Distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Many things have changed here since my last visit in November 2014. Honestly, I am impressed by the progress Albania has made recently. I know how challenging reforms can be for all of society. But it is worth the effort.
Germany appreciates Albania’s significant reform efforts during the last months. Just think of last summer’s remarkable decision by the Albanian parliament in favour of judicial reform. We are confident that this could be the start of a process which will essentially improve the rule of law and democratic structures in your country – to the benefit of all people living in Albania. Your government has underscored on a number of different occasions that it has the willingness and the capacity to sustainably implement these important reforms in the months to come.
But now my colleagues and I are here with you to learn more about your expectations with regard to your countries’ EU perspective. For you are the ones shaping not only your country’s future but also Europe’s future.
That’s why I will keep my words very short, in order to have more time to discuss these issues with you. Let me just pass on one message and express one wish.
The message first: the EU will not be complete without the Western Balkan countries, and despite numerous challenges the EU is facing at the moment, the enlargement process remains on the agenda.
This is why I was very disappointed last week. The member states at the General Affairs Council failed to reach consensus on Council conclusions on enlargement because we could not agree unanimously on our position on Turkey. Unfortunately, this also affected the conclusions regarding the countries of the Western Balkans. However, this does not mean that we will not stick to our promise of an EU perspective for all Western Balkan countries. This is not only of benefit to you. It is in our own interest that your region be peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic.
Let me assure you that there is a broad consensus regarding the Western Balkans, and appreciation for the Western Balkan countries’ commitments and efforts towards EU integration is high. There is no new policy and no change in the rules and procedures. The accession criteria remain unchanged – clear and fair for all candidate states.
We took very positive note of the EU Commission’s recommendation that accession negotiations with Albania could be opened once credible results in the implementation of all key reform priorities were ensured. The Commission’s country report gives clear guidelines for Albania’s European course in the months to come.
In the end, the Slovak Presidency issued a statement underlining that there is a wide consensus among member states welcoming the major step Albania has taken through the important constitutional amendments of July 2016. The statement of the Presidency also confirmed the Commission’s recommendation to start accession talks with Albania once the necessary reforms have been implemented.
Here comes my wish. EU accession is not only an issue for political elites or legal experts. Joining the EU is a task which requires a broad political consensus as well as the active participation of civil society. And so I want to ask you not only to consider what Europe can do for you, but what you can do for Europe.
I am not telling you anything new when I say that the EU is currently at a crossroads. Some people are calling for steps towards greater integration, others want to give power back to the nation states.
Many people feel that the EU has failed in the crisis. They have doubts about the meaning and value of Europe. They have lost confidence and want to retreat into their national shells. This is where nationalists and populists all over Europe step in with their simple answers to complex matters. We have to respond to sceptics and critics with facts, arguments and by putting our commitment to Europe into practice.
The EU is by far the best answer we all have when it comes to tackling the challenges of globalization. If we want our economies to prosper, if we want to retain our modern and stable welfare systems, regulate financial markets, counter the threat of international terrorism, protect refugees worldwide and protect the climate, we have to work together. No one can surmount these challenges on their own. Only a united Europe offers us a chance to regain capacity to act and influence what is happening on the world stage.
Behind the curtain of a now far-reaching EU-scepticism and internationally rising populism there is a conflict which affects us all – no matter if we live in member states or future member states. Our European concept of society is value-based but open to different cultures, ethnicities and religions. This is difficult to put into practice, but also enormously enriching. To preserve this we all have the duty to live up to these values and defend them wherever possible.
This is where you should speak up, you who come from such a diverse region, which has itself experienced where hate can lead to, but which today sends out signals of hope of reconciliation. Albania, for example, is a particularly religiously tolerant country: you do not fear this diversity; you seize it as a chance. You are more than welcome to contribute and help us, the EU, continue being the transformative force for which the EU is loved and admired.