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Speech by Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, at the Western Balkans Conference of the Aspen Institute on “Countering Radicalisation, Nationalism and Division: How to Better Promote Inclusive, Multi-Ethnic, Liberal Societies?”

06.09.2016 - Rede

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Over the past years, the Aspen Institute has done an excellent job in establishing a network of politicians from the Western Balkans, especially those who are clearly oriented towards Europe. This is why I am delighted to be able to hold discussions with you tonight – particularly on a topic which is of major importance for all Europeans. This touches upon the core of the European identity.

But before getting deeper into this topic, I would like to make some general remarks on the relationship between the EU and your home countries. I am not telling you anything new when I say that the EU is facing several internal and external crises. On top of all the challenges, we need to deal for the first time with a country wanting to leave the EU. On the other hand, you are representatives of countries that want to become members of the European club.

Enlargement policy is a unique success story. It has helped define the European Union as we know it today: a peaceful, democratic and prosperous community. With the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries, we managed to overcome the former division of our continent as a result of the Cold War. However, the reunification of Europe will not be complete as long as the Western Balkan countries are outside the EU.

That is why I would like to reassure you that the German Government remains committed to the European prospects of all countries in the Western Balkans. Ultimately, we want to have you, our fellow Europeans, with us inside the European Union. This was also a clear message of the Paris Conference on the Western Balkans this summer.

And we should not forget that significant steps have been taken this year with the opening of the crucial chapters 23 and 24 with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for membership and the adoption of the justice reform in Albania. And, last but not least – in a different context – the signing of the NATO Accession Protocol for Montenegro.

I am convinced that a credible and effective enlargement policy is a driver for reforms in the region that are in our common interest. Enlargement policy helps to promote stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity. In times of crisis, we need, now more than ever, countries in our immediate neighbourhood that are stable, peaceful, democratic and oriented towards the EU.

And let me be clear that it is up to your countries to meet the conditions for EU membership. You are in the driver’s seat. It is up to you to determine the pace of accession negotiations. If the candidate countries deliver on their reform agenda, the European Union will deliver on its promise as well.

I am aware that this process is very challenging. It requires comprehensive reform and goes far beyond a purely economic transformation. It is a truly societal transformation. But I am convinced that this reform process is worth every effort. And rest assured that you can count on our full support on this path.

Moving on to today’s topic, I would like to stress that the EU is far more than a common market. Convergence with the EU goes beyond the mere reform of laws and administrative procedures. The EU has always been a Union of values. Tolerance, pluralism, non-discrimination, democracy and the rule of law are the central characteristics of the EU. That is why they are also at the heart of EU accession processes.

Living up to these values can be difficult and challenging. They have to be translated into the everyday life of our societies. They are what the EU stands for.

In times like these, with many of us living in fear of terrorist attacks and experiencing an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants, we are hearing more and more voices in Europe that want to persuade us that the concepts of open, liberal and multicultural societies have failed. They claim that the silver bullet for all our problems is a strong national state that favours the majority population and that seals itself off from the rest of the world.

These promises by populists are a trap! They are being used and have always been used by populists to gain power in times of uncertainty and disorientation. In the age of globalisation, they are mere political escapism, appealing to the desire for easy solutions that do not exist.

The opposite is true. Modern societies can only be successful if they are open and inclusive. Marginalisation, deep divisions or widespread discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion are a source of radicalisation and violence in any society. Societies that have to deal with profound internal divisions are not stable; they are less resilient against external shocks. Last but not least, inclusive societies strengthen solidarity among their citizens, solidarity that is much needed in difficult times.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The demand for inclusiveness has also become stronger because of modern means of communication. The fact that any information can be shared within seconds has a huge impact on our political culture. There are two sides to this: the positive aspect is that it has empowered citizens and civil society. The downside is that populist rhetoric and hate speech have also reached a much bigger audience. This can be very harmful especially in multi-ethnic societies when the target of offending rhetoric is another ethnic group.

The leading question of this conference touches upon a subject that lies at the centre of my own political work: what can we do to promote inclusive and multi-ethnic liberal societies?

Your societies have gone through the terrifying experience of war that has left deep scars and alienated your various ethnicities and peoples. From our own history, we know very well how difficult it is to rebuild trust and understanding with neighbours who had until recently been enemies. Today, Germany is a respected member of the international community again and enjoys excellent relations with the rest of Europe. Our former enemy France is now our closest partner in Europe. How is that possible?

The answer is surprisingly simple: mutual interest and dialogue. Both recognising a shared interest in stability and prosperity on the one hand and permanent dialogue on all levels on the other are important. Dialogue is indispensable for developing trust and eventually achieving reconciliation. For this, it is essential to bring the people concerned together.

In the case of Germany and France, the Franco-German Youth Office, which was founded 18 years after World War II, played a tremendous role. Millions of young Germans and French have visited each other’s country since then, got to know each other and have become friends. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the cornerstones of the reconciliation between France and Germany.

It is therefore impossible to overstate the importance of the foundation of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office at the Paris Summit this July. Once this office is operational in 2017, it will, in the long run, have a tremendously positive impact on relations between the countries in the Western Balkan region.

A lot still needs to be done, and it is crucial not to lose the momentum of the Paris Summit. In this respect, I would like to strongly encourage you, esteemed conference participants, to actively support this exceptional initiative, wherever and whenever you can!

Dialogue and mutual understanding involves travelling. Only if people have the opportunity to meet each other will they be able to know each other better. Every road that is built or repaired, every bridge that is re-opened means an additional link between communities. This is why the aspect of connectivity was one of the priorities of the so-called Berlin Process right from the beginning. It is absurd that in order to travel from Podgorica to Sarajevo, you have to fly via Belgrade or go on a bumpy five-hour car ride.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Wars, in particular civil wars, cause immense human suffering. They leave painful wounds in the collective memory of the societies concerned. Coming to terms with the past in a way that allows for reconciliation with the former enemy is an enormous challenge. And it will take some time.

The Franco-German friendship shows how far reconciliation can go. It is even possible to develop a shared perspective on historic events. One of the most symbolic projects was doubtlessly the joint history school book that our countries wrote together. Ten years ago, the first volume was published, now all three are in use. They cover the period from 1815 up to the present. This successful project was the inspiration for a similar initiative with Poland. The first volume of our joint history book was presented in June this year.

I am pleased, therefore, that an initiative is underway in your region with a similar philosophy, organised by the NGO Helsinki Committee with the support of the German Government. This pioneer project is entitled YU-Historia: A Multiperspective Historical Account. The idea is to publish a solid, well-argued and multi-perspective historical account of the Second Yugoslavia. A team of authoritative historians from all the seven countries concerned is working together closely in this project.

Ladies and gentlemen,

One of the pillars of liberal and inclusive societies, which I have only mentioned indirectly so far, is an active and vibrant civil society. Civil society fulfils an important function in our modern societies. It channels the views and interests of different groups and brings them to the attention of the authorities. Governments can therefore take well-informed decisions that are far more likely to be accepted by the society afterwards. Civil society is therefore a vital link between the population and the government.

The German Government sees civil society organisations as important partners with whom we work together closely. In my country, civil society organisations are regularly tasked by the Government with projects in the public interest. With a large number of refugees and migrants having arrived in Germany, this cooperative relationship is showing its strengths especially now. It is not only my view that by far the most effective safeguard for successful integration is a vibrant civil society – one that lets newcomers join its ranks, but which is also open and willing to embrace the qualities of its new members too.

EU accession is not a project for technocrats, but for the whole of society. You should therefore consider civil society to be your closest ally. I can only encourage you, state officials and Parliamentarians, to reach out to civil society! Your work will be much more successful.

Just next week, I will be in Belgrade again, where I will meet with different representatives of civil society. By the way, the situation of the LGBTI community in a society is a good indicator for its openness and inclusiveness. In this context, I cannot fail to mention that I am shocked when I hear or read time and again that LGBTI activists have been physically assaulted or otherwise harassed. And I expect people with political responsibility to speak out against this.

The same applies for all minorities – be they ethnic, religious or sexual. How we treat our minorities shows how we deal with our core identity.

Let me close by emphasising that the accession process is a two-way-street. Do not only ask what the EU can do for you, but also what you can do for the EU. What do you have to offer in this regard? I will be happy to engage in a dialogue with you on the discussions you have already held today.

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