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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Future of Western Balkans is within the European Union
EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Conference
Thessalonikki, 8 May 2014
Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Greek Presidency for inviting me to today's conference. The timing couldn't be more appropriate. Just over ten years ago, Greece played a leading role in bringing the Western Balkans at the top of the political agenda. A new impetus into the European Union’s relations with the Western Balkans was injected culminating in the Thessaloniki Declaration of 2003 - a Declaration in which the European Union reiterated its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. There was no ambiguity. The Declaration clearly stated that the future of the Western Balkans is within the European Union, a perspective that has been consistently proclaimed by the European Council ever since.
Enlargement to the Western Balkans is about bringing peace, stability and prosperity. The historic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo clearly demonstrates the importance of enlargement for reconciliation. It also demonstrates the importance of regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations in overcoming the region's historical legacies. It is no surprise that the role enlargement plays in keeping Europe stable and peaceful was so prominent in the citation for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the European Union in 2012.
This year, we are marking the tenth anniversary of the biggest European Union enlargement which brought stability and reunited Europe after years of artificial division during the Cold War. It transformed my country. It transformed my own life. It transformed Europe as a whole. It restored hope and dignity to millions of people. It gave people the freedom and security to focus on developing their ideas without worrying about how to protect them or hide them, the freedom to unleash their full potential. And they didn't waste time in unleashing it. To give one example, in just six years from 2002 to 2008, the economic dynamism of the new Members States generated three million new jobs.
Ladies and gentlemen,
While enlargement has economically helped the old and new Member States and the European Union as a whole, at the same time, many doubts have arisen, but they were more about the level of preparedness of the new Member States than about enlargement itself. That's why I have made it the priority of my mandate to further strengthen the credibility of the enlargement process. We have put fundamentals first, keeping the process strict but fair; focusing on values and principles, including respect for fundamental rights and freedom of expression.
Our insistence on credibility in a way retells the original enlargement story:
Two years ago we concentrated on the first of the three pillars of this story - Rule of Law was one of the key areas. Our so called "new approach" means deficiencies in each country are tackled early and consistently throughout the accession process and progress in this area determines the overall speed of the accession process.
Last year, we added the second pillar, economic governance and competitiveness and growth, which needs to underpin the reform agenda in all countries to make it sustainable.
This year our focus is on the third and last pillar of the new enlargement story which is on strengthening democratic institutions and public administration, with a greater emphasis on the needs of citizens and business. We have moved from ticking boxes to establishing solid track records. That is the only way to ensure that candidate countries enter the European Union fully prepared.
Looking forward, I see three priorities for enlargement:
1. continuing the process which we started four years ago to strengthen the credibility and political side of enlargement and to bring the benefits of enlargement closer to the citizens;
2. making sure that the two policies which accompanied the European Union from the very beginning – enlargement on one side and deepening of the integration on the other - interact also in the future in a reinforcing way to the benefit of the European Union; and
3. through enlargement, becoming bigger and stronger, to be better equipped to face the consequences and use the opportunities of globalisation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As Europe shows the first signs of emerging from the crisis, this is a key moment for the Western Balkans to seek to attract more investment which is so important for the region.
That is why I very much welcome that today's discussion culminates with an afternoon session on key drivers for growth and jobs: namely transport and energy connectivity. This ties in well with the new approach to economic governance, addressed to the six countries of the Western Balkans, which I had the pleasure of launching at EBRD headquarters in London last February. Let me briefly outline what it means in practice:
First, the six governments will strengthen coordination of economic reforms.
Second, the European Union, together with International Financial Institutions, will provide enhanced policy and financial support.
Third, this will make the Western Balkans region more attractive for public and private investors and as a result it should contribute to an improved economic situation for the benefit of the citizens.
Investments will only happen if the countries improve the investment climate and create:
• the conditions for sustainable growth, necessary to create new jobs;
• the conditions to help attract foreign direct investment;
• the conditions in which businesses can be competitive and thrive; and
• the conditions that will reignite the spirit of entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
The investment needs in the region are substantial. I was therefore delighted with last November's agreement between European and International Financial Institutions to intensify their cooperation on key infrastructure investments in the six Western Balkan countries including priority transport and energy projects. This will be done through the Western Balkans Investment Framework to make sure that resources flow through a single pipeline.
I confirm the commitment I took back in November, that is to use up to €1 billion from the new Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance for infrastructure investment in the six IPA beneficiaries in the Western Balkans region for the 2014-2020 programming period. Combined with funds from the International Financial Institutions, the EU funds aim to attract private capital that could finance at least €10 billion of investment in the Western Balkans, targeting key priorities of the beneficiary countries.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In my introduction, I acknowledged the key role played by Greece in 2003 in supporting the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Let me conclude by underlining that today's conference concretely demonstrates that Greece, as a Member State, still has a major role to play in the region along with the other Member States in further promoting the European agenda of the region and making a positive and direct impact on the lives of citizens.
Thank you for your attention.