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Belgrade, 3 October 2011
Mr. Vice Prime Minister,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour for me to speak to you at the opening of the 11th Belgrade Economic Summit. When we look back at the last decade since this event was founded, the speed of change is impressive: in 2001, the Serbian people clearly expressed its desire for freedom, democracy and ownership for its future. Even though Serbia and its people had to face setbacks ever since, the record is encouraging: especially since 2008, this country has not only signed and ratified the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union, but also implemented the Interim Trade Agreement, submitted a membership application for the European Union, reached visa liberalisation for its citizens, and, last but not least, fully complied with its international and historical obligations by extraditing all indictees of the ICTY tribunal.
Today, I would like to take up the title of this economic summit “Moving ahead to the European Union” and address in this context three issues:
-The bilateral relationship between Serbia and Austria
-Serbia’s EU perspective
-And finally, I would like to give you some “atmospheric” insights into the EU, which also might have an effect on Serbia’s path towards EU integration.
Austria is extremely appreciative of all the positive steps that the government of this country has made especially during the last 3 years. Even though we do not have a common border, Austria considers itself an indirect neighbour of Serbia: Its large Serbian community makes Vienna the second largest Serbian city outside of Serbia (after Chicago) and gives proof our common history and close ties. Another evidence of our strong historical ties is the fact that Austria was the first country, which opened, exactly 175 years ago, the first consular office in Belgrade.
We are also closely tied together by strong economic links. It may not be new to you, but I would like to recall that Austria is the single biggest foreign investor in this country, with investments worth 2.4 billion Euros since 2000. These investments were made because we strongly believe in the future of this country. More than 300 Austrian companies are located in Serbia, and I would like to highlight that during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, no Austrian firm left Serbia. – This is another proof that Austria and Austrian business believe in this country and in its perspective.
We understand that the vast majority of Serbians see the future of their country in the European Union, and we know that the Serbian government is putting up big efforts to reach this perspective. Serbia has carried out important reforms in the field of democratisation and rule of law over the last few years and it has taken up the fight against organised crime. In this context, I would like to thank Deputy-Prime Minister Dacic for his clear personal commitment to international cooperation, which has linked up Austrian and Serbian police in their efforts to fight organised crime.
But I would also like to point out that further improvement of the investment climate would attract even more foreign companies, and would thus enhance prosperity in the region. The keys for such an improvement are a reliable and efficient judicial system, as well as the reduction in bureaucracy, which hampers both domestic and international investors. A decisive fight against corruption is also necessary to deepen bilateral economic relations, which will definitely create a win-win scenario for both sides.
As Serbia is an important partner to Austria, we offer practical support in your efforts to EU-approximation, in particular with the instrument of Twinning, where experts of EU Member States directly assist their colleagues in pre-accession countries. Austrian experts have already successfully implemented 2 twinning projects in the transport and agricultural sector and we are involved in 6 other ongoing projects. Austria remains committed to provide pre-accession support to your country, in particular by further strengthening Serbia’s institutional and administrative capacities.
The Austrian Development Cooperation is equally involved in Serbia, for example with the so-called project on “cleaner and resource efficient production”. The Austrian support aims at enhancing the efficiency, resource productivity, competitiveness and environmental performance of companies in Serbia, especially of small and medium enterprises.
Austria also sees an important link to the region through the river Danube and the EU Strategy for the Danube Region. The aim of this strategy is to address common issues and challenges, such as environmental threats (water pollution, floods, climate change), the untapped shipping potential and lack of road and rail transport connections, as well as insufficient energy connections and uneven socio-economic development. This strategy has sparked great interest throughout the region and we welcome Serbia’s very active involvement.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In our view, 2010 and 2011 have been successful years for the Western Balkans: Croatia has concluded its accession negotiations and it is planned to sign the accession treaty in December this year. We are convinced that this important step will give a boost to the whole region. We believe that, as Croatia has demonstrated, a credible EU perspective continues to be the best incentive for reform and good governance in the region.
Serbia has come a long way over the last decade. The political circumstances were not always favourable, and territorial disintegration has often slowed down or hampered the reform efforts. However, I believe that Serbia is in a different, more favourable position today. The direction is clear now, and this is maybe one of the most important preconditions for a successful way forward.
With the arrest of the last fugitive indictees, the Serbian government has demonstrated its full cooperation with the ICTY. Serbia has thus done away with a heavy burden on its road towards European integration.
I hope that on this basis, the year 2012 could become the year for a new start in the Western Balkans. Old conflicts can be left aside, current conflicts like the one over Kosovo must be solved through compromise. We hope that after the elections in Croatia and Serbia, pro-European governments will boost the implementation of reforms and regional co-operation. In this context, we welcome the efforts that have been made by President Tadic in the region over the last few years.
What remains to be done?
In this context, the issue of Kosovo has to be mentioned, too. Regional integration and European integration cannot be successful if the Kosovo question remains open. Kosovo’s independence is a reality. Partition is not an option. The challenge ahead is to find a formula of autonomy for Northern Kosovo, in my view along the lines of Ahtisaari, to accommodate the concerns of all citizens of Kosovo, regardless of their ethnicity.
The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which has started earlier this year, was a very good start but it is highly regrettable that this dialogue was interrupted last week because of actions of irresponsible forces in Northern Kosovo. What the Serbian population in Northern Kosovo needs, is the rule of law and a sustainable economic perspective. Progress would be necessary not only for the Serbs living in Kosovo, but also in the Southern, less developed parts of Serbia. The economy and society in Southern Serbia need dynamic exchange and open border crossings – on the basis of the rule of law.
Progress between Pristina and Belgrade will certainly speed up the launch of accession negotiations with the EU. Even though a successful outcome of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is no formal condition for membership negotiations, it is self-evident that a substantial territorial conflict with a neighbouring state is a strong obstacle to successful integration.
Cooperation is also key when it comes to the whole region. – Political cooperation as well as economic cooperation. In terms of trade volume, there is a huge economic potential that remains untapped in this region. In this context, I am very grateful to the organisers of this conference, because through this event, they have been trying for many years to foster economic cooperation within the region as well.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would also like to mention a few words about the situation and atmosphere within the EU: We are going through a time when the fight against the financial crisis and its consequences has become the top priority of the political agenda inside the European Union. Since the outbreak of the financial crisis, the discussion about the so-called enlargement fatigue both in the EU and in the Western Balkans seems to have gained momentum. The argument of the skeptics is that further enlargement would be too much of a burden in a time when governments have to focus on tackling the economic crisis. Let me be clear on that: this argument is wrong. There is no alternative to integration of and reinforced co-operation with the countries of South Eastern Europe!
And the facts and figures of the last decade clearly show that both sides have profited from this reinforced co-operation: Trade volume between Serbia and the EU has rocketed from 3.1 billion Euros in 2000 to 11.2 billion Euros in 2010, contributing to a steady economic growth in Serbia.
Re-inforced co-operation also means strong financial support from the EU:
More than 3 billion Euros have been granted to Serbia by the EU and its member States since 2000. These grants have been invested to support the sustainable development of this country in the fields of infrastructure, economy, social services and the democratisation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Despite these times of crisis, the EU must not forget about its commitment towards the countries of the Western Balkans. In 2003, the EU has declared in the Thessaloniki agenda that the future of the countries of the Western Balkans lies within the European Union. This commitment, which has been reiterated many times, has effectively contributed to the necessary reforms which most of the countries of this region have undertaken ever since.
I am therefore glad that in the case of Croatia, EU membership is about to turn from a perspective into reality, which proves that the EU takes her commitments seriously. At this time of introspection, the EU needs some positive developments and I am convinced that the case of Croatia will give the EU some positive, new momentum.
As for Serbia, the Austrian government is of the opinion that Serbia – based on concrete progress -deserves to receive candidate status, so that membership negotiations can start as soon as possible. This will be our position, assuming that there is progress in the normalisation with Kosovo.
It is not Austria’s job to decide about Serbia’s future, this is a decision to be taken by the Serbian people. But we are convinced that Serbia’s membership in the EU would contribute to the European zone of peace, stability and prosperity and we would very much like to see Serbia as part of the European family. Therefore Austria has always supported Serbia’s EU perspective. BUT: We can help to open doors – but Serbia must walk through them! It is Serbia that must convince the sceptical EU Member States and must show that it really wants to walk that path!
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me conclude by underlining again that we Austrians have always considered ourselves as partners of Serbia on the way towards Europe, and we will continue to do so as your neighbour and friend. In this sense, I am very glad that today’s conference is entitled “Moving ahead to the European Union” because it clearly shows your commitment. And I can only encourage you again to continue on your successful path and can assure you of our continued support.