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Conference on "The Western Balkans: Progress, Stagnation, or Regression?"
Organized by the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS and the America-Bosnia Foundation
(Sarajevo, 12-15 June 2011)
Keynote Address by H.E. Wolfgang Waldner, State Secretary for European and International Affairs of the Republic of Austria
"The Western Balkans: an Austrian Perspective"
15 June 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Fellow SAIS students and alumni,
I am honoured to participate in this conference here in Sarajevo upon the invitation of our excellent hosts, the Johns Hopkins University SAIS and the America-Bosnia Foundation. It is a personal privilege, as SAIS graduate, and a professional pleasure, as representative of Austria, to be speaking to you about the Western Balkans, a region very close geographically but also to our hearts.
Austria and the countries of South East Europe have deeply rooted political, social and economic ties and a common history. The region is at the doorstep of Austria and whatever happens in the region, therefore also affects Austria and by extension Europe. In an interconnected world, this is even more true. Simply put, success in South East Europe makes all of Europe a better place.
In my remarks I will, first of all, touch upon the need of a credible EU perspective as an engine for reforms in South East Europe.
I will then briefly address the situation in different Western Balkans countries and, finally, share with you some concerns and my vision for the future.
The European integration process has been a driving force for peace, stability and prosperity across Europe. This is what applies to South East Europe as well. True, the EU as a whole is currently affected by the consequences of the global financial and economic crisis. Some member States are in serious financial difficulties, but I am confident that our solidarity and the willingness to stand together will help us to overcome this period of economic turmoil. Against this broad picture, it is clear that continued EU enlargement is not excessively popular among a growing number of EU citizens, including in my own country. With the experience of the last round of enlargement, the rules have become stricter. It is, however, of the utmost importance that the enlargement process continues and the perspective of EU membership remains credible.
Why is a credible EU perspective for South East Europe so important? It is, because the perspective of eventually being able to join the EU seems to be the strongest incentive for reforms. However, reforms are painful: laws need to be amended, structures changed, practises reversed, perceptions modified. Reforms can also have negative effects on societies, for example some might lose their jobs, but at the same time the European internal market also offers new opportunities. It is no coincidence that privatisation of the Croatian shipyards was one of the items to be tackled at the very end of the Croatian accession negotiations. Why? Because there are vested interests and jobs at stake! Deep reform efforts are politically only feasible and possible if people can see light at the end of the tunnel.
EU enlargement is also a question of commitment: The Western Balkan countries have started the process towards the European Union, with the perspective of full membership as ultimate goal. This was a promise made by the EU more than ten years ago in Zagreb in 2000. It was renewed in Thessaloniki in 2003 and thereafter. Based on this promise, these countries are determined – each at its own pace – to undertake all efforts to comply with the Copenhagen Criteria for accession. This determination is a strong reminder for us, on the EU side, not to waver in our own efforts to accompany and assist the Western Balkan countries on this way.
The Austrian foreign policy in the last 10 years has been consistent in supporting the countries of South East Europe on their path towards Europe. This means political support in Brussels, coupled with a substantial cooperation package in the amount of 65 million Euros in the last 16 years in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone. Austria's development cooperation activities in the region are focused on vocational training and higher education, on economic development and employment as well as on cross-cutting issues such as institution building and gender equality.
Additionally, we have been present on the ground with military, police and civilian personnel well over two decades. In Bosnia and Herzegovina Austrians currently represent the largest contingent in EUFOR Althea with more than 350 troops and the mission is led by the Austrian Major General Bernhard Bair. In Kosovo we field the strongest non-NATO contingent in KFOR with more than 450 troops. Moreover, we are actively participating in EULEX Kosovo, the biggest ever civilian European mission. To foster the rule of law in Kosovo is critical for the future of this country.
The close relations between Austria and the Western Balkans are further reflected by the fact that Austrian diplomats have been and are fulfilling key international functions in the region: Valentin Inzko is currently serving as the High Representative and EU Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. – Since Valentin is with us today, I would like to sincerely thank him for his continued leadership under difficult circumstances and his tireless efforts. You can always count on Austria's support. – He is not the first one. Wolfgang Petritsch held the same position from 1999 to 2002. In Kosovo, Werner Almhofer has been working as head of the OSCE Mission since 2008. Another Austrian diplomat was appointed Chief of Staff of EULEX in 2010.
Reforms in these countries should, however, not only be geared towards fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. Or, as Vlora Çitaku, the Minister for European Integration of Kosovo, put it to me recently in Vienna: "We want to build Europe in Kosovo". We are glad to observe that reforms are more and more undertaken for their own sake. The recent economic crisis has hit the region very hard and the recovery is only picking up slowly. Unemployment rates are very high as are the current account deficits. Therefore economic reforms must take place irrespective of the EU agenda. The EU can support reforms but it cannot do the homework of the governments in the region.
A credible EU perspective is essential: For the people in the region visa liberalisation is a tangible sign that the European perspective is real and a concrete improvement to their lives. With the exception of Kosovo, everybody from the region can travel freely to Europe. If you wanted to run a service company out of Bosnia and operate in Europe, this was almost impossible until recently, because of the visa requirements of your personnel. The new visa regime enhances contacts and offers opportunities to study abroad or to run a business from the region.
Let me now briefly turn to the situation in individual countries of the region as we see them.
Croatiais now in the final stretch towards EU membership.The proposal made by the Commission last Friday to close the last four chapters in the accession negotiations is an important step for Croatia and a signal for the whole region to proceed with reforms. We are looking forward to welcoming Croatia as the 28th EU member State in 2013.
Serbia is also working hard to obtain both candidate status and a date for starting accession negotiations before the end of this year. The arrest and transfer of Ratko Mladić to The Hague was an important milestone in this endeavour. We appreciate in particular President Tadić’s efforts, together with President Josipović of Croatia and other leaders, to overcome the tragedy of the past and to work together on regional reconciliation. Visible and concrete results that improve the quality of lives of the citizens are what I hope to see in the EU facilitated talks between Belgrade and Pristina. This process, which is held in a constructive atmosphere, now needsreal and practical progress.
The situation in Albania is less reassuring, the rift between government and opposition apparently widening. Last week's ministerial meeting of the Central European Initiative in Trieste made it clear again that the gap between the political parties needs to be overcome in order to maintain the European perspective. We observe a worrying tendency in this country that the political contest takes place outside Parliament instead inside.
Although Macedonia has stagnated on its path toward Europe because of its unsettled name issue with Greece, it was nevertheless able to hold successful and transparent elections recently. Public support for EU and NATO membership is still very high among the Macedonian population, hovering around 90 per cent. I therefore hope that the new Government will now return to the reform agenda towards Euro-Atlantic integration.
In Montenegro, the situation is rather promising. The Government is demonstrating its determination to implement its own Action Plan to tackle the outstanding issues the European Commission identified in last year’s Avis. We are confident that Montenegro’s progress, after the near-completion of the accession negotiations with Croatia, will give another boost of confidence to the region as a whole that reforms are paying off.
Kosovo is facing many challenges, the difficult economic situation being one of them.However, by handling the challenges caused by the Parliamentary elections and by forming a new Government and electing a new President, Europe’s youngest country was able to demonstrate the functioning of its democratic institutions. The EU, however, is challenged to find a unified position on the EU perspective for Kosovo.
It is necessary that the EU continues to play a leading role in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A strengthened mandate of the newly appointed Single EU Representative will enable the EU to better assist the country in meeting the many challenges it is currently facing. For this to happen, it will be necessary that the political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina put the future of their country and its citizens before short-term interest of political influence and power. A stable state-level Government needs to be formed without further delay and the reform process must be re-launched. As last year’s visa liberalisation has demonstrated also in Bosnia, tangible results for the citizens can be achieved.
I would now like to address some of the remaining key challenges:
As part of the EU enlargement strategy, the final consolidation of democratic structures and the rule of law in the Western Balkans countries is crucial. We see a worrying trend that election results are being contested, sometimes in the streets. The willingness to work inside the institutions and not outside is not generally established. Parliamentary boycotts have unfortunately increased. The formation of governments turns out to be very difficult, as we can witness here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This tendency towards increasingly dysfunctional institutions is worrying. It also undermines the credibility of these countries vis-à-vis Brussels.
Thinking in ethnic dimensions is unfortunately still prevalent in many parts of the region. There are deep rooted historic reasons for that, but also the memory of the last two decades weighs heavily. Living in a common political space is not a zero-sum game. Respect and tolerance as well as the willingness to share are the ingredients on which modern societies are built. Reconciliation in the Western Balkans remains a task for the future. Reconciliation, however, has to go hand in hand with justice. Therefore, the enhanced cooperation with ICTY which we could witness recently is of crucial importance.
The media remains another challenge: Most of us will remember how in 2004 false media reporting led to unrest in Kosovo during which 19 people lost their lives. This is just one example that shows that independent, unbiased and professional mediaas well as a functioning multi-party system are at the core of a consolidated democracy. There remains work to be done.
The countries of the region may have few natural resources, but the diversity of its landscape, including the wonderful seaside, and the cultural heritage provide a potential for tourism which remains to be explored. The respect for environmental standards as well as raising the respective awareness is essential in this context. The future economic development will also depend on countries abilities to create competitive industries and attract foreign investment. Education is the foundation of an economy that has to compete within the Single European Market and beyond. The workforce is there but it needs training and good education. This is an enormous challenge.
Overall, progress in the region in the last couple of years has been remarkable. However, there is still an urgent need for enhanced regional cooperation in many fields, such as infrastructure, energy and transport. The Regional Cooperation Council in Sarajevo is trying to foster this aim. The quicker we can develop integration among the countries, the faster we will see them advance on the European track.
At the outset, I highlighted some of the reasons why Austria is such a strong advocate of the EU perspective of the countries of this region. There is of course the geographic proximity. Furthermore, the Austrian economy is closely linked to these countries. A walk through Sarajevo gives proof of the strong ties between Austrian companies and the region. It will therefore come as no surprise to you that Austria is the number one investor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia and among the top investors in all other Western Balkan countries. I should also say that Austria's economy benefits from growing exports to the region, and that the contacts between our civil societies are deep. Today, more than 290,000 people coming from this region are working and living in Austria. Many more have become proud Austrian citizens while maintaining close ties with their countries of origin.
Austria believes that inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue is a valuable tool for tackling the challenges ahead in the Western Balkans and for strengthening mutual understanding, tolerance and trust as well as integration. Our engagement in this field dates back to Austria's encounter with Islam in the Balkans when Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. That was the reason why Islam was officially recognised in 1912 in Austria. Managing diversity is not only an issue for South East Europe. If we want to build pluralistic societies, we all need to train our inter-cultural skills and competence. Austria has been cooperating fruitfully on dialogue initiatives with partners in the Western Balkans, including Muslim communities, and will continue these efforts.
Professor Daniel Hamilton invited all of us, experts, government officials, civil society and students alike to ponder what the future of the Western Balkans holds in store. The pessimist would say regression, the realist stagnation and the optimist progress.
In conclusion, let me reiterate what I see as an irreversible trend: the countries of South East Europe have made steady progress over the past 15 years in many areas, particularly in the crucial field of democratisation. There is only one goal, EU integration, and each nation of the Western Balkans is heading in this direction, albeit at different paces. There will be rocks on the road and there will be times when nations may fall astray but in the long run we can see a definite goal. I am certain that Croatia’s accession to the EU will bring renewed impulse to the region and that one day we will be able to welcome the entire region into the European Union – from Austria's perspective, hopefully sooner rather than later.
It is in the clear interest of Austria to assist the Western Balkan countries in their aspirations for EU accession and their integration efforts. The EU may provide the tools, offer guidance and support, but in the end the process has to be owned and implemented by the countries and must come from within. First and foremost, the peoples of the Western Balkans region are responsible for their own destiny.
Let me reassure you that Austria will remain a true friend and adamant supporter of all states of the Western Balkans and will continue to work on a common future with them in the European Union. South East Europe is not at the periphery of Europe, but an integral and central piece of the house of Europe.