Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for enlargement
Western Balkans: Enhancing the European perspective
03. April 2008. | 00:08
Mr Rehn hopes that the leaders and people of the region will determine whether their countries, through reforms, will realise their European future, marked by stronger freedoms and increased prosperity.
I am very pleased to be here and discuss with you today. At some point it looked that I should have been taking historic steps on Ledra Street in Nicosia at this very moment, but the area was not yet cleared from land mines, so the opening was postponed and will take place tomorrow now.
I've been asked to present the Commission's Communication called The Western Balkans: Enhancing the European Perspective. I'll do it, but let me first look back a little and put our work in context.
Two years ago the Commission adopted the same kind of document for the informal ministerial in Salzburg. The climate at the time was marked by uncertainty about the EU's commitment to the Balkans. France and the Netherlands had voted "no" in the referenda in 2005, and "absorption capacity" was top of the agenda.
That debate was successfully settled towards the end of the year, during the Finnish Presidency, when EU Member States agreed to a renewed consensus on enlargement. This "new deal" meant that the EU consolidated its enlargement agenda to cover South-eastern Europe and thus reconfirmed its commitment towards the countries that had been promised membership in the future.
Meanwhile, rigorous conditions were to be applied and the quality of the accession process improved by impact assessments and the use of benchmarks. It was also underlined that integration capacity is to be taken into consideration.
The renewed consensus gave us political peace and we could get on with our work. Since then, we have seen steady progress:
CEFTA is advancing free trade and regional trade integration,
the Energy Community is providing a framework for cooperation on energy,
visa facilitation and readmission agreements have entered into force on 1 January 2008, and we should soon have Stabilisation and Association Agreements with all countries of the region.
Moreover, the region has taken ownership of regional integration by setting up the new Regional Cooperation Council.
The WB countries have come closer the EU over the past two years, both politically and economically. I am convinced that each of the countries can accelerate its integration with the EU this year.
2008 can be a decisive year for Croatia's accession negotiations, if the country makes substantial progress in meeting the benchmarks, especially as to judicial and administrative reforms, fighting corruption and restructuring the shipbuilding sector.
I commend Prime Minister Sanader for political leadership and I am pleased that the Commission could also be helpful in settling the ZERP issue. Thus, an obstacle was removed, and a crucial and strong push given for Croatia's accession negotiations.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia could demonstrate its readiness to undertake accession negotiations by making determined efforts to meet key priorities, such as the reform of the judiciary and implementation of the police law. We shall assess this in our Progress Report in the coming autumn.
I visited also Skopje last month and stressed that the country is in a good position to make this year an historic year, if it addresses key reform priorities with determination. Currently the name issue is consuming much of the political energy. I encouraged the leaders to use this opportunity to settle the issue. But as you all know it is still unclear exactly what will be decided in Bucharest tomorrow.
Both Albania and Montenegro need to build a convincing track record of implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) and likewise pursue reforms with determination.
Bosnia and Herzegovina should be able to sign the SAA within the next few weeks and thus pass a necessary gateway towards eventual candidacy. The critical laws on police reform will be voted in BiH parliament tomorrow. I trust they will be passed, thus paving the way for the SAA signature.
Serbia is central for regional stability and good neighbourly relations in the Balkans. The EU is committed to its European future. Serbia has a crucial choice to make: it can either turn to the European future or risk self-imposed isolation. The first option will take Serbia forward, towards stability, stronger freedoms and increasing prosperity – along with the other countries of the region. The other option is a road to nowhere.
The EU is committed to the coordinated conclusion of Kosovo's status and its political and economic development. We need to help Kosovo to help itself. Kosovo on its part needs to ensure its commitment to a democratic and multi-ethnic society.
The first and foremost engine towards the EU is the reforms in the countries concerned. But the EU is ready to help. We are mobilising all our policy instruments to support the region's progress by:
roadmaps for each country towards visa free travel;
doubling the number of scholarships for the students of WB;
opening up EU programmes for the WB countries in science and research, education, culture and youth.
giving more financial support for developing the civil society;
proposing measures for disaster prevention; and
negotiating a Transport Community for South-eastern Europe.
The EU's pre-accession assistance to the region amounts to €800 million yearly. This is by far the highest per capita amount provided by us to any region in the world (= €30/ person annually). On top of that we spend yearly ca. € 150 million for the security in the region, in BiH and in Kosovo, which makes the total input close to 1 billion € a year.
This is indeed a comprehensive programme for economic and societal development in the Western Balkans. We support the people of the region to opt for European values and living standards
Chairman, Honorable Members,
Our Communication has been well received by Member States. I understand that foreign minister Rupel already reported to you from the informal ministerial in Brdo last weekend.
Let me end by adding that progress depends on human action. I hear very often in the region the expression "This is the Balkans" – which usually implies that something is predestined to go bust or wrong.
I've been enough in the Balkans to know the patchwork of ethnic, cultural, religious and political cleavages there. But I refuse to surrender to it. In my view, if I were not a staunch supporter of free speech, the expression "This is the Balkans" should be forbidden.
I don't believe in historical determinism, but leadership and human action. If there's the will, there is progress.
That is the leaders and people of the region will determine whether their countries, through reforms, will realise their European future, marked by stronger freedoms and increased prosperity.