Berlin, 7 September 2020

Ministers, distinguished guests,

Thank you for inviting me to this event and for putting the focus of today’s conference on the European perspective of the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans are at the heart of Europe, and we are working on bringing the region much closer, much faster to the European Union. This Commission has a full engagement in that regard; this Commission made this a priority number one.

This Commission works relentlessly on this priority and this policy area is one of those where our work is still on track, set last December. This shows commitment, it shows responsibility and this shows determination.

We need the Western Balkans, because without the Western Balkans we will not have European security and might not have prosperity that we can achieve with them.

Our responsibility and challenge is to integrate them into the European Union, and this is what we are working on.Because the future of each and every single of our Western Balkans partners is in the EU – short-, mid-, long-term, but this is where they are all headed. I am pleased to see their full commitment in that regard.

But we also had to regain the trust and confidence not only of the Western Balkans, but also of our Member States - this must be a project they too have to consider a continuous priority. To be able to do that we had to start to work on three pillars, with two already bearing fruit:

 

  • The first pillar was to come up with a revised enlargement methodology. It came in February and was not only endorsed by the Member States in March, but also put in motion.
  • The second was ‘a long mission unaccomplished, but now done’: to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. This Commission put the necessary proposals on the table and we have managed to get the support by the Member States in March.
  • And the third pillar, coming out in the coming weeks, is a large-scale Economic and Investment Plan for the region. There is an enormous gap in terms of economic development between the Western Balkans and the EU. The faster we close that gap, the faster we start creating resilient, strong market economies for the people and for the countries, the faster they will be able to integrate and the fast long-term peace and stability can be created in the region.

 

When it comes to the first pillar, the revised enlargement methodology has been based on four key principles.

The first principle was to restorecredibility, both in the Western Balkans and in our Member States. Without credibility, it was not possible to go ahead and have the accession negotiations open or move ahead substantially in negotiations. It means that the countries who want to become Member States will have to deliver the reforms, as they promised, in a credible way, so that the Member States can take comfort in this work, comfort that reforms are not only words on paper, but implemented and enforced in real life. This is the way to raise credibility in our Member States. We also had to reinforce our own credibility: if our partners deliver, we also need to deliver. I hope we turned the page and are now delivering, including during the COVID crisis and in the coming weeks.

The second principle was about the political steer. Many had argued in the Member States and also in the Western Balkans that the enlargement process has become too technical, talking about chapters, administrative capacity, directives etc., but political steer got lost. But we need to know what is the political aim of the process and its political outcome, overall and of each subject discussed, with leaders and politicians in charge of running the process, so this is not just a formality. This requires full engagement of the leaders and in March they endorsed our decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, and in May we held, despite the COVID crisis, the EU-Western Balkans video summit meeting, confirming a strong political choice made, with leaders standing by it.

The third was predictability, meaning once accomplishment is there, we deliver on our side. We made it clear to our partners that once the conditions are met, we will also deliver; if the conditions are not met, we do not deliver. It also means that we need to clarify what is expected, make the criteria touchable and seeable, measurable more than before. This is what we are working on with Albania and North Macedonia.

The fourth is dynamism, breaking away from chapter by chapter approach, focusing on issues that belong together and negotiate these issues together. Those who deliver faster and are able to deliver all the legislative reforms at the opening of a cluster, so if there is delivery on legislative reforms even before the opening of the cluster, we take a commitment to close the negotiations of the chapters within a year. This is a major change to the current practice where chapters stay open five to seven years without much progress. It also means that we can now concentrate more on the implementation and implementation capacity, proper enforcement, which is an issue for our Member States and the Western Balkans, as it is through this that they can see what membership actually means and requires.

In parallel to this, as the second pillar, the decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania was finally taken. This could not have been done without the revised enlargement methodology – that was the proposal that broke the ground and helped us get the acceptance for the opening of accession talks.

Following on, we have already proposed the negotiating frameworks for both countries, and now the Council is alreadydiscussing them and when and how to have the first intergovernmental conferences with the two countries. My pledge – being herein Berlin, I’m meeting various representatives of the German government later on today – is to make a bold step and the German Presidency of the EU Council should be able to have the first IGCs with these countries. It is possible, we see the conditions are there, we just need to speed up all the work and we can get there. So let’s try and get the first IGCs in December under the German Presidency.

Finally on the third pillar, the new element to land soon. The transformative reforms that the Western Balkan countries have to carry out need to be  supported by solid and accelerated economic growth and developing functioning market economies, which will help to speed up reforms and their delivery.

We need a new economic-based policy approach, otherwise our objective to intensify our presence in the Western Balkans cannot be achieved. We need to increase our investment and to help to close the economic development gap.

We have scarce resources under the next long-term EU budget – this is the bit of the Commission’s proposal that suffered the most cuts during the negotiations - but we will deliver. To do that, we have to be skilful, determined and focused in our actions.

Therefore, this new Economic and Investment Plan should concentrate on flagship areas and projects that will directly create long – term growth and much needed jobs; this is also a way to create an attractive investment climate. These areas are: connectivity in transport and energy, the Green deal, and Digital transformation, including basic digital network infrastructure missing in the region. Without these, it is impossible to develop a competitive economy.

This plan should also reinforce the regional dimension of our co-operation through the mentioned flagship areas and projects, where priority will be given to large-scale actions of regional impact and participation. It’s only through this that we can make a real impact.

The plan will also reflect elements of “open strategic autonomy”. This priority of the German presidency, which puts a strong emphasis on “technological autonomy”, is a very important aspect in a context of reconfiguration of global value chains, ‘nearshoring’, following the COVID-19 pandemic. The Western Balkans has an enormous potential to become an investment hub for European companies trying to cut their value chains and we have to help the region to develop into that.

Another important factor is the positive impact this plan can have by increasing the complementarity with other multi- or bilateral investment plans, like the Berlin Process. We need to work together – together we can deliver much more.

We have to look together at what concrete measures we can take to bring forward investments in the Western Balkans to enhance access to the EU single market, create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, improve the business and investment climate and stop the brain drain from the region.

We believe the capacity of the region to present itself as a coherent regional market, based on EU rules and standards, allowing investment to circulate within the region, and well integrated with the EU single market, is key to seize these opportunities. To take advantage of thosenearshoring opportunities, the region needs to make considerable efforts.

Currently it is suffering from economic fragmentation. As an example, trucks spend 28 million hours waiting at borders every year – a burden that costs the region 1% of its GDP, and undermines the benefits of new EU-funded road infrastructure. Building a common market of 18 million people, functioning on the basis of the EU rules, could be a game changer for the Western Balkans and would benefit both the region and the EU.

German companies could greatly benefit from this approach – Germany is already by far the first trading partner and investor of the region, and it has well established industrial value chains with the region - so a better connected, more integrated Western Balkans, with no more technical barriers to trade will certainly open new business opportunities.

Even if all this succeeds, we still at least one issue we need to address: it will not work unless there is progress on regional cooperation and improvement in good neighbourly relations. The region has come a long way towards overcoming the legacy of the Balkan wars but more needs to be done. The priority here is Serbia and Kosovo.

Without effective and comprehensivenormalisation of Belgrade-Pristina relations, there cannot be lasting stability in the region. A comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement is urgent and crucial so that Serbia and Kosovo can advance on their respective European paths.

I therefore welcome the resumption of the Dialogue under the facilitation of EUand I welcome the work of our Special Representative Lajčák. And I welcome that today we have a second high-level meeting between President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti taking place in Brussels. I also welcome the result achieved in Washington last week, because I find there many of the elements we are also thinking about. I am very glad to have met Mr Palmer [US Western Balkans envoy/DAS] just before this intervention, because I believe more than ever that we can only help the region if we work together and if deliver together, and I am willing to do that.

I could also speak a bit about the work we have done with the region during thecoronavirus pandemic, but I don’t see the need to repeat it, as self-applause never sounds good. There is only one lesson I would highlight: if we act fast, we can be much more effective on the ground. During the pandemic and help we have been able to deliver to the people and the partners, we created our credibility. And I am more than happy to base our work on that.

I will give you one example: green lanes. We have been able to overcome a long-standing issue. Borders have become crossable, trucks were able to cross the borders fast. And this was due to the pandemic – everyone understood that if you shut the borders, you shut down your economy. There was a clear understanding and on that basis we have been able to work. And this created trust and this is how we are going to be approaching the next leg of our journey.

Thank you very much for your attention!