Welcome address by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the conference ‘Rule of Law Enhancement in the Western Balkans – Identifying the Next Steps’ organised by the Aspen Institute Germany

08.09.2014 - Speech

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Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to open this conference hosted by the Aspen Institute Germany. Over the past years, the Aspen Institute has done an excellent job in establishing a network of politicians from the Western Balkans.

All of you are not only part of a promising young generation in your countries’ administrations and governments, but above all you are clearly oriented towards Europe. That is good news because the EU needs more people who firmly believe in the European project – especially in times of crisis! Many hopes rest on you in your countries, and I am particularly happy to have the opportunity to talk with you this evening.

A few days ago, the heads of government, foreign ministers and ministers for economic affairs met in Berlin for a Conference on the Western Balkans.

We are happy that all of the participants agreed on a follow-up conference in Austria next year.

Through this initiative, the German Government underlined its ongoing commitment to a peaceful, stable and democratic future for all the countries of the Western Balkans. The clear message is that the German Government remains committed to the invitation extended by the European Council in Thessaloniki in 2003. We continue to support the prospect of EU membership for all countries of the Western Balkans as soon as the accession criteria are met.

This is a strong political statement at a time when the enlargement process is not viewed with any enthusiasm whatsoever on either side. Many people in your home countries feel that the enlargement process is stagnating and that the European Union has lost its interest in new members.

In the light of this widespread perception, the aim of the conference in Berlin was to lend new, fresh impetus to the negotiations.

In May 2014, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries to the European Union. Their accession was a strong symbol of the end of the division of Europe. We can now see very clearly how this accession has changed and, most importantly, has strengthened and enriched the European Union.

But Europe’s division will not be truly overcome until all the countries of former Yugoslavia and Albania have become members of the EU. We must not forget that just 15 years ago, the region was still the scene of war, displacement and destruction.

Due to these bloody conflicts in the 1990s, the countries of the Western Balkans lost almost a whole decade on their path towards EU membership.

But similarly to Central and Eastern Europe ten years ago, we are now witnessing the enormous transformative power of Europe in the Western Balkans. In fact, we often characterise the enlargement process as a catalyst for reforms.

And – despite all the differences between your countries – the shared prospect of becoming members of the European Union has strengthened your own regional cooperation and has been a driving force as regards bringing governments back to the negotiation table and reaching political agreements.

The political dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is a good example of this progress.

Through their normalisation agreement of April 2013 and its implementation, Serbia and Kosovo have made unexpected and truly historic progress in normalising their bilateral relations over the past months.

Many factors contributed to this success, not least the strong political will and the courage of the political leadership on both sides. And we have to thank EU High Representative Catherine Ashton for being so patient and persistent during the negotiations. The way she acted showed what our common European foreign policy can actually achieve.

In recognition of the progress in the normalisation process, Serbia and Kosovo were both invited to continue their path to integration. The EU has opened accession negotiations with Serbia, and it started negotiations with Kosovo on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which were concluded in July.

These examples – as well as that of Albania, which was recently given candidate status – show that it is up to the countries of the region to determine the speed of their accession process. If the candidates deliver on their reform agenda, the European Union will deliver on its promise as well. But there are still some obstacles to overcome and a long way ahead. Nonetheless, the final goal is clear: EU membership.

Despite these success stories, the enlargement policy is not running like clockwork. A type of “enlargement fatigue” has set in over the past years.

Especially in the light of the economic and financial crisis, many Europeans are asking whether we should not focus on dealing with our internal issues before inviting new members to join our club. We cannot ignore these widespread concerns if we want to strengthen acceptance of the enlargement policy.

First of all, the European Union has to do its homework. In order to remain capable of acting and to be prepared for further accession rounds, we have to implement internal reforms.

Secondly, the EU has to learn from the mistakes of previous accessions. In the future, we must not give any sort of political discount to the candidate countries. Especially when the most fundamental issues, such as democracy or the rule of law, are affected, our message has to be clear, namely that the accession criteria have to be met in their entirety before a country can join the European Union.

The EU has to pursue an enlargement policy based on clear, strict and fair accession criteria. Without this conditionality, the transformative power of our enlargement policy will be lost. Only strict but predictable conditions will ensure that every new member will enrich our Union and make it stronger.

Europe is much more than a common market. Rather, Europe is first and foremost a community of values. Hence, progress with regard to democracy and the rule of law lies at the heart of the accession process. Our new focus on the “rule of law chapters”, numbers 23 and 24, as introduced in the accession negotiations with Montenegro, clearly shows that we have learned this lesson from the past.

Defending and strengthening our common values is crucial – perhaps more than ever. And it starts at home. The past years have shown how helpless the EU still is when fundamental values come under pressure in its own member states. Once a country has been accepted into the club, the EU is scarcely able to sanction shortcomings with respect to democracy and the rule of law.

If we want to remain credible as a community of values, we have to take action.

When raising our voices in support of fundamental values and the rule of law outside the European Union, it is essential that we set a good example by living up to our ideals at home. And this applies equally to all member states – regardless of whether they are big or small or old or new member states.

Together with my colleagues from France and Italy, but also from Sweden and the Czech Republic, I lobbied for the establishment of an effective political process to ensure that EU member states respect fundamental rights and the rule of law. In this regard, the European Commission took the first steps with its proposal for a new EU Framework to strengthen the Rule of Law.

I believe that the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency could play an even stronger role in this process. Through its reports, it reminds us of areas where we still have to overcome shortcomings – for instance, in the case of Germany, promoting further integration of Roma and combating anti-Semitism and homophobia.

It is my sincere hope that the new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will recognise the urgency of the situation and deliver on his promise of a European Commission that takes a strong stance on human rights issues.

Recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe have shown that democracy, the rule of law and good governance do not automatically follow with the end of an old regime. In the Western Balkans too, getting rid of authoritarian rulers, establishing a multi-party system and holding free elections were only the beginning.

The hard part is yet to come: to engrain democratic values, the rule of law and the principles of good governance so deeply into a nation’s fabric that they become the decisive factors by which citizens judge their governments and by which voters make their decisions at the ballot box.

We need greater progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime in all the states of the Western Balkans. We need to strengthen the independence of the judiciary. We need to advance media pluralism. And we need to ensure the protection of minorities.

At the same time, enhancing the rule of law is the basis for attracting investments. Time and again, surveys of current and prospective investors show that they all expect a stable environment where decisions are made in accordance with the rule of law. Only countries that succeed in creating such conditions will be successful in attracting and – even more importantly – in keeping foreign and also domestic investors in the country in the long run.

Let me clarify that a fundamental change in attitudes is needed so that citizens can be confident of receiving fair administrative decisions without a need to bribe officials. Governments must allow a free and diverse media scene.

The media have to be able to report not only free of censorship, but also unimpeded by indirect government influence – even if they criticise the actions of the government. Violent attacks on journalists can never be tolerated.

It takes determination and courage for judges to deliver their rulings self-confidently, independently and based on the law and the law alone. Political will and decisive measures are required for minorities to be not only protected by the letter of the law, but also to feel welcome in all areas of society. In the Western Balkans, that holds particularly true for members of the Roma and the LGBTI community.

We are talking about profound changes in politics and society as a whole, changes that demand a lot from governments, but also from citizens. We need a strong and active civil society to make the accession negotiations a success. The negotiations are much more than a technical process for political elites and legal experts.

Becoming a member of the European Union is a project for society as a whole! All the candidate countries thus need a strong and lively civil society and passionate supporters.

I am counting on your support! I have been a parliamentarian for 16 years now, and I know that is not the easiest job in the world to promote European politics and policies, as they can seem technical and very complex. However, I am convinced that it is well worth all the effort.

Let me underline that our partners in the Western Balkans who share our commitment to European values and who stay on the path of reform can count on our full support.

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