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Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I am particularly pleased to greet you at this first annual Balkan Economic Forum. Thank you very much for the invitation to join you today. I am sorry I cannot be with you in person. I hope to join you on another occasion.

As European Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, I am pleased to introduce some of the most important achievements in this portfolio since the beginning of my mandate. Bearing in mind that this is the first time that a portfolio on democracy and demography exists at the European Union level.

In our approach to democracy and demography, we are not lacking in challenges, nor in the ambition to tackle them. Democracy and demography do not exist in a vacuum. They are cross-cutting and complementary. My task is to strengthen the links between people and the democratic institutions that serve them. To narrow the gap between expectation and reality. We must find different ways to get to know our citizens better. To establish trust. To foster solidarity. If we gather information. Observe the trends. And analyse the impacts of demographic change carefully, we can make a real difference in the kind of policy that we present and the manner in which we implement it. Notably by giving appropriate weight to these factors at all levels – local, regional, national and European.

A key part of my work has been the Conference on the Future of Europe. Deliberations on the future of the European Union took place across borders, generations, and languages. Across cultures and histories. With citizens at the very heart of the Conference process. And I was pleased that we could also listen to the voice of the Western Balkans in this process. We face the same generation-defining challenges. Be it on climate, economy or on social policy.

The Conference has delivered concrete proposals. The Commission is responding directly to citizens’ calls. Our Communication of June this year is one of several responses to citizens proposals. Inspired by the Conference, European Citizens' Panels are becoming a permanent part of the way we make policy. To make recommendations before we present key proposals. The first panel will address the issue of food waste. We are currently recruiting citizens through random selection, inspired by the methodology that we used in the Conference. Next year’s Commission Work Programme is driven by the outcome of the Conference. 35 out of 43 initiatives are linked to the Conference’s final report. We are also organising, together with the European Parliament and the Council, a feedback event on the 2nd of December.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My work covers the whole life-cycle. The 2020 Report on the Impact of Demographic Change laid the foundations of our work on the Green Paper on Ageing, for the ongoing Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas and our upcoming Communication on Harnessing talent in Europe’s regions. Since the launch of the Report, we have faced many new challenges. It is time for an update which we plan to publish in early next year.

 

We must address the megatrend of ageing that is impacting our entire continent. An ageing population and a decreasing working age population, has significant consequences for our society and economy. To build on the debate launched under the Green Paper on Ageing, we adopted in September a European Care Strategy. It sets an agenda for care services that have people at their heart, both those needing care and those providing care. The aim is to meet current and future needs for care, while also improving their quality, affordability, and accessibility.

At the other end of the life-cycle we work to ensure an effective protection of children’s rights across the EU. In March 2021, we adopted the first-ever comprehensive strategy on the rights of the child, to strengthen the protection and the promotion of children’s rights at EU level. At the same time, the European Commission launched the “European Child Guarantee”, to promote equal opportunities by guaranteeing access to a set of key services for children in need. Over half of the Member States have now submitted national plans to do this.

 

Last month, on the 4th of October, the EU launched its first ever youth action plan in EU external action. With this initiative we want to ensure that children and young people living in our partner countries are also involved in shaping the EU’s international partnerships.

I am also particularly pleased to say that I am a Member of a College with the highest number of women ever. Through this example, the European Commission points to the paramount importance of women’s participation in politics, in public debates and in decision-making.

Since the beginning of the mandate, this European Commission has been working intensively on equality. We have adopted the EU Gender Equality Strategy in March 2020. I always seek to give prominence to this in all my work. For instance, half of the composition of the Conference Panels were women. And the Care Strategy was very much centred on the fact that women bear a disproportionate burden in care responsibilities.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are witnessing a new momentum in EU enlargement policy.

First, the applications from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – in the context of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine – send a clear message that these states have made a deliberate choice. Secondly, the EU’s response to these applications shows that the EU assumes its responsibility and proves the central role that the EU plays in ensuring peace and stability on our continent.

 

There have been significant steps in the past months. In July this year, the first Intergovernmental Conference with North Macedonia was a historic moment. This was a clear recognition of the enduring commitment, reform achievements and resilience of the country in moving forward on their EU path.

And President von der Leyen stated in her State of the Union speech in September that the Western Balkans is part of our family.

The Western Balkans’ future is an integral part of the EU’s future.

 

Thank you, and I wish you every success today!