Opening speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Western Balkans Conference in Berlin

21.10.2022 - Speech

War has returned to Europe.

We have heard that sentence over and over since the 24th of February, when Russia started its ruthless war on Ukraine.

I, for my part, as a woman born in 1980 in West Germany, had the privilege never to experience war myself.

For me, the first time that I saw with my own eyes what war means was when I travelled to Ukraine – I saw what it means to mothers, fathers, sisters and friends:

When I saw the pictures of civilians murdered in Bucha, the homes and cars bombed to pieces in Irpin. When I spoke to women supporting other women who had been raped.

In that moment, I felt what many of you and many of our Baltic friends have felt since the 24th of February: that could be us.

Many of you here in this room have experienced the horrors of war yourselves.

You know how it feels when mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, will never hug their children or siblings again.

You know what it means to see mass graves. You know what it means to think: my mother might be in one of these graves.

If we want to understand the consequences of war, we should listen to those who have experienced it.

That’s why I am grateful that you have been making your voices heard – over the past months, but also over the past years:

Together, the countries of the Western Balkans and the EU have condemned Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Its breaches of international law, its war crimes, its hateful lies.

This month, as part of a group of 143 states, we made it clear at the United Nations that Russia’s sham referenda in eastern Ukraine are null and void – that they are nothing but illegal land grabs.

For the foreseeable future, President Putin’s Russia will be a threat to security and freedom on our continent.

But Putin will not succeed in intimidating us or in dividing us. Instead, he has only brought us closer together. He underestimated our strength and our will to defend freedom on our continent.

Our Europe is a Europe united, in peace and mutual trust – forever.

And in this moment, with our European peace order under attack as not seen in decades, one thing has become even clearer:

The peace, stability and economic progress we achieved in the Western Balkans are crucial – and it’s vital to bring all countries in the region into the European Union.

That is a priority for the German Government. And that is what today's conference and the Berlin Process are all about: to bring the Western Balkan countries into the European Union – and to ensure peace, stability and economic progress for future generations.

Our story is a story worth sharing – especially in times of war. Since the Berlin Process started in 2014, it has connected people and countries in the Western Balkans – in every sense of the term.

Together, we – and especially you – have built roads and tracks over which trucks and trains are transporting ever more trade across the region.

Last year, you abolished roaming charges, making it cheaper to call family and business partners during trips in the region. Some people might laugh about roaming charges being treated as a security issue. But especially the European partners and the European institutions here at the table know: these everyday matters are crucial to citizens – we know what the end of roaming charges meant for the EU27.

The Regional Youth Cooperation Office – RYCO – has brought thousands of young people together: through school exchanges and seminars – and soon also through cultural projects for artists, musicians and actors, thanks to the new youth culture fund we are now setting up.

Today, for the first time at such a conference, we are joined by students who have participated in RYCO’s school exchange – as well as by representatives of the Berlin Process Civil Society Forum. I truly believe that young people and civil society actors like you are front-runners for reform and reconciliation in the Western Balkans – and that is why we look forward to hearing directly from you in a moment. A particularly warm welcome to you!

Friends and colleagues,

All of you have helped make the Berlin Process the great success story it has become – and we are about to add another important chapter:

In negotiations led by our Special Representative for the Western Balkans, Manuel Sarrazin – a new position we created – the governments of the six Western Balkan countries have committed to concluding three regional mobility agreements.

With these agreements, the people of your countries will be able to cross borders in the Western Balkans using only their ID cards. Universities will recognise each other’s diplomas. And your employers will accept professional qualifications from the region.

That might sound like technicalities – but these are historic steps. Historic steps that change people’s lives.

It means that young Bosnians and Kosovars will visit each other without a visa – something that we do on a daily basis in the European Union: if I want to see my friend this evening, I can just go and meet him or her.

It means that students from Albania can use their bachelor’s degrees to continue their studies in North Macedonia. And that an architect from Serbia can go and work in Montenegro.

These freedoms are what the European internal market is all about. And taken together, these three agreements clear the way for the creation of a Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans.

By setting up this market, by signing the three agreements at the upcoming summit in November, you are taking an important step forward in the EU accession process. You are making your citizens’ lives easier. And you are helping your companies boost trade and economic growth across the region.

I congratulate you on this breakthrough – I know that this has not been easy. And I encourage you to swiftly implement all necessary steps to make sure the agreements will be signed as envisaged.

But let us not stop here – let us aim for more regional cooperation through the Berlin Process:

On energy, the green transition and the climate crisis. Russia’s war of aggression has shown that we need to speed up the switch to renewables – not only to fight the climate crisis, but also for more energy security. We have seen how energy has been used as a weapon.

During my visit to Kosovo in March, I inaugurated the country’s first large-scale wind park, the biggest foreign investment to date. Its windmills produce up to 10 percent of Kosovo’s entire installed electricity capacities and provide electricity for more than 100,000 households.

I know the many obstacles to the green transition in your countries – we know them also in our country. But a project like this shows what we can achieve together. With political will on our side. With regional integration of energy grids and foreign investment – and this is what the Berlin Process, the European Commission and all your other partners promote.

Getting this green transition on track is in our common interest – because we all benefit from clean and secure energy.

The same is true for enhancing cyber security.

We all witnessed the grave cyber attacks against Albania and Montenegro this year. Public servants in ministries couldn’t use their government email for weeks – and sometimes had to go back to pencil and paper to respond to their citizens’ requests.

Cyber threats know no borders – and we are not safe when our neighbours are not safe.

That’s why I am suggesting a partnership to strengthen regional cyber capacities through the Berlin Process. Through this partnership, we could share our experience on how to protect hospitals and power plants against cyber attacks. Germany and our partners stand ready to contribute with experts, training and cyber drills – and to work together to set up regional emergency response teams, so that you can act immediately and across borders when hackers attack.

This cyber partnership would again show how the Berlin Process is making a difference in people’s lives – to their prosperity and safety.

But of course, in the end this process has one overarching goal: to bring all Western Balkan countries into the EU. That’s what your citizens want, what you want, what the EU wants – and that’s what we have to deliver together.

I understand your impatience about slow progress – and we discussed this together recently as foreign ministers in Brussels. But fortunately, we have made advances this year:

After a long blockade, enlargement talks with Albania and North Macedonia have finally started. Now, the EU must deliver on its promises as well. I have heard from you how much personal courage it has taken you to come this far. I think this is what European leadership is all about – to be ready as a politician to take risks and take the steps needed for your society and, ultimately, for peace on our continent.

And this is why I call on my European friends here at the table and in the European Union: now, we as the EU have to deliver on the things we promised a long time ago – like visa liberalisation for Kosovo. Just last week, the European Commission reconfirmed its recommendation from 2018 to move forward. I call on all EU partners to finally give their go ahead now. We have given our promise as the EU – so we have to deliver.

Also last week, the European Commission published the Western Balkans country reports. While we see some encouraging progress, they show that most countries are still lagging behind on reforms, such as fighting corruption and strengthening the rule of law.

I call on all of you to speed up reforms in the interest of your citizens. We know that corruption goes deeper than just into bureaucracies – it harms the identity of countries. So it has to be high on the political agenda.

I would like to underline three crucial points that I see.

First, people in Bosnia and Herzegovina voted in important elections this month – congratulations! Now it is equally important that the Republika Srpska end political blockades and separatist policies – that’s in the interest of all people in your country. To advance on the EU track, more needs to be done to fulfil the EU’s reform priorities. With this in mind, we will have a close look at the European Commission’s recommendation on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s candidate status. I think we can really deliver together on these important matters.

Second: The unresolved situation between Kosovo and Serbia is a constant cause of tensions – over car number plates or electricity distribution. We cannot afford this any longer. It is holding both countries as well as the whole region back. We all know that a comprehensive agreement bringing full normalisation must one day be reached. So why keep postponing this “one day” further into the future? The German Government fully supports the efforts of EU Special Representative Lajcak in this regard. And we expect more readiness to compromise on both sides.

Third, I strongly encourage Serbia’s incoming government to increase alignment with the EU Common and Security Policy. This concerns sanctions against Russia in particular. And we look forward to Serbia’s concrete steps to align its visa policy. People smuggling threatens human lives and safety – and taking action against it is a goal that unites us all.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

War has returned to Europe – fuelled by hate and nationalism. But the experience of the Western Balkans shows that war will never have the last word.

Yes, healing the wounds of the past is painful – and they stay over generations. Progress towards European integration has been slow. And true reconciliation takes time.

But the path you chose is the path to the future. And as I said: it is now up to us politicians. This is what we have been elected to do by our citizens. Not to step back or to hide in difficult situations. But to move forward, to risk our own careers – for peace, freedom and the future of our citizens and especially the young generation.

The path you have chosen is the future. This is why we are here together as Europeans at the Berlin Process.

A European future which allows you and your children to live in freedom and in peace. I am convinced that together, we can build this future.

War might be back in Europe, but it is not here to stay.

Thank you very much for being here today.


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