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Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the High-Level Meeting on the Franco-German Initiative on Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Western Balkans 

11.12.2018 - Speech


Paris, 11 December 2018 


Jean-Yves, 

Esteemed colleagues, 

Ladies and gentlemen, 

When politicians talk about balance and compromise, they often use bridges as a metaphor. They talk about bridging gaps or about the need to build bridges. 

This image works almost everywhere in the world, and this is why it is so popular. With the exception, perhaps, of the Western Balkans. 

  • The Mostar bridge, which was destroyed in 1993, remains etched in our memories today as a metaphor for the Bosnian War. 
  • With respect to the Kosovo War, many people in Serbia still call to mind the bombed bridges of Novi Sad today. 
  • The bridge in Mitrovica has, for too long, stood for the division of the city and the separation of the north from the other parts of Kosovo. 
  • And even what is perhaps the most famous book by the Yugoslav Nobel Laureate in Literature Ivo Andrić speaks of an ancient Ottoman bridge over the Drina, which is blown up at the end of the novel. 

Bridges that divide and which call to mind war and destruction. This sad bridge paradox is a reflection of the wars and trauma of the Western Balkans – of its past. 

However, the future – and I firmly believe this to be true – belongs to another, if only supposed paradox, namely that erstwhile enemies can become partners, indeed the very closest of friends. The Franco-German friendship proves this each and every day anew and has overcome centuries of wars and enmity.

Jean-Yves, 

As your closest friends, the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 shook us to the core. However, our pain and grief for the victims also strengthened our resolve to do everything in our power to ensure that something like this never happens in Europe again. 

This was how our initiative to resolve the issue of small arms in the Western Balkans was born. 

Small arms claim more lives and more suffering year after year than any other type of weapon, and not only in the hands of terrorists. In the overwhelming majority of conflicts, they are the real weapons of mass destruction. 

Their abuse gives rise to displacement and forced migration and fuels human rights abuses. 

This is why we have decided in Germany to apply even more restrictive measures to the export of small arms to third countries. Moreover, we are helping countries around the world to get a handle on small arms in illegal circulation. And as a member of the UN Security Council, we want to make the proliferation of small arms a priority. In the wrong hands, they are a threat to peace and international security. 

Closer regional cooperation is one key to resolving this problem. Our Franco-German initiative is working with the countries of the Western Balkans on this issue. Together, we want to ensure that the small arms issue in the region is resolved in time for the countries’ accession to the EU

All heads of state and government at the Western Balkans Summit in London expressly supported the agreed roadmap as part of the Berlin Process. The EU is likewise on board and has agreed to monitor its success from 2020. And the initiative has an excellent partner supporting implementation in the region in the form of UNDP

It is clear therefore that our initiative rests on firm foundations. It already boasts an impressive track record today. 

  • In only four months, all six countries agreed to the objective of comprehensive small-arms control by the year 2024. 
  • All governments have adopted national action plans that are now being implemented step by step. 
  • Their quality and speed have demonstrated that the region is fully committed to this approach. 

I would like to thank you, esteemed colleagues, for this and to encourage you to continue down this path with the same determination. I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to a follow-up conference in Berlin at the end of 2019 at which we intend to assess the initial results of implementation. 

Today, however, our primary focus is on gathering together the necessary financial resources for implementation from 2019. The EU has already set aside four million euros – we are most grateful for this. 

The Federal Government, for its part, will contribute more than six million euros. And I would like to encourage all of you to lend your support to our initiative as well. 

Nothing less than the security of Europe is at stake here. The cracks in our arms control architecture are becoming ever more obvious – we need only call to mind Russia’s infringement of the INF Treaty. 

Our initiative deliberately points in a different direction. It shows that only cooperation can ensure stability and security in the long term. We owe our peace in Europe to this realisation, a realisation that continues to apply today. 

The fact that focusing on small arms can help to overcome divisions between the countries of the Western Balkans – perhaps this will give rise to a new, forward-looking paradox for this region. 

We have, at any rate, been working for years to support regional cooperation through the Berlin Process. 

  • Cross-border cooperation can help to accelerate the process of moving closer to the EU and your countries’ accession. 
  • It creates connectivity and makes the region more economically attractive. 
  • It facilitates reconciliation and lays the groundwork for resolving bilateral conflicts. 

The region has already made considerable progress in this respect in recent years. The Regional Youth Cooperation Office that the six countries of the Western Balkans established together is an example that shows the way forward. 

Unfortunately, we are also experiencing setbacks time and again that give us cause for concern – such as currently in relations between Kosovo and Serbia. 

I appreciate the Kosovar Government’s frustration at the lack of progress in the dialogue on normalisation, international recognition and moving closer to the EU. But frustration is not a good guide when it comes to conducting foreign policy. I therefore call on the Kosovar Government to revoke or at least suspend the punitive tariffs imposed on Serbian products. 

Further escalation of the situation must urgently be prevented. 

I therefore regret the resignations of Kosovo Serb politicians from state structures in North Mitrovica that have been announced. The achievements of the dialogue on normalisation must be preserved. 

The only way forward – and this is demonstrated not least by our small arms initiative – is through cooperation and dialogue. Rather than engage in thought experiments on changes to borders, Belgrade and Pristina should focus their efforts on a viable agreement that addresses all outstanding issues and facilitates a comprehensive process of normalisation. 

An agreement of this nature would not only benefit Serbia and Kosovo, but also enhance the stability of the region and, by extension, all of Europe. 

Both positive and negative developments in the region have a direct impact on us all – and this is true not only of small arms. It is therefore in the EU’s fundamental interests that the Western Balkans develop well and peacefully. 

The rule of law and fighting corruption and organised crime must be the focus here. Democratic states based on the rule of law are, after all, the best guarantee for stability and economic growth. 

The path that leads the Western Balkans to this goal is and remains the process of moving closer to the EU. This is predicated on credibility in both directions. Reforms must be far-reaching and sustainable and there must be no posturing. Progress in reforms must also be followed up by progress in the accession process. After all, a step-by-step and controlled approach is inherent to the process of accession. 

Ladies and gentlemen, 

The Western Balkans will continue to be right at the top of the EU’s agenda in 2019. A number of landmark decisions are on the cards. 

I would like to encourage all of you to continue to work to achieve reforms in your countries and to promote closer regional cooperation. This will help your countries in the accession process – and thus also benefit people in your countries. 

“Everything in life is a bridge,” wrote Ivo Andrić in his novel about the bridge on the Drina. 

I hope and wish that the countries of the Western Balkans will choose bridges that connect people. Bridges such as the one that has come into being as a result of our initiative on small-arms control. 

The Federal Government will support your efforts to build bridges like these – between your countries and also to the EU

Thank you very much.

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