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Thank you. Thank you Madame Chair.
Let me start by thanking this hemicycle for the opportunity we have to share something that is very important in our eyes and that we have adopted today: The Strategy on the Western Balkans. It is a fundamental pillar, I would say, of the work that Commissioner [Johannes] Hahn and I, together with the President [Jean-Claude Juncker] and all of our colleagues, have done in these months and years, to reconfirm, recommit and give strong credibility to the European Union perspective of the entire region of the Western Balkans.
And I say European Union perspective - I do not say European perspective - because we have to start from the simple, self-evident truth that the Western Balkans are European already. It is Europe. It is part of Europe - historically, geographically. If you look at the borders, the Western Balkans are within the Member States of the European Union. We share one cultural heritage. We share the same interests at present. We share some of the challenges at present. And we will share a common future inside our European Union.
In the Western Balkan Strategy that we just adopted there is a clear path indicated for the Western Balkans – for all our six partners in the Western Balkans - to finally join the European Union. While still a merit-based process, there is a clear political commitment on our side to make this perspective credible and finally come true.
Over the last three years, we have achieved already incredible results. Our investments are increasing in the Western Balkans. Our economic ties are as strong as they have never been. Our trade is constantly growing - I believe it's around 75 percent. Our security is more and more connected and our foreign and security policy is more and more coordinated. Out of the six we have, two of the Western Balkan partners - Montenegro and Albania - are 100 percent aligned with our common foreign and security policy positions.
This is to say that we are together already. And we have seen this very clearly a couple of years ago when we called the partners to manage together the refugee flows that were crossing the Balkans. We realised that we were one. We were, as we say in the Mediterranean, on the same boat. We were on the same side of the problem and of the solution.
We are facing a reality that the Western Balkans are European. They want to clearly invest in the future membership of their countries to the European Union. The people - especially the younger generations - are determined to see their future inside the European Union and their leaderships have shown commitment and political courage to make the reforms needed to bring their countries into that direction.
This strategy today gives a shared, unequivocal, concrete perspective for European Union integration for each and every one of the six partners. Each at its own pace, with its own specificities and under different conditions, but the direction is clear and is one.
And I would like to stress this, because the Strategy addressing the entire region and each of the six individually is an important element if we want to understand the sense of direction of the region. The region will succeed together or fail together. There is no possibility for dividing the perspectives. It is merit-based, but history and geography tell us the perspective is one. And as one we address the situation in the Strategy.
Of course, at the core of all of this process is the need for reforms - not the European Union's need for reforms but the citizens of the Western Balkans' need for reforms. Wherever you travel in the Western Balkans, it is especially the young people that tell you "We feel as Europeans, we want to have the same opportunities, the same guarantees, the same standards, the same rights, the same fundamental freedoms, the same systems of governance, the same environment that our friends and colleagues and relatives share inside the European Union." And this means that the citizens of the Western Balkan countries are asking for reforms, so that they can enjoy the same rights, protections and standards as the citizens of the European Union.
And over the last years, Commissioner Hahn and I - travelling very often to the entire region - have seen and are seeing a lot of reforms that are ongoing undertaken with courage, with determination, and in the best cases with an approach that is an approach of national unity. Because these challenges are never wise to be taken as political divide, but more as a generational challenge for the leaders of these countries. And all of this has taught us a simple truth. As I mentioned, the people and the leaders of the Western Balkans have made a clear choice, the choice of bringing their countries inside the European Union. And today we are telling them: we have made the same choice.
We are setting not a target, not a deadline. But we are setting a realistic perspective of timing - 2025 - as a perspective. The process is merit-based and depends on the pace and the success of negotiations and reforms. And let me stress this very clearly: this is a realistic perspective, true for the countries that are currently negotiating, but also a realistic perspective for the countries that will start negotiations in the coming months. And I believe and I hope that there will be others starting negotiations soon, which will then have exactly the same realistic time-frame or perspective.
As I said, this is a challenge and this is a process not for one or two, but for the entire region. In these years, we have seen - as I was saying - great determination and commitment from citizens, from leaders in the region. It has not always been easy. Actually, it has been very difficult from time to time. There have been political crises, there have been difficult political and electoral cycles, there have been slower and faster periods of progress, but overall the sense of direction in these years has been absolutely clear. All of the six have always kept moving forward towards the European Union integration path. The sense of direction has been clear.
The point is now to sustain this sense of direction, bring results and walk this path together. When we talk about the path towards the European Union there is plenty of langue de bois: benchmarks, chapters, criteria. Once someone from the region told me that his citizens could not care less about how many chapters we open or we close, they do not get what it means to open or close chapters. First of all, I think that many citizens actually get it very well. But the point is this: this is not about technicalities or bureaucracy. This is real life. Things that have an impact on societies, that transform societies from within. It is about guaranteeing opportunities and European standards in different fields, from economy to fundamental rights and freedoms - just to mention a couple of them.
So, the whole process might sound technical, but it is, indeed, not abstract at all. It has concrete impact, it is real. And it is already taking place. The process itself is leading to transformation that is positive, both for the economies for the societies and for the governance.
This Strategy reconfirms a commitment, makes it explicit and clear. As I said, the door is open. We want you in. This needs some work to be done on both sides and we are ready to do this work together. But the Strategy also opens a couple of months of very intense work that we have ahead of us.
We have come somehow to the moment of truth. 2018 will be, can be the year when this process becomes not only more credible, but also irreversible. We will have the Commission Annual Reports in April, we will have the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia - the first one after 15 years, Thessaloniki was the last one - and ultimately possible Council decisions in June.
The Strategy supports this agenda also with very concrete initiatives that I imagine Commissioner Hahn will describe in more details. The six initiatives cover all the key areas and I will just mention the headlines: rule of law, security, socio-economic development, connectivity and digital agenda - and let me translate, this also means for example bringing the costs of roaming down which is something that has a concrete impact on citizens lives - and support for reconciliation and good neighbourly relations.
So, we have ahead of us some very intense and ambitious months. We can, together, make 2018 a turning point - the moment when the progress towards EU membership becomes irreversible and tangible for all. Our message is: Let’s make it happen. We are not passing the message that you need to be patient. This is not the message we are passing to our friends in the Western Balkans. The message is: Let’s make it happen. Let’s bring the Western Balkans inside the European Union, not in a faraway future, but in our generation and on the basis of serious, concrete, tough work that we are ready to do together with our partners in the region.
Let me add two last words.
One is that this is a reflection also on the future of Europe. And it is not by chance that President Juncker mentioned this in his State of the Union speech here in this hemicycle in September. Because this means that the European Union is imagining and considering its future not with 27 Member States, but potentially more. And we say this clearly in the Strategy. And we start getting ready for that. Obviously it does not depend only on us, but it depends on the path we will walk together. But we are serious on this. And, I guess, this is the first time we seriously have in these times of difficulties a reflection on that. And I think this is a major, major step forward.
And second and last point I make is that this is a challenge, this is a generational challenge, not just for the Commission, not just for our partners in the Western Balkans, not just for the Council, this is also a challenge for the European Parliament. And I believe that we need to be in this together. The role that the European Parliament has played in our relation with the Western Balkans has been critical and I believe we need to continue working together to make this a success and to make this happen.
I thank you very much.
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