„EU Integration of the Western Balkans from an Austrian Perspective“
Albanian Council on Foreign Relations Tirana, 10 November 2011
Keynote Speech by Dr. Wolfgang Waldner State Secretary for European and International Affairs of the Republic of Austria
Albanian Council on Foreign Relations Tirana, 10 November 2011
Mr. Deputy Prime Minister Haxhinasto,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honor for me to speak to you today at this high level Conference of mostly regional stakeholders. I would like to thank the organisers for putting together this conference which is a perfect example of a regional initiative we so much encourage.
The focus of this conference on regional and local ownership, regional initiatives, regional responsibility, and grass-root projects is very pertinent. These are all vehicles for democratization and hence also for the EU approximation of South East Europe. I hope to contribute to your discussions in a meaningful way in giving you an Austrian perspective on the European integration of the Western Balkans.
My remarks will be focused on three points:
· First, I will briefly outline Austria’s engagement in the region and I will give my assessment of where the integration process currently stands.
· Secondly, I intend to highlight some of the most difficult challenges the region is facing on its way towards European integration.
· And thirdly, I will elaborate on possible steps for the way ahead.
Austria’s close involvement in this region is well known and very obvious given our close historical, cultural, political, economic, human as much as emotional ties. Tomorrow I will complete a week-long tour throughout the region from Skopje via Prishtina to end here in Tirana. Once again, I have been reassured of our policy approach in many aspects. However, there are also fresh impressions and new ideas which I am looking forward to sharing with you.
At the outset, I would like to recall one permanent overarching constant in Austria’s and the EU’s relationship with the Western Balkans: It is our firm belief and clear commitment that the European project will only be completed once all the countries in the region between Subotica and Sarandë have become full members of the European Union. This perspective has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the EU since 2000, most recently in the European Commission’s enlargement strategy and the complementary Progress Reports and Opinions.
From the outset Austria’s foreign policy has been in full support of the countries of South East Europe on their path towards Europe. This means, first of all, trustful bilateral relations based on mutual understanding as well as political support in Brussels. Direct investment is a second pillar of our engagement. I am proud to say that Austrian companies with a total volume of around 12 billion Euros are among the biggest foreign investors in the Western Balkans. Furthermore, our longstanding commitment to security and stability in the region is underscored by our substantial contributions to peacekeeping missions on the ground, including EUFOR and KFOR. Last, but not least, South East Europe has been a priority region of our development cooperation assistance for some 20 years.
When visiting a gender equality project in Kukës this morning, I saw the tremendous impact a single project can have on the local situation and population. One of Austria’s key policy objectives in the region is to contribute to the overall European strategy based on the Stabilization and Association Process and its massive pre-accession financial instruments. Our development cooperation activities in the fields of vocational training and higher education, economic development and employment as well as institution building and gender equality thus perfectly complement the sectorial and step-by-step European integration process.
The EU's Twinning instrument is a particularly useful and practical tool to support reform processes and assist countries in their approximation to EU norms and standards. Austria is a very active partner in this programme especially in the fields of justice reform, customs and tax administration, agriculture and environmental protection. We will continue our involvement in pre-accession support to the countries in the region with a specific focus on institutional and administrative capacities.
After the collapse of the communist regimes and the violent conflicts following Yugoslavia’s disintegration some twenty years ago, South East Europe experienced a tremendous political and economic transformation. The successful conclusion of the accession talks with Croatia shows that a credible EU perspective continues to be the best incentive for reforms in the region. The example of Croatia also makes clear that hard work and a strong will to implement reforms are the basis and the guarantee for a successful accession process.
Thanks to continuous reform efforts, Serbia is close to receiving candidate status, a goal Austria is convinced Serbia has deserved. We also support the early opening of accession negotiations. But to this end we expect that concrete steps towards a normalization of the relations with Kosovo, including a more constructive approach for Northern Kosovo, are taken. It is therefore in Serbia’s own interest to resume the dialogue with Prishtina and to achieve concrete solutions for any issues that are still unresolved and to fully implement agreements already reached. In Montenegro, significant progress has been made and we support the opening of negotiations as proposed by the European Commission. – I would like to emphasize that these developments also illustrate the effectiveness of the EU’s conditionality approach where each aspirant will be judged by its own merits.
Yet, not only the region, but the world around us is changing rapidly. The EU is currently deeply affected by the consequences of the global financial and economic crisis. I am confident that our solidarity and the crisis response mechanisms will help us stabilize the Euro and overcome this period of economic turmoil.
At the same time we must not waver in our commitment to unifying our entire continent. We should neither accept an enlargement fatigue among EU member states and citizens nor a reform fatigue in the countries of the Western Balkans. The ongoing reforms are the best insurance for the people in the region on their way towards Europe and a guarantee for stability, growth and prosperity. A process the EU as a whole will profit from as we Austrians have experienced with the last rounds of enlargement.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me now turn to some of the major challenges for the further integration process of South East Europe:
As the latest EU Progress Reports have shown, the Western Balkan countries are working hard towards fulfilling EU conditionality. Despite significant progress key challenges remain: particularly regarding the freedom of media and speech, regarding regional cooperation and reconciliation as well as sustainable economic development. Strengthening the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organized crime as well as the reform of the public administration are essential for the well-functioning of the state as much as for attracting foreign investment.
I am fully aware that reforms can be cumbersome and even painful: Laws need to be amended and adopted, structures need to be changed, established practices have to be reversed, and familiar perceptions ought to be modified. At short sight, this process may create unease amongst those who fear about their jobs and those who worry about winning elections. As difficult these reforms might seem, they should not be undertaken to please the EU, but first and foremost for the benefit of your own citizens.
No doubt, after the last round of enlargement, the rules have become stricter. For the next generation of accession talks the EU therefore rightly proposes to start addressing the most difficult chapters such as judiciary first.
Visa liberalization was a clear example that conditionality can work as it had a tremendous positive effect on reform efforts. Visa free travel clearly has an impact on the population: It connects people, families, businesses and universities, in short: it makes Europe a reality. We thus believe that Kosovo should also take part in the visa liberalization process.
Public support and functioning democratic institutions are key factors for a successful integration process. In Albania, we see how crucial the role of Parliament is on the way towards EU membership. Antagonism and the lack of dialogue between different political fractions in Parliament have significantly hindered European ambitions. The example of Croatia has shown how much a national consensus on EU accession can lead to success.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Kosovo is a major challenge for the EU’s foreign policy. Her independence is a fact, and so are her borders. If Kosovo and Serbia will be able to overcome their differences and create a peaceful, stable, secure and prosperous space for all people in Kosovo, regardless of religious belief and ethnicity, both countries will be much closer to the EU. We are convinced that the EU facilitated dialogue is the most feasible forum for solutions between Belgrade and Prishtina.
We believe that if the sight of the grand European project is being kept, local ethno-territorial disputes can be overcome, to the benefit of all peoples in the region.
More than one year after the elections, there is still no state-level government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This stalemate is of utmost concern to Austria. Single interests still prevail and have prevented the country from proceeding towards Europe. Therefore, we welcome the reinforced mandate of the EU Representative that will enable him to better assist Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nevertheless we are convinced that the High Representative needs to remain in place as the guardian of the Dayton accord and as guarantor of reforms. Equally Austria remains committed to EUFOR and the executive mandate of the mission.
Let me briefly touch upon the aspect of bilateral disputes and its adverse effects on EU integration, exemplified by Macedonia and Greece. We are of the opinion that the name dispute should be solved bilaterally and should not be made an obstacle to the following steps, i.e. the start of accession negotiations. Vested interests of identity, history and culture on both sides are understandable, but should not be connected to the EU negotiation process.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Finally, I would like to say a few words on possible steps which could facilitate the future integration process of the Western Balkans.
First we need to make Europe more tangible. Visa free travel needs to be extended to Kosovo. In addition, we have to be more outreach-oriented, we need to reach all sectors of society even in the remotest areas, irrespective of social status, age, income, or level of education. In this context, local stakeholders should be connected more closely and civil society entrusted with a bigger share of responsibility, especially when talking about democratization. Cultural programs and activities that target prejudices, fears, and misunderstandings can play an important role in this regard. In brief: we need to substantially increase the people-to-people contacts and exchanges.
Second, we need to create synergies and better coordinate the various regional initiatives such as the Regional Cooperation Council, the South East European Cooperation Process, the Central European Initiative, the Adriatic Ionian Initiative, or the EU Strategy for the Danube region. This will allow us to maximize their impact for regional development and European integration.
Third, we need to further intensify our business and economic interactions. Foreign investments create jobs, trust, bonds, prosperity and quality of life. This is the basic approach European integration has been built upon since its very beginning.
Forth, we need to leave behind the ethno-nationalism of the 1990s for good and work for pluralistic societies. Austria has been cooperating fruitfully on dialogue initiatives with partners in the Western Balkans and we will continue these efforts.
In conclusion, let me underline once again that Austria’s mission is to assist the Western Balkan countries in their transition towards full EU membership. Austria and the EU may provide tools, offer guidance and support, but in the end the process has to be owned and implemented by your countries and must come from within. First and foremost, you are responsible for your own destiny. Let me reassure you, however, that Austria will remain a true friend and adamant supporter of all states of the Western Balkans and that we will continue to work on a common future with you in the European Union.