Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Aspen Southeast Europe Foreign Ministers’ Conference
Ladies and gentlemen,
Just over a year ago, we met at Lake Tegel and launched the Berlin Process; in August, we convened in Vienna for the first follow-up meeting. The aim was to affirm our support for the EU prospects of the Western Balkan countries and to affirm our agreement that regional cooperation and communication – in short, a greater sense of community, both within the region and with EU member states – would be crucial to that journey.
Our affirmation stands. So does the journey we mapped out. This is truer than ever today, as recent months have confronted the region with a massive new challenge, which will be impossible to overcome without even more intensive cooperation: the refugee and migration crisis.
This crisis is putting solidarity within Europe to the test. We in Berlin know that. Paolo Gentiloni knows it too; his country, together with Germany and a few others, is shouldering a large share of the burden. Paolo, let me thank you most sincerely for the hospitality you are showing us here in the Italian Embassy!
The Western Balkans, too, especially Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, are being stretched to the limit by the need to take care of and register refugees passing through.
As I see it, what is vital now is to affirm our commitment to a Europe of solidarity.
And European solidarity doesn’t depend on accession. We are already connected by our readiness to share burdens to deal with the refugee crisis.
The European Union needs the Western Balkans to do what they can to play their part.
The 50,000 short-term accommodation places urgently needed along the route have to be set up without delay. Winter is coming!
Refugees have to be guaranteed humane treatment no matter the circumstances.
And liaison and information-sharing among transit states needs to be further strengthened.
Talk of border controls and the closing of borders has been fuelling anxiety in the region in recent days. I would therefore like to emphasise that the Balkans must not be left to bear the cost of the unresolved question about distributing refugees within Europe.
We must not and will not leave the Western Balkans in the lurch when it comes to transit migration.
This will involve the EU and the German Government providing Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia with funds for humanitarian assistance and structural measures.
It will also involve us supporting Greece, the neighbour to the Balkans, which the people seeking shelter are passing through to reach your countries.
It will involve us working to better secure Europe’s southeasterly external borders. Dialogue with Turkey is essential to this, but so is developing Frontex.
All of these are measures intended to better control the passage of refugees into the EU via the Western Balkans. We need one another in this endeavour; we will only succeed by working together. We all share a very fundamental interest in this area – an interest in not shutting ourselves off but liaising, coordinating and collaborating with one another.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We nonetheless also need to bear in mind the still high number of asylum seekers from the Western Balkans. What these people seek here is not protection from persecution but above all employment and better standards of living.
More and more people in the region now understand that futile applications for asylum in Germany will not result in permanent residence. Governments must not slacken their efforts to inform their citizens of that fact.
We are seeing some initial success. Asylum applications from Kosovo, for instance, have gone down from nearly 8000 in February 2015 to a few hundred in October. My thanks go to Hashim Thaçi for his positive cooperation on that. Now we also need progress on repatriating people who have no claim to asylum. I thank you for your cooperation on that score, not least in view of the agreement on laissez-passer papers to simplify and speed up the repatriation process.
Over and above that, from January 2016 onwards, we will be creating new ways for people from the Western Balkans to legally migrate to Germany to work. This will enable employers in Germany to find staff for positions they cannot otherwise fill, as well as giving people better prospects and thereby discouraging them from lodging futile asylum applications.
It is also clear, however, that the problem can only be successfully solved long term if people enjoy the prospect of making a good living for themselves and their families in their home countries.
It is first and foremost up to the Western Balkan countries themselves to undertake decisive reforms, dismantle barriers to investment and enact intelligent economic and social policies so that the economy can grow. We will continue to support them in that endeavour.
After all, we too want our immediate neighbourhood to be stable, democratic and firmly rooted in Europe, a place where people can live in freedom and prosperity.
Given that, I am glad that several countries in the region have been making good progress on advancing their Euro-Atlantic ties. There are still massive challenges to be faced and reforms to be undertaken everywhere – we talked about just how huge they are over lunch earlier – but the Commission progress reports just submitted do contain some good news.
First, it was almost exactly a year ago that Philipp Hammond and I presented ideas for reinvigorating the reform process in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Today, the European Commission is able to conclude that Bosnia is back on the road to reform. The process of moving closer to the EU was successfully restarted, but much remains to be done. This includes withdrawing the proposal for a referendum in the Republika Srpska against the centralised judicial institutions.
Second, the long-awaited first chapter of EU accession negotiations with Serbia is about to be opened. This is partly in recognition of the progress made in normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
What’s needed now is for both parties to keep up their courageous commitment so that all the remaining issues in their bilateral relationship can be resolved.
Third, Montenegro is on the cusp of taking a crucial step. In the coming week, NATO will decide whether to invite it to join. Germany is among those advocating such an invitation, not least because Montenegro is so constructive in relations with its neighbours – certainly not something to be taken for granted in the region.
Fourth, Albania is also moving in a good direction and now needs to continue advancing radical and comprehensive judicial reform.
The fifth point to note, in a less positive vein, is that the situation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia remains difficult. The spotlight here is on the essential need to overcome the severe crisis in home affairs. The important thing there is to implement the compromise mediated by Commissioner Hahn and establish the conditions for new elections that are credible and in line with international standards.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Western Balkans have grown closer together in recent years. The countries have intensified their cooperation. This is a good route, the right road, and we intend to remain at your side on that road. Today’s conference is part of that support – and I take this opportunity to thank Dr Rüdiger Lentz and the Aspen Institute for their long years of commitment to the region.
We are also building on the Berlin Process, which will be continued in France in 2016 and in Italy in 2017. That process is more important than ever. The specific projects it supports, be they in transport infrastructure or youth exchanges, demonstrate to the people of the Western Balkans the universal benefit of regional cooperation.
We need to build on that knowledge – in the interests both of bringing the Western Balkans closer to Europe and of overcoming our regional challenges together.
Thank you very much.