Speech of Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger at the opening of the Western Balkan Experts Seminar at the Diplomatic Academy (english only)
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Speech of Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger
at the opening of the Western Balkan Experts Seminar
at the Diplomatic Academy on 12th May 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to welcome you all to this high-level seminar. When I spoke to Foreign Minister Moratinos three months ago in Vienna, he mentioned the idea of organizing a Conference on the Western Balkans in Sarajevo later in spring. His idea was to put a particular emphasis of the Spanish EU Presidency on the Western Balkans, ten years after the Zagreb summit when the European perspective of this region was first mentioned. We agreed that it might be useful to organize a scene-setter event here in Vienna in the run-up to the Sarajevo Conference. I am pleased that our event today meets with such an interest. (I am also pleased to see one of my predecessors, Peter Jankowitsch, in the audience. As Secretary General of the “Centre Franco-Autrichien” he has organized a number of events related to the Western Balkans in the last couple of years.)
I am very grateful to the Diplomatic Academy for hosting this event and would kindly ask to convey our thanks to Ambassador Winkler. We thought that the Diplomatic Academy is an excellent location for the purpose of this seminar – for many years a good number of young diplomats from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe have been trained here, with a particular focus on the European Union.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The EU has brought peace and stability to the Western part of Europe. This has enabled us to prosper and to grow; and this is what we want to extend also to the Western Balkans: peace and stability, prosperity and growth.
I would like to welcome Dimitris Droutsas, the Foreign Minister of Greece here on the podium. Dear Dimitris your presence here is a natural follow-up to the letter we jointly addressed last January to Lady Ashton and the other EU foreign ministers reminding them of the need to focus our attention on the enlargement process for the Western Balkans countries. It is also a testimony of the importance you attach to this region despite all the turbulences of the last weeks.
I am equally thankful to General Director Michael Leigh for being here. The vision of the European Commission is absolutely crucial to carry the European perspective of this region forward. Your hard work is very much appreciated.
The EU is currently suffering from the repercussions of the global crisis, but our solidarity and the willingness to stand together will hopefully help us to overcome this difficult period. We certainly must not allow the economic crisis to become an excuse for an enlargement fatigue.
The Western Balkans countries have started the process towards the European Union, with full membership as the ultimate goal. This requires huge efforts on their part: laws need to be amended, structures changed, practises reversed, perceptions modified.
These countries are determined – each at its own pace – to undertake all efforts to comply with the Copenhagen Criteria. This determination is a strong reminder for us to continue in our own efforts to accompany and strengthen the Western Balkans countries on this way – if they succeed in their efforts and join the EU as full members, we will all win.
Ladies and gentlemen,
From the Austrian perspective there are a number of reasons why we must keep the European perspective of this region high on our agenda:
1. The Western Balkans are in various respects already part of the EU: the EU is the most important trading partner for the Western Balkans; many migrants from the region are already living in the EU; there are shared borders with a number of EU member states. What we want, as EU, is stability and prosperity in our neighbourhood.
2. As EU, we also have to be consistent and coherent in our demands – the so- called conditionality - on the one hand but on the other hand, we also have to be ready to deliver what we promised in Zagreb in 2000, in Thessaloniki in 2003 and thereafter: the EU-integration of all Western Balkans countries – and as far as Austria is concerned, this also includes Kosovo.
3. The Economic crisis had a negative impact also on the Western Balkans: Croatia’s GDP was receding by 6% in 2009, in BiH by 3%. With the help of the EU, economies in the countries concerned have to be restructured and strengthened – reforms are necessary.
4. For the people in the region visa liberalisation is a visible sign that the European perspective is real. We hope to make further progress soon. It is also obvious that the discussion within the EU on visa liberalisation is much easier if the economies of the Western Balkans countries are performing well.
5. As part of the EU enlargement strategy, the final consolidation of democratic structures in the WB-countries is important. This includes full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and, more fundamentally, an end of thinking in ethnic dimensions.
6. This is particularly true in BiH: The inability of local politicians to overcome thinking and acting in ethnically defined terms entails the risk that Bosnia will stay behind in the accession process. We can help but we cannot continue to make the hard choices for the elected political leaders.
7. 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 media as well as a functioning multi-party system are at the core of a consolidated democracy. I am therefore glad to see that one of the panels will deal with the role of the media and political parties.
8. The Western Balkans are also part of important transport and transit routes linking the Southern part of Europe with Central Europe. The improvement of infrastructure with the help of the EU is necessary so that these countries can take part in the EU internal market.
9. Enlargement is not only a goal in itself – we also have self-interests: Austria is number 1 Investor in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia and among the top investors in the other Western Balkans countries. Austrian exports into the region are important. Other EU member states like Greece and Italy are equally strongly engaged. There is room for everybody from the EU to invest in this region and to work with the talented people there. Investments heavily depend on stability, good governance and respect for the rule of law.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me once more thank you for coming to Vienna and let me express the hope that you will take with you interesting new impulses and insights.