Conference “Are the EU and the Western Balkans drifting apart?” - Opening Speech by Minister of State Gernot Erler

29.06.2009 - Speech

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Colleagues from the German Federal Parliament, Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation for giving me the opportunity to open this important international conference. It deals with one of the key challenges of European Security – not to let the Western Balkans drift apart from the European Union.

Stability in the Western Balkans regions is essential for the stability of the whole continent. This is why the EU has been and will be particularly engaged in the region.

In my speech I would like to make three points:

first: the European Perspective combined with a comprehensive Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) has been the European Union’s successful tool for stability and reform in the whole region,

second: the EU has confirmed again and again vis-à-vis the Western Balkans countries that the enlargement perspective remains valid and tangible. It is, however, subject to a strict but fair conditionality.

and third: unresolved bilateral disputes stemming from the break-up of former Yugoslavia increasingly affect the enlargement process. We have to address these issues more vigorously.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

last month we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the 2004 enlargement that finally ended the divide of the continent caused by the cold war. The past enlargements represent a success story in the history of Europe. Who would have thought in the 1960’s that after six rounds of enlargement the EU would incorporate 27 member states - nearly half a billion people living in peace in a highly stable environment in both East and West? Enlargement has made the European Union stronger, more competitive and more relevant as a global player. The political and economic development of the new member states in Central and Eastern Europe is a success story – even in times of financial and economic crisis where countries as Latvia or Hungary can count on the necessary support by the EU.

After the devastating wars in the Balkans had ended in the 1990s, the European Union offered all Western Balkan countries closer ties with the EU. The European Perspective for the whole region as set out in the Thessaloniki Agenda of 2003 and the renewed consensus on enlargement of 2006 clearly state membership in the European Union as the final goal. This applies also to the newly independent countries like Montenegro and Kosovo.

The European perspective has served as an effective incentive for change. Political reforms and economic transformation are well under way. Yearly progress reports by The European Commission prove their steady progress but also the tasks remaining for the future. The countries of the Western Balkans still face many challenges: corruption and organized crime, reform of the administration and judiciary, freedom of media, good governance and civil society, in some cases also cooperation with ICTY. Accession to the European Union will not come over night. Necessary reforms take time – but the process continues on track. Sometimes it is faster, sometimes slower – but it is leading into the right direction .

An exception to this is at the moment Bosnia and Herzegovina. The General Affairs and External Relations Council in June reconfirmed the clear European perspective for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The SAA agreement was signed last year and the SAA interim agreement came into force in July last year. Yet, signing the SAA has, unfortunately, not resulted in more dynamic reforms. To the contrary: the reform process has almost come to a standstill. Latest nationalist rhetorics and anti-Dayton actions in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been detrimental to the reform agenda. Politicians in Bosnia urgently need a joint perspective on the common future of the country. This is why we are supporting the Prud process, reconciliation and constitutional reform. Only Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole enjoys a European Perspective, not its parts or entities. Politicians in Bosnia – but not only there - must take more ownership for the reform process and the country’s way towards the European Union.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

for continuing the enlargement process the support both of the populations in the EU countries and of the Western Balkans is essential.

We have to communicate more clearly: the enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans will bring various advantages, once the countries and the EU are ready for this step.

  • Politically, the European Union's primary goal is to preserve peace, freedom and security in Europe. An enlarged EU would expand its stabilizing force to a region which in the past had a crisis potential for the whole continent. Adopting the acquis enables new member states to contribute to European integration and share its benefits. The clear European perspective is the strongest incentive to a sustainable and irreversible reform process the EU can offer.

  • Economically, all EU countries would gain from growth in the accession countries, new markets and increased business opportunities. This process will generate jobs and investment in the new member states, which in turn protects jobs in the old member states. I am particularly pleased to see German companies taking advantage of the opportunities to invest in the Western Balkan states.

  • Finally, the European Union’s global weight as an international actor has increased with each enlargement. The accession of the Western Balkan countries would further strengthen Europe’s voice in the international arena and enhance its impact on international decisions.

The EU is repeatedly sending strong signals to the citizens of the Western Balkans countries that the European perspective is real and tangible. Last year, Germany increased the number of scholarships for students and postgraduates from the Western Balkans. The visa facilitation agreements with the EU reduced visa fees to facilitate people-to-people contacts. Member states agreed under Slovene Presidency to roadmaps leading to full visa liberalisation once the conditions have been met. Their conditionality is based on strict but fair benchmarks for each country.

The latest evaluation reports published by the European Commission in May were reassuring. They showed clear progress on achieving those benchmarks for full visa liberalisation, first of all by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Also Montenegro and Serbia have made considerable progress. We expect the European Commission to make a proposal in July to achieve a visa free travel regime for the most advanced countries by the beginning of 2010. Let me be very clear: Germany supports lifting the visa requirements as soon as a country has fulfilled the necessary conditions.

The support of the EU to countries hit by the Economic and Financial crisis is not limited to member states: we are at the moment examining in Brussels EU budgetary support for Serbia, the country in the Western Balkans most severely struck by the crisis.

The EU is doing its political homework as well. The EU’s capacity to successfully integrate new members is an important topic on the European agenda. The renewed consensus on enlargement of December 2006 clearly stressed the link between treaty reform and enlargement. The Lisbon Treaty is the EU’s answer to the urgent need for a fundamental overhaul of an enlarged EU’s mechanisms. There will be no new enlargements without the Lisbon Treaty. Therefore, we remain eager to see the Treaty of Lisbon enter into force. The results of European Summit this month has given confidence that we will achieve this aim by the end of this year.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

in recent months it has been a matter of concern that many open questions following the break-up of Yugoslavia have not been resolved yet. They become more and more detrimental to the enlargement process. Let me just mention four examples – there are certainly more to add during the discussion:

We hoped that the EU could conclude accession negotiations with Croatia by the end of this year. We have strongly encouraged Slovenia and Croatia to find a mutually acceptable procedure of solving their border dispute, so that accession negotiations are not blocked by this bilateral issue. We deeply regret that Commissioner Rehn’s proposal for unblocking accession negotiations was rejected last week.

This conflict is casting a dark shadow also on future accession negotiations with other Western Balkan states: without effectively separating bilateral problems from the accession negotiations, important delays and blockades are menacing future accessions of Western Balkan states.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia strives for starting accession negotiations with the EU in the end of 2009. The recent Presidential and municipal elections there met most international standards. They were an encouraging signal for the next positive progress report by the European Commission in October . However, the name issue has still not been resolved after many years of negotiations under UN auspices. Both countries, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece, have to address this matter urgently. Politicians in both countries must pave the way for a mutually acceptable compromise solution. We encourage both Skopje and Athens to strive effectively for a compromise solution on the name issue.

We hope that all member states can lift their reservations for the implementation of the SAA interim agreement with Serbia soon. This will depend on Belgrade’s full co-operation with ICTY. Still, two indictees are at large. Serbia’s cooperation with the tribunal has considerably improved over the past months. Belgrade has to do more, however, to demonstrate that it is fully cooperating with ICTY.

We also insist that the pro-European government in Serbia takes pragmatic steps towards the Kosovo issue in order to facilitate cooperation and good neighbourly relations. This would be in the interest of all - both Serbs and Kosovo-Albanians. In this respect we are also looking forward to the feasibility study that the European Commission will present in October on how Kosovo can best take advantage of regional and European integration. We successfully advocated Kosovo’s recent membership in the IMF and in the World Bank. It represents an important element in the financial and economic crisis. The EULEX mission is contributing to a multi-ethnic society, good governance and the rule of law. It would be important that also Kosovo Serbs take part in the municipal elections in Kosovo scheduled for November this year.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To conclude: the European perspective for the Western Balkans and the Stabilisation and Association process have created stability and economic growth in South Eastern Europe. It is an essential motor for reform in this former crisis area. Sometimes reforms are quicker, sometimes slower. The Western Balkans are in any case heading in the right direction.

The region has advanced from conflict to a more stable environment. Yet we must refrain from complacency. Putting the European perspective for the Western Balkans into question would clearly endanger the stability and the reform process we have built up over the past decade. The EU and its member states must remain active in the region and continue its efforts, in particular in Bosnia.

Support from our populations is essential in this process and requires better communication about enlargement. The EU has to remain credible and apply strict conditionality for accession.

For Slovenia, the candidates and potential candidates as well as Greece, an important task remains, however: resolving the open issues stemming from the break-up of former Yugoslavia. Good neighbourly relations, a more dynamic reform process and compromise solutions for remaining bilateral problems are urgently needed for a speedier way towards the European Union. Germany remains committed to assist the Western Balkan countries on this path.

I am looking forward to our discussions today. Thank you very much for your attention!

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