you have the necessary experience when you were appointed?
You learn every day in a job like this. It has given me an excellent opportunity to talk to decision-makers around the world and acquire experience that you can't easily acquire in any other job. But I had been an adviser to the President before, so I wasn't just parachuting in. Five years is a long time, and I feel better equipped now.

Did it happen early on that you had meetings with older Foreign Ministers and they didn't take you seriously?
There was always an element of surprise and it was often awkward. Because they were surprised, I felt they tended to listen more, and perhaps have a more open mind about what I had to say. But by now, most of my colleagues know me and it's no longer awkward.

Many Serbs fled during the Balkan Wars. Do you want them to return?
It's an individual decision. I left the country myself for 12 years before returning. Of course I wish that as many people as possible come back to Serbia, and I'm trying to serve as an example to as many people as possible, especially young people.

You've been elected President of the new Association of Tennis Professionals of Serbia. What are you going to do in this capacity?
Tennis has become one of the most powerful tools of public diplomacy for our country. Serbia has become well-known for tennis. Novak Djokovic is ranked the world's top player, and we have an excellent national team that is the defending world champion. In ladies' tennis we have a number of strong players as well. Because tennis has become such a powerful tool of soft power, it has to be supported at the state level. Foreign affairs are about representing your country abroad, and for us one of the best ways of doing it is through tennis.

How are you going to foster a new generation of elite players?
Djokovic has been a role model. With our new tennis federation we'd like to further that enthusiasm for tennis in order to make a system that will produce a new generation of players. Producing a champion is part luck, but it's much easier if there's a strong system like there is in other countries.

Previously published in Metro