homepage_name! > Editions > Number 038 > Interview - Mette Kjuel Nielsen

Interview

Her Excellency Mette Kjuel Nielsen, Ambassador of Denmark to Serbia

Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The country of Denmark, together with Greenland and the Faroe Islands, comprises the Kingdom of Denmark. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government.
Denmark is the oldest monarchy in the west. Also you can easily remember the Vikings, in old days they had conquered England and Normandy. Iceland, part of Sweden and Norway used to be part of Denmark, but in 20th century Denmark had lost all this territory.
Denmark is a tiny country that has some castles that can only best be described as being magical and the country of Mermaids and Vikings as well has delightful pastries and lovely beaches.
Copenhagen is thriving cosmopolitan capital that is situated in the island called Zealand. It is a city that boasts the wildest side of life and it is also a central part of many international traffic and businesses.
Denmark, with a mixed market capitalist economy and a large welfare state, ranks as having the world’s highest level of income equality.
Denmark has frequently ranked as the happiest and least corrupt country in the world.
The national language, Danish, is closely related to Swedish and Norwegian, with which it shares strong cultural and historical ties.
Denmark has been a member of the European Union since 1973, although it has not joined the Eurozone. Denmark is a founding member of NATO and the OECD.


We had great honor to talk about this magical country of Mermaids and Vikings to Her Excellency Mette Kjuel Nielsen, Ambassador of Denmark to Serbia.

Your Excellency, how do you feel in Belgrade?

I have from day one felt very good about living in Serbia and in Belgrade. And felt welcome. People are friendly and warm; there are always new areas and places to discover; and as a diplomat there has never been a dull moment, the time I have been here.

How long have you been in Belgrade? What was your first impression on our country when you arrived compared to now?

Time flies when you are enjoying yourself! I have been here for almost four years. And so much has happened in that period. I would especially highlight the elections in 2008 which unlocked the political scene and gave a clear focus on the way ahead towards European Membership. For me it seemed as if the hopes and visions that drove the changes in 2000 finally had a chance to be realized. The ‘08 elections, the EU oriented Government, and the following changes of the political scene were dramatically positive changes. Serbia became a partner to be reckoned with rather than a source for worry.

Could you tell us more about your diplomatic career before appointment to Serbia?

In a way I have dealt with the Balkans on and off from different angles for the last twenty years. I came to Serbia from a position as Head of Department for Russia, Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia, the Western Balkans, OSCE and Council of Europe. I was in that position, when Denmark last had the EU Presidency, with all the challenges that entailed, including helping to ensure that the enlargement perspective for the countries of the western Balkan was mentioned in the final conclusions in December 2002 when the big enlargement of the EU (the fifth enlargement) was agreed. One of my more unusual but very interesting responsibility was to be in charge of the reburial of the mother of the last Czar, Maria Feodorovna, a Danish Princess (Dagmar), who had to flee Russia in 1918 and was buried in Denmark in 1928. Now she lies at rest beside her husband at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

Before that, I had four years as Undersecretary for international affairs in the Danish Ministry of Defence, and I was political advisor to the US General for SFOR in Bosnia in 1997. In the early 1990’s I was posted to the Danish Mission to the UN, and then assigned to the Security Policy Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My assignment in Serbia is my first ambassador posting.

What is bilateral cooperation between Serbia and Denmark like today, and what was it like in the past?

We have close and multi faceted ties, ties that go back a long time. I am actually often struck by the many similarities between our two countries. I have just visited Kursumljia, where a Danish doctor, Dr. Moellgaard, lays buried. A Danish doctor who came to Serbia in 1914 answering a call for needed medical personnel. After World War I he decided to stay in Serbia, in Kursumlija, where he built a hospital. It was heartwarming for me to see his memory still revered for the unselfish contribution he made to a little part of the world. Also the book that came out last year “Tajna Novog Beograda” shows the pioneering construction work of the Danish Engineer Company Hoejgaard in the nineteen thirties, reclaiming land and building the foundations which later became New Belgrade. On my travels and visits around Serbia I also often come across good memories of close Danish-Serbian (Yugoslav) cooperation in agriculture, dairy production, farming machinery.

From our bilateral fields of cooperation today I would highlight our new program to support the Fruit and Berry sector in Southern Serbia. The program is very promising and will run for four years. It takes place in close cooperation and partnership with the Serbian Ministry for Agriculture. The intention is to create employment and income locally, to raise quality and productivity, to increase the value of products and to generate export income for Serbia. An important part of the program is a grant scheme to allow farmers wishing to invest in enhancing their production. Serbia is already a very strong producer of fruits and berries which is an important export commodity. We hope that this program will help increase the value of this export, and thus create income for Serbia and new work places in Southern Serbia.

I would also mention our good bilateral defence cooperation, including in civil emergency planning. Serbia is our largest bilateral assistance partner in Europe in the defence field. We have a good air force cooperation focusing on search and rescue and now flight safety and in the 2009 air show in Batajnica Danish Defence participated with two F-16 fighter jets. The lead Danish pilot was asked to open for the fighter planes – and after his superb performance, the Embassy very touchingly received a poem made in his honour by a young spectator.

We have also supported the Prisma project, under the NATO trust fund, which is helping – with an impressively good success rate - to find new employment for redundant military personnel. And in the Nisava district we have for the last couple of years run a program in support of small and medium sized enterprises.
Are you of opinion that Serbian policy has been in the period of crisis and can that affect its accession to EU? What does Europe think about current situation in Serbian political scene?

We have all been hit hard by the economic crisis. But for Serbia, I think, it has been particularly tough, since you are still suffering from the set back in modernization and economic development caused by the Milosevic years and loss of markets due to the exponential growth the central and eastern European countries experienced through their rapprochement to the EU while Serbia was still struggling to regain the economic level you had in 1990.

The EU has been your close and reliable partner since 2000 to help build up Serbia’s economy and society. The overwhelming investment inflow into Serbia has come from the EU countries, accounting for 57% of all foreign direct investments. If you add to this the EFTA and CEFTA countries it accounts for over 70 % with, as a comparison, 4% from Russia. The 27 EU countries are also by far the largest trading partners with 56% of total trade in 2010. And when it comes to financial assistance and donations EU is the overwhelming largest donor with a total sum of 2.2 billion Euros since 2001. And let me add that on top of this comes bilateral assistance from the individual EU countries.

The EU has consistently since 2001 underlined its open door to Serbia. Serbia is a European country and you belong in the EU. With the present Government, your membership perspective has over the last years become very concrete, with noticeable milestones reached: visa freedom, interim trade agreement, the stabilization and association agreement (both precursors on the road towards the EU and beneficial steps in them-selves); and now the Commission is preparing the Opinion on Serbia. All these milestones have been reached in response to clear progress and reforms in Serbia.

Could you tell us more about projects participated by Denmark in Serbia? Which ones could be singled out as the most important?

I would highlight the Fruit and Berry program I mentioned above. I think it is very promising. But, let me also mention a much smaller but very significant program “Meet Europe in Denmark” which was carried out together with ISAC. Through this, we took more than 60 Serbian students (3rd grade from all over Serbia) to Denmark where they would team up with a Danish school class for a week and would be shown Danish Government institutions and experience the Danish society. Three such tours were made before Serbia became visa free. Now other EU countries are doing the same through ISAC, I understand.

Grundfos Company invested around EUR 80 million in the construction of Indjija plant. Are there any other Danish companies in Serbia and which ones?

Carlsberg, of course. Carlsberg is a major investor in Serbia. The company took over the Lav brewery in Celarevo in 2003 and has since invested millions of Euros in modernizing and upgrading their business here, setting new standards for how a successful and socially responsible company is run. Also we have a number of companies working with energy efficiency and waste management present – like Danfoss, Smedegaard, Velux, Brunata, Kamstrup, Bigadan, Danish Energy Systems, Rockwool, Ramboell Niras and Cowi consult, to name some of the biggest. In the health sector the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk has been present in Serbia for over 20 years in Serbia. The Danish low price trading company “Jysk” (selling soft home wear) has just a month ago opened a number of stores all over Serbia. And the Danish airline company Cimber Air is established in Serbia since March last year flying Non-Stop to Copenhagen.
Are there any other planned investments by Danish investors in Serbia in the next period? What is the opinion of Danish investors about Serbian market?

The interest of Danish investors is increasing. The Serbian and Danish business structures are quite similar and Serbia is appealing to Danish small and medium sized enterprises looking for outsourcing. The main hindrances seem to be the excessive and slow bureaucracy related to import and export procedures. As Serbia moves ever closer to the EU some of these procedures will be harmonized. Also a speedy implementation of the Government so-called guillotine project will be a positive contribution to the investment climate.

What is the cooperation of our two countries like in the field of culture? How large is Serbian Diaspora in Denmark, and Danish in Serbia?

Serbia has a very active ambassador in Denmark, Mrs. Vida Ognjenovic, and she is doing a lot to enhance the cultural exchange between our two countries. Here in Serbia our embassy has been active in assisting among other things to get Danish jazz bands to visit festivals and other events. But a lot of culture exchange takes place by itself directly through the various organizers. Danish documentary films participate in the annual Magnificent 7 film festival and Danish authors come to Belgrade Book Fair. The various Serbian clubs in Denmark regularly have visiting Kolo dance troupe and musicians for their local festivals in Denmark. Most of the Serb Diaspora in Denmark came in the late seventies and eighties to work in our industry. They are fully integrated Danes but keep active links to Serbia.

How could you present your country in brief, as an interesting tourist destination, since Copenhagen was elected as the best European destination for 2011, leaving Barcelona and Berlin behind?

I would highlight that Denmark – and Copenhagen – is very accessible with a broad variety of things to do and places to see. We have old beautiful buildings and castles; we have fantastic amusement parks (such as Tivoli and Lego-land); appealing, beautiful nature and all over you will be close to the water. We also have a really good, fast and well-functioning infrastructure, making it easy to get around (trains and busses all over the country and in Copenhagen also a recently build Metro). A lot of Danes – including myself – prefer a bicycle as a means of transport in the big cities. In Copenhagen we have a city bike system for tourists, where bikes can be found all over the city in special parking rack, and like borrowing a cart in a super market, one puts in a coin to take the bike, and gets back the coin when the bike is parked again in any of the parking racks. What I personally like the best is walking around Copenhagen, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the architecture. There are cafés all over – but be ready for restaurant prices that are not at the level you are used to in Serbia.

According to recent survey, Denmark is ranked as a country with the happiest people and with lowest level of corruption. How can a country achieve such results and what can you recommend to leaders of less happy peoples and countries in the Balkans?

We are proud to be ranked as the happiest people but I also think it is a little funny that we are. I am not sure I can give an answer as to why – maybe it is the weather? We have a well organized society with a high degree of social security. But, then, we also have one of the highest tax-rates in the world. On corruption, it is easier. We do not tolerate corruption. We have laws and regulations that ensure transparency and minimize temptations of corruption, for instance a very well functioning public procurement agency. Also institutions and big companies have zero tolerance policy as part of their corporate social responsibility. Neither is corruption tolerated among people. Newspapers are on the alert to expose corruption and if corruption is discovered, it will be detrimental to people’s careers if they sit in public or elected function.

How do you spend you spare time? What is your recommendation regarding Belgrade life to people coming to Serbia from your country?

I enjoy going to the Kalenic green market not only to shop but also because it is such a nice place to walk around and you can follow the circle of the year by seeing what is on display – and then afterwards go for a coffee, read a newspaper. Very relaxing. And I generally like just walking around Belgrade, exploring new streets, looking at the buildings behind the not always well preserved façades, walking round Ada in the summertime, and then taking advantage of the variety of music that Belgrade offers, not only the big names but jazz in the evening at Iguana or Stari grad music at many restaurants.

What will you take from Serbia as a memory of your staying here?

Meeting so many incredibly brave people, who were willing to sacrifice for what they believed in: democracy, human rights, and a better future. And who, despite set-backs (the murder of Prime Minister Djindic) and disappointments, still keep the focus and carry the torch.

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