Together with our French friends and the EU, we have declared war on illegal small arms in Europe. We have sought to close ranks with the countries of the Western Balkans in this effort since the outset. I’m extremely grateful that these endeavours are being received so well in the region, as was also the case at the conference in Paris. At the end of the day, these are, in many cases, weapons from the war in the former Yugoslavia, weapons that continue to cause a great deal of harm in Europe.
It was with this in mind that we set ourselves the goal two years ago of working together to bring the illegal proliferation of weapons and ammunition from the Western Balkans under control within the space of five years.
And we have made important progress in this regard. This is also thanks to the fact that we have received considerable support from all of you.
Small arms control has since become enshrined as a political priority at the highest level in all six countries of the Western Balkans. I would like to express my sincere thanks to my colleagues who helped to make this happen.
Countless new projects have been launched.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, we have trained 1500 border police officers tasked with preventing the smuggling of illegal weapons. We intend to extend this project to the other five countries of the Western Balkans in the course of this year.
We’re also working to tackle weapons that have not been properly deactivated – weapons such as those that were used to kill many people during the attacks in Paris.
And so we’re helping the OSCE to conduct deactivation training and to elaborate clear rules for this field.
The Federal Foreign Office will set aside a further 5.5 million euros for projects such as these in this year alone. And I’d be delighted if other donors were to continue or even step up their support.
Esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Two other things are crucial to the success of our initiative.
Firstly, the EU has been on board from the beginning.
This is with good reason as the security of the EU is inseparably bound up with the security of the Western Balkans. This is something that we have been aware of not just since the Paris attacks.
And this is why I consider it to be an exceptionally positive sign for the future that two members of the new European Commission are with us here today – Ylva Johansson and Olivér Várhelyi. I would like to thank them both most sincerely for this.
This underscores the importance of the initiative for Europe.
This is about security.
Moreover, this is also about the EU integration of the Western Balkans in which questions of domestic security play a pivotal role, of course.
This brings me to my second point.
The success of our initiative depends on the willingness of our partners in the Western Balkans to work more closely together.
To put it another way, the fact that our initiative has been so successful so far is thanks especially to you!
One thing has been clear since the outset, which is that closer regional cooperation is not only to the benefit of the people of your countries, but also acts as a catalyst on the path to EU accession.
And the EU integration of the countries of the Western Balkans, ladies and gentlemen, is also in the strategic interests of both sides. Simply glancing at a map shows this.
This is also shown by the geopolitical situation in which actors who don’t share our values and political aims in the way we should like are exerting their influence on the Western Balkans.
This is why it’s important that we continue to pursue this accession process intensively and also to set ourselves objectives.
This is why, Commissioner Várhelyi, we’re delighted that the Commission is to submit proposals for improving the accession process in the coming days. And I’m confident that, in so doing, we will manage to offer the candidate countries even more effective support on their path of reform towards EU membership.
Incidentally, this was also the reason why we launched the Berlin Process a few years ago. This is about relations in a spirit of good neighbourliness, about cross-border cooperation – for the benefit of the people in the region. And I believe that our meeting today is a really good and successful example of this.
I’m especially delighted that North Macedonia in particular is a co-host of the Berlin Process this year, alongside Bulgaria. With the historic Prespa agreement, North Macedonia and Greece have shown that even seemingly insurmountable differences can be resolved if the political will to do so is there.
Regional cooperation instead of opposition – that’s our message today. And it’s in this spirit that we want to continue to work closely with you also here at this conference.
Thank you very much.