Dear Prime Minister Kovachevski,

President Vucic,

Prime Minister Rama,

Prime Minister Abazovic,

President Tegeltija,

Thank you very much for having us today here, and I take this invitation as an invitation for the EU to be part of this process. And I would start with this because I think the Open Balkan Initiative is not only a very good one, that we should all support, but it is a possible lever for the region to change the realities on the ground, and to meet finally the challenges the region is having for many many years, not to say decades. But of course, it can also be a lever to accelerate the way into the European Union.

The way I see it, if we do it right, it will accelerate the economic integration of the region and it should accelerate the real integration of the region into the European Union. And I say this because when we talk about EU accession, mirages or other symbols are coming up, but mostly, in the public domain, we talk about processes; we talk about IGCs, we talk about negotiating frameworks, we talk about non-papers and so on. But this is not interesting at all for our people; for our people in Europe or for the people of the Western Balkans. Because I think that their main question is: When are we going to live like they live in Europe? When are we going to have the same chances and possibilities economically, socially like the people in the European Union, and when are we going to see all the barriers removed between the EU and the Western Balkans?

This is the real integration, and the real integration starts with the economy and starts with the society. This is why I was very happy when I heard for the first time, at that time it was called Mini-Schengen, the idea emerging from the region. And this is again a remarkable achievement of the region because the region has come up with this idea. It was not us, it was not the U.S., it was not anybody else – but it was the region that came forward with this idea, and to be honest, we started to make use of this idea, because when we have put on the table for the very first time a significant and sizeable Economic and Investment Plan - that was developed together with this region to address the main bottlenecks in front of the region, and we are talking about the region as such, we are not talking about countries individually in it -  we have been addressing those challenges and then, I think we have all realized that without regional cooperation, the Economic and Investment Plan will achieve very little.

Because there is no point connecting the capitals of the Western Balkans with highways, railways if the trucks would have to stop at every border, basically every one and a half hour. There is no point talking about EU accession and EU integration of the region if within the region, you still have to have your diploma certified if you want to work in another country, which means you want to work an hour from where you live, if you cannot create your own business or your business cannot trade properly or your business cannot sell its services in the region.

Because according to our estimates, the region could generate 1/3 of its GDP only by doing the economic integration on the ground. The region has this potential and only the region can deliver it to itself. We can help it; we can help it with the Economic and Investment Plan and we can help it with the Common Regional Market which was our way of the Open Balkans. But until we get there, I think the Open Balkan should go ahead, and I am very happy to see that today already we will see deals on the ground starting to kick-in and easing the lives of the people, easing the lives of businesses – this is what we need to see, especially in the crisis that we are in because of the war of Russia in Ukraine. We need our neighbours now more than ever to work together and to help each other to address this crisis because we can create growth, we can create resilience by cooperation.

So I think, as long as this Open Balkan Initiative is based on accelerating the adaptation to EU rules and norms - so it is based on the four freedoms that you are doing anyway because of your aspirations to become an EU Member States - you can already to start to reap the benefits regionally and of course, we will be there with the Economic and Investment Plan to help you bring these benefits even at a higher level. For this reason, I would also encourage you to make full use of the existing structures that we are also supporting, be it the CEFTA, be it the Regional Cooperation Council, because knowledge is there, infrastructure is there, and I see that also willingness is there to help the region to move to the next level.

So for me, this is a very positive initiative, for me, this is a future that can be created already today. So let us make full use of it.

Thank you!