When the COVID-19 pandemic hit nine months ago, we knew that we needed to completely re-think our Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The fight against the virus forced us to set clear priorities.
We decided to focus on our neighbourhood – to the East, to the South and particularly to the South East. Because the crisis made it clear that we are one European family.
We therefore attach great importance to this conference. But what really turns it into a key event of our Council Presidency is your participation. So, thank you all for joining us – particularly my colleagues from the Western Balkans and the members of the European Commission! We are also very grateful to our co-hosts, the South East Europe Association and the Aspen Institute Germany. A very warm welcome to all of you!
Ladies and gentlemen,
some of you might know that I recently had to spend ten days in Covid quarantine. It was an interesting experience. Instead of my usual routine of trips, meetings and conferences, I suddenly had time all by myself.
So, I started reading some of the books that were piling up on my nightstand. Among them was “Herkunft” or “Where you come from” by German-Bosnian author Saša Stanišić, who won the German Book Prize last year.
“Our origins”, the book says, “are the bitter-sweet coincidences that carried us here or there.” As someone who grew up in the Saarland region, which kept being shifted between France and Germany, this is a stark reminder of how random categories like “homeland” or “nationality” can be. Especially if we link them to a place of birth.
It also shows how migration can change our perspectives. How it connects countries and people.
How it broadens horizons and creates new opportunities - despite all of the challenges.
So, right from the outset, I would like to stress one thing: The goal of this conference is not to stop migration. 30 years after the end of the iron curtain we know: all those who have tried to stop it have failed.
Mobility is part of the European Union’s DNA. And it prepares young people for a life in a globalised, interconnected world. At the same time, ladies and gentlemen, we cannot close our eyes to the problems that a continuous “brain drain” is causing in the Western Balkans.
The numbers are staggering.
The Economist forecasts that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population will have dropped by more than a third in 2050 compared to 1990. Figures for Albania and Serbia are similar.
And 71 percent of young people in the Western Balkan countries consider moving abroad, as a recent survey by the Regional Cooperation Council shows.
Better salaries abroad are certainly a strong pull factor. But emigration from the Western Balkans is not just about economic opportunities, according to a recent study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Many young people also point to deficits in the education, health or social systems, to a lack of merit-based recruitment or corruption.
Minorities face additional difficulties. Many young Roma, for example, suffer from discrimination. When I talked to a young woman in Skopje on one of my trips, she told me: “people in this region are fighting about the past, instead of looking to the future. And those who believe in the future are leaving.”
Ladies and gentlemen,
this is what we need to change. And there are three steps that I would like to propose to you today:
First, we must invest in the future. Due to the pandemic, more and more companies are planning to “near shore” their production. The Western Balkans are in an ideal position for that.
Three weeks ago, the European Commission presented the new Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. It focuses on the green and digital economy and supports connectivity. The nine billion euros it offers could boost economic transformation in the region.
But the basis for successful investment is reforms. Reforms that only your governments can undertake, by cutting corruption and red tape. The European Commission’s recent country reports show very clearly where more action is needed. The rule of law and good governance remain top priorities. Not because the European Union requires them, but because they are in the interest of your people and your businesses. In all of this, we stand by your side. At this year’s Summit of the Berlin Process, hosted by North Macedonia and Bulgaria, we hope that the Western Balkans will launch the next phase of the Regional Economic Area. It will speed up economic growth by bringing the European Union’s four freedoms to the region. The backbone of regional cooperation, however, is good-neighbourly relations.
This leads me to my second point. Let us finally put the ghosts of the past to rest! Because they are blocking your countries’ way into the future. This is particularly true for Kosovo and Serbia. A settlement is long overdue. I am therefore very grateful that Miroslav Lajcak resumed the EU-facilitated dialogue in July. And I fully share his view that there is no alternative to a comprehensive, sustainable and binding agreement.
Such a step requires strong political leadership. And I count on the leaders in Belgrade and Pristina to demonstrate it – by engaging constructively with each other, and thus paving the way into a new era.
The sooner you start, the better it will be for the stability of the entire region. And the quicker you will unlock Kosovo’s and Serbia’s EU perspectives.
The same is true for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement. But to this day, the country remains politically divided along ethnic lines.
In a country that wants to join the EU, there is simply no place for nationalistic agitation, for the denial of war crimes or the glorification of war criminals.
The recent adoption of the Revised National War Crimes Strategy was therefore a very important step. And it is encouraging that people in Mostar will be able to participate in local elections for the first time in 12 years.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the way forward. The way we want to walk with you.
So, my third and final point is: It is in our joint strategic interest that your countries join the European Union. This is where they belong. This is where most of your young people see their future.
And if the EU does not come to them, they will come to the EU.
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2001, before joining the Union, 75 percent of young Romanians wanted to leave their country. Today, two thirds of them want to stay. And we hope to see the same development in the Western Balkans.
To reach this objective, we took important steps this year to speed up European integration:
At the Zagreb Summit in May, the EU and the Western Balkans re-committed to the enlargement and the necessary reforms.
We opened the door for accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. We plan to hold the First Accession Conference with North Macedonia before the end of the German Presidency. And – if conditions allow – also with Albania.
Ladies and gentlemen, at the outset, I mentioned the young woman I met in Skopje. The woman who told me that all the young people who believe in a future are leaving for the EU.
What if we showed her that this future is a joint one?
That our destinies are linked, not just by geography, but by choice.
That we truly share the same values.
And that we support open societies, in which all people can thrive - regardless of their gender or their sexual orientation, their ethnic, national or religious backgrounds.
I think that we might convince her to build a future in her country. In North Macedonia. In the Western Balkans. In the heart of Europe.
Thank you very much for your attention! And thank you once again for joining us today!