For more than a year, the pandemic has uprooted our lives. COVID crisis management continues to be our day-to-day work. But at the same time, there is cause for optimism:
Despite all the difficulties, vaccination rollouts in our countries are speeding up – powered by multilateral cooperation and solidarity. We would have liked to help faster – but COVAX and the European Union have now delivered vaccines to the Western Balkans. And further support to your health systems and economies is on the way.
Such progress gives us reason to take longer-term perspectives – in building back better our economies, politics and societies for the future.
That is what we want to do at today’s conference – therefore a warm welcome to you all! I am curious to hear from each of you, but let me first make some remarks from our perspective.
For the Western Balkans, building back better will mean being ambitious – because your citizens have high expectations:
From their governments, they expect accountability, reliable public services and economic progress.
And from the European Union and its member states, they demand a credible path for their countries towards the European Union.
All these issues are at the heart of the Berlin Process. Since this process started in 2014, the Western Balkan countries have accomplished a great deal:
- The Regional Youth and Cooperation Office has connected thousands of youngsters across national borders.
- In the pandemic, your countries created “Green Lanes”, thus allowing goods to move across borders despite COVID restrictions.
- Next month, a new agreement will scrap roaming fees in the region, making it much cheaper to do business and to keep in touch with friends and family.
- And at the Berlin Process Summit last year, you launched your most ambitious project so far: the Common Regional Market.
These are important achievements. But looking back at the last year, we also see little progress in other fields. And I fully understand the frustration this is causing in your region.
Therefore, let us redouble our joint efforts on three issues.
First, we need to get the enlargement process moving.
The future of all six Western Balkan countries lies in the European Union – Germany remains fully committed to this goal.
“You deliver – we deliver” must remain our approach to European Union enlargement.
On the one hand, the countries of the Western Balkans need to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption and organised crime, protect the freedom of the media and create space for democracy to thrive.
Such reforms will attract greater foreign investment, give young people perspectives and thus stop the brain drain from your region.
On the other hand, the European Union must stand by its commitments.
North Macedonia and Albania have delivered sustainable progress on justice reform and the fight against corruption and organised crime. In the Prespa Agreement, Skopje and Athens showed historic political leadership.
That is why accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania should start now. I thank the Portuguese Presidency for taking on this task – it has our full support!
Let me be clear: we all know that domestic politics can limit room for manoeuvre in foreign policy. And we understand that questions of history and identity are delicate. But such bilateral questions should not hinder the entire accession process.
And speaking of pragmatism, I also believe that we as the European Union should finally deliver on visa liberalisation for Kosovo, which remains the only country in the region excluded from easy travel to the European Union.
Second, let us strive harder for regional cooperation and reconciliation. All nations across Europe carry historical burdens. But history should be no obstacle to building a common future.
I recently visited Belgrade and Pristina to talk about the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which is being facilitated by the European Union.
Our message is clear: A comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia would not only increase regional stability. It would also unlock European Union membership prospects for both countries.
We fully support the efforts being made by High Representative Josep Borrell and Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák to make this a reality.
The same is true for Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 25 years after Dayton, we see a worrying deadlock and aggressive rhetoric.
This afternoon, the appeal verdict in the case against Ratko Mladic will be announced. It reminds us of the horrific wars of the 1990s, including acts of genocide, mass killings and ethnic cleansing. These terrible memories should lead to the conclusion that the future of the Western Balkans lies in peace and democracy.
The European roadmap for Bosnia and Herzegovina is clear, namely the 14 key priorities of the European Commission.
Moreover, the Office of the High Representative remains key. That is why I am very grateful to Christian Schmidt and to those who supported his appointment as the new High Representative. He will help to put Bosnia and Herzegovina back on the international agenda!
Finally, let me underline the role of civil society in promoting reconciliation and dialogue. We will shortly hear more about the outcomes of the Berlin Process Civil Society Forum, which met last week.
This brings me to my third point – progress towards the Berlin Process Summit in July.
I strongly encourage you to put all your energy into making this summit a success for the people in the region:
- In particular, the agreement on free movement with identity cards would boost trade and travel.
- Similarly, the unified visa area as well as the mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications would make life easier for many of your citizens.
The pandemic has shown that most challenges we face do not stop at national borders.
A prosperous and peaceful Western Balkans needs all countries in the region to join hands – with pragmatism and courage, with realism and ambition.
It is up to you to make those choices – Germany stands ready to provide support.
Thank you very much.