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Dear excellences, ladies and gentlemen, friends,
It has been said this morning before: the world is in a difficult moment. Or, to say it in the words of EU High Representative Federica Mogherini: The world is going through a moment of chaos and confusion. Europe – and by Europe I mean both the European Union and the Western Balkans – find themselves surrounded by crises and conflict.
The war in Syria is not over yet. An attack on Idlib could have devastating humanitarian consequences and could result in new refugee flows. The crisis in Ukraine risks escalating following Russia's latest moves in the Azov Sea. In Libya, the security situation continues to be fragile.
Further afield, global challenges abound: developments in Afghanistan, Venezuela and North Korea, to mention just a few, all have a direct bearing on Europe and its global engagement.
Meanwhile, international norms and the multilateral global system are being questioned and undermined. We feel increasingly the consequences of foreign interference in democratic processes, of disinformation and other hybrid threats.
The European Union's response to those external challenges has been an unprecedented level of unity and sense of purpose. International relationships and global security are not zero-sum games but can be win-win relationships. In the face of global disorder, the EU is determined to promote a more cooperative world order, based on more effective multilateralism.
We are working to uphold the nuclear deal with Iran, a multilateral non-proliferation agreement that has made Europe and the world more secure. We promote the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change. We conclude new and ambitious trade agreements, which tighten partnerships, create jobs and protect social and environmental standards. And we work closely with the African Union and the United Nations to stem the migration challenge.
At the same time, the European Union has taken unprecedented steps over the past two years to deepen defence cooperation at the European level – strengthening our defence capabilities and jointly investing in innovation, research and development of defence technology and equipment.
We have also stepped up our cooperation with partner countries and in particular with NATO. Never in the past have the EU and NATO worked so closely together.
Now, where does this leave Albania and the Western Balkans?
If the lesson of nations such as Germany, France and Italy has been that they are too small to face the new global disorder alone, then this is certainly true for Albania and its neighbours. At a time where global cooperation is being challenged, the value of regional cooperation becomes even more important.
This means political cooperation and, here in the region still, reconciliation. But this means of course economic cooperation and enhanced connectivity – and I am saying this not only because this is the Tirana Economic Forum. This is where progress will have the most tangible impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region.
It has been said before, but let me repeat it: such regional cooperation is not a substitute for European integration. On the contrary, it will accelerate the region's progress towards EU accession.
While global power might be shifting, the economic reality remains crystal clear. The EU's economic ties with the region have never been stronger. EU investments in the region are increasing. Our mutual trade is growing. Let me just quote the figures for Albania: 66% of Albania's trade are with the European Union, more than half of all Foreign Direct Investment comes from the EU – almost 4 billion euros.
Much progress has also been made on connectivity over the past five years, notably in the context of the Berlin process. Transport and energy links have improved, not least thanks to substantial EU assistance. The European Commission has made available 1 billion euros to connectivity projects in the region.
Examples of EU supported infrastructure projects here in Albania include the Tirana-Durres railway and the reconstruction of the port of Durres. Feasibility studies have also started on the Adriatic-Ionian Highway.
But physical infrastructure, as important as it is, is only part of the picture. To connect the markets, economies and people of the region, we need to build the right legal and regulatory framework. This is why the Regional Economic Area is so important. More than 80 000 jobs could be created throughout the Western Balkans through deeper economic integration. And deeper economic integration would also strengthen the region's resilience against global economic and geopolitical shocks.
Progress has been made over the past two years towards a true Regional Economic Area, also within the framework of the Central European Free Trade Agreement. What has been achieved needs to be preserved and not put at risk.
Our topic this morning has been global power changes and how to respond to them. I have tried to give you a long answer. The short one would be: unity and cooperation. Unity within the EU, unity within NATO and cooperation between all of us. Unity is a fundamental prerequisite for our security and prosperity. The European Union will continue to work with Albania and the region towards that goal.