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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Beating the Balkan Blues
Friends of Europe Summit, Bibliothèque Solvay
Brussels, 9 December 2010
Mr Chairman, Mr President, Prime Ministers, distinguished guests.
It is a real pleasure to give the opening address at an event that has forged a reputation for the quality of its participants and the range of the discussion.
This event also bears a catchy but provocative title: "Beating the Balkan Blues" This could lead us down many different routes, all fascinating, all important.
When I first saw the title, I had two questions: To which Balkans do we refer? And whose blues need to be beaten?
Defining the Balkans as a geographic, never mind historical, cultural or political entity has long proved elusive and controversial.
Moreover, in seeking to describe the region, we often focus on points from our own perception.
As Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, I have a clear view as to what the Balkans mean to me and I have a clear, realistic but positive view of the region and its future.
However, this view is not universally shared. What impact could this have upon the region? In particular, what impact does this have on those countries striving to achieve membership of the European Union?
When the Balkans is viewed from the outside, the perspective is often outdated and as a result, not particularly favourable. The abiding image in the minds of many EU citizens is of a region torn apart by conflict and by the most terrible crimes.
Fortunately, this view is outdated. We have had a decade of peace and increasing stability; a decade in which many in the region strive for democracy, justice, respect for human rights and a future in the European mainstream.
But the legacy of the conflict - from organised crime to refugees and displaced persons; from war crimes to shattered economies and infrastructure - does remain and does need to be dealt with.
We must not only address false perceptions, but also very real challenges.
The key lies in the developments of the recent past: the last decade has shown that the key to banishing the region's "blues" lies within the region itself.
This is the subject which I would like to address in more detail.
First, I suggest exploring the challenges which the region faces as a whole. Secondly, I will give some examples as to how we, the European Union, can help to support all efforts to improve the perception of the Balkans as a region.
Change must come from within the region.
I will not discuss today developments in individual countries but rather regional developments. Accordingly, individuals and countries are viewed through the lens of the Balkans as whole.
I would like to emphasize that the most important role of the countries, governments and citizens is to undertake real change.
I have travelled extensively in the region and I see a great many positives.
Individually the countries of the region can benefit from these positives. However, through closer co-operation, the benefits will increase manifold. This applies in particular to co-operation that lays the foundations for economic development, transport and energy, as well as direct economic co-operation - for example in CEFTA.
Addressing the negatives.
Organised crime, corruption, trafficking in people, drugs and weapons are the all too real manifestations of the conflicts of the 1990s which give further support to the perception of the Balkans as a region of conflict, instability and insecurity. Some suggest that these are images of a region to be distanced from the EU rather than brought within it.
Fortunately, efforts have been made over the past decade to address these issues. Indeed, I have witnessed an acceleration in these efforts over the last year.
Regional co-operation is paramount. For this to be effective, co-operation between Serbia and Kosovo is vital.
Let us be clear: the current situation blocks useful co-operation across the region. It benefits no-one and impoverishes the daily lives of people.
This can be seen clearly in the economic field. The functioning of CEFTA, the extension of the Pan-Euro-Med system of diagonal cumulation and the signing of the Transport Community agreement have all been affected. Each of these initiatives would help improve the economic prospects of the region.
Practical and pragmatic solutions are needed to ensure the inclusiveness of regional cooperation, without prejudice to differing positions over the status of Kosovo.
Deeper co-operation is needed in dealing with organised, trans-national crime. I am encouraged by the increased co-operation between prosecutors and police services. This has produced concrete results. I welcome the efforts made to allow extradition of nationals within the region.
However, EU citizens will not understand why an alleged gangster can be returned to face justice but not an alleged war criminal. This next step would, I am convinced, be a positive move in dealing with the legacy of the region's past.
Lasting reconciliation requires efforts at all levels – governments, judiciary and civil society. It is also linked to addressing poverty and social exclusion.
Recently, there has been a number of positive signals from both leading politicians and civil society. All these steps need to be built on if we are to see a region which is driven more by the light of a brighter future than the shadows of a dark past.
Dealing with bilateral issues is also essential. Open issues, including border disputes, need to be solved by the parties concerned, in a good neighbourly spirit and taking into account overall EU interests.
Bilateral issues should not hold up the accession process. The EU stands ready to facilitate the creation of the necessary political impetus in the search for solutions as soon as possible and to support related initiatives.
If and when the region generates good news, we will do all we can to promote any progress.
We are already active in promoting the enlargement process in many different ways. I believe that we have tools available to help beat the Balkan blues.
Our communication activities do much more that explaining the theory behind our enlargement policy. We are actively promoting a broader understanding of the region, its peoples and cultures. This is essential if we are to balance the perception created through a decade of reporting based on conflict and strife.
This year we organised cultural road shows in Austria, Belgium Germany, and the Netherlands. In addition to the thousands who attended these events, they also generated media coverage across the European Union. On our website dedicated to the cultural dimension of the region, over 100 000 pages of information are visited every month.
The European Union also promotes greater contacts between citizens through civil society dialogue and the People to People programme. By promoting contacts between civil society organisations in the region and in the EU we can facilitate an exchange of views and foster mutual understanding.
Mr Chairman, distinguished guests,
To conclude: We know a problem when we see it: even when that problem is one of a misconception magnifying a current challenge.
We have seen what measures can usefully be taken to promote regional co-operation and to deal with the legacy of the past. Moreover, I have highlighted some of the instruments we have available to help in changing the reality and dismissing the perception.
Mr Chairman, American singer-songwriter Eddie Cochran once had an infamous case of the 'Summertime Blues'. He tried everything to solve them including calling the United Nations and his local congressman. But his song complained that there "wasn't no cure" .
Poor Eddie. Unlike him, I believe that - combining the positive energy of the authorities, the citizens of the region and the support of the European Union - together we can "Beat the Balkan blues".