"Check against delivery"
Distinguished Members of the European Parliament and distinguished Members of the Kosovo Assembly
I am extremely pleased to participate in this meeting and I wish to thank the joint chairs, Mr Memli Krasniqi and Mr Tonino Picula for inviting me to this 5th EU and Kosovo Parliamentary Committee meeting.
I am speaking on behalf of the High representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security policy and on behalf of the European Commission.
I want to start my speech my welcoming the vote of the European Parliament on Visa Liberalisation for Kosovo. This is one step closer to visa-free travel to Europe. And I am particularly happy to speak today, because the Kosovo Assembly plays a crucial role in ensuring progress and implementation of Kosovo's European agenda remains at the top of Kosovo’s political agenda, to provide oversight and political guidance. To fulfil this role, the Assembly and all parties represented in it need to ensure it has the capacity to work on the numerous and challenging issues ahead.
Moreover, political parties in the Assembly have to continue to work towards finding a consensus on key issues in the interest of Kosovo. Disagreement, competition and indeed, using parliamentary procedures to try and further one's own political goals are all part of a healthy democracy. However, all sides will do well when key reforms and laws are not held hostage for narrow political games. Kosovo's European path is a shared interest of the vast majority of political actors and parties in Kosovo. That is what is said time and again. In the interest of this shared goal, therefore, it has to remain possible to advance European reforms.
Democracy and Parliament depend on compromise and constructive striving for solutions. Political party differences should not undermine efforts which are in the collective national interest of Kosovo on its European path.
Recent failed attempts of the Assembly to take decisions, to pass important legislation and to ratify financial agreements – such as IPA funds- the EU grant to Kosovo to support reforms are really concerning. The EU will continue to work with Kosovo and will provide support through financial assistance. The EU-Kosovo Financial agreements on IPA2018 must be ratified urgently by the Assembly and not hijacked for political ends. Without these Agreements the EU will be not in a position to disburse financial assistance in the future.
Kosovo leaders, in government and in opposition, need to unite around top national priorities in a way that will allow for reaching solutions that will strengthen Kosovo domestically and internationally. Failure to build consensus will only create long term instability within society and delay on Kosovo’s progress on its EU path.
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement, if used efficiently and proactively, offers an opportunity to stimulate Kosovo's economic development. Hence, to make the most of it, its implementation needs to be accompanied by institutional and policy reform.
The implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement is the path for Kosovo. The European Reform Agenda is the driver. Therefore, both the Government and the Assembly need to remain focused on implementation of SAA and ERA irrespective of other developments.
Let me reiterate some of the main important results that have been achieved under the ERA process.
Making real progress however is impossible without a functioning Assembly, engaged in constructive debate and steering reforms.
On Rule of Law: Kosovo needs to continue to show its commitment to high standards to combating serious criminality and functioning of the judiciary. This is important not only in order to convince EU Member States that Kosovo's commitment to the rule of law and efforts to combat corruption and organised crime. First and foremost it is necessary in order to allow rules based development for the citizens of this country. Legislation is being prepared, which will enable the suspension and removal of public officials indicted and convicted for corruption and abuse of office.
On Public Administration Reform: The EU supports the reform of the public administration in Kosovo. The package of laws that the Government recently adopted (the Law on Salaries, the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the State Administration and Independent agencies and the Law on Public Officials) play a vital role in this process of reform.
The laws aim at adhering to the principles of good public administration and sound financial management. For the draft law on salaries it is particularly important that it ensures fiscal sustainability, and also addresses outstanding inequalities.
As this package of laws now proceed further along in the democratic process to the Assembly, the EU will continue monitoring this very closely. The EU remains committed to continue our expert support to the process of reform and will engage with partners in government and the Assembly.
The EU, along with other international stakeholders, has been raising concerns with regard to a number of benefit schemes which are being discussed. In relation to war veterans, along with the IMF, we have been repeatedly asking for containment in the spending on war-veteran pension scheme since its introduction in 2015. Since then, however, the costs for the scheme have more than doubled, and the re-categorisation of the already certified war veterans has yet to take place. The publically alleged fraud and abuse of the verification mechanisms and fraudulent claimants is a key concern.
Furthermore, the EU has expressed its strong reservations about the currently discussed model of pensions for teachers in the parallel system. While recognising the invaluable contributions these courageous men and women have made, we would encourage you to finding some compromise solution, so the teachers are acknowledged but significant implications to Kosovo budget are avoided.
Beyond the heavy budgetary impact of such initiatives, honourable members, I want to raise another issue for your consideration in this regard: Many of the benefit schemes discussed risk further entrenching gender inequality with most of the beneficiaries being men. In the absence of an overarching pension and benefit scheme that covers all sectors of society, special care should be taken that significantly gender-unequal distribution of state resources and benefits is avoided.
In January 2017, the Kosovo political parties have declared education as a national priority through a resolution that they adopted in common. Education features in our key policy documents: it is one of the three pillars of European Reform Agenda (ERA) and together with the promotion of employment it is a very important element in the Economic Reform Programme (ERP).
However, almost two years later and I regret that there are so few positive developments in the sector of education.
For any country education is a key driver not only for personal development, but also for the development of a whole society. This is even more important for Kosovo, where over half of the population is under the age of 25!
The Law on Higher Education is pending for many years now. We have provided advice that to our opinion sets a good legal basis to cover issues such as academic integrity and promotion, transparency in recruitment and academic advancement as well as independence of Higher Education institutions and many others. Let me encourage you to take these reforms forward in the Assembly. Once the Government submits the law to you, we are more than happy to share our observations and recommendations with you!
Further, I encourage you to adopt the Law on Social Enterprise – to which we provided support to the Kosovo Assembly Committee on Health, Labour and Social Welfare. The Law is intended to open way to a new form of enterprises that aim to maximize improvements in financial, social and environmental well-being, with the main focus being in social impact alongside profits for shareholders. Apart from more employment opportunities, the adoption of the law is a precondition for implementation of two big EU funded projects – one ongoing to support the Employment Agency and a planned 3 million grants scheme to support new social enterprises.
Through the Stabilisation and Association Agreement Kosovo has committed itself to a continued engagement towards a visible and sustainable improvement in relations with Serbia. This process shall ensure that both can continue on their respective European paths, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts, and should lead to the comprehensive normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, in the form of a legally binding agreement, with the prospect of both being able to fully exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities.
The EU expects the two sides to continue working with commitment and dedication to the process.
The EU facilitated Dialogue has as its final objective the conclusion of a legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia that addresses all outstanding issues between the two parties once and for all. The Belgrade – Pristina Dialogue aims at promoting cooperation, bringing normalcy to the relations between Serbia and Kosovo, achieving progress on their path to the European Union and effectively improves the lives of the people. This is in the interest of both Pristina and Belgrade.
Difficulties remain, but the EU through the dialogue facilitated by the High Representative will spare no effort to support the work of the two Presidents.
Progress in the process of normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is an essential principle which will underpin the development of relations and cooperation between them and the European Union.
Let me return to the rule of law and to visa liberalisation. The decision- making on the VL is now in hands of the EU Member states in the Council. In this regard, Assembly has very crucial role to play to continue to advance necessary reforms and prioritise the adoption of the rule of law legislation currently in the Assembly- like the Criminal Code, the law on extended powers of confiscation, law on whistle blowers, law on disciplinary liability of judges and prosecutors which have already passed the first reading. These will improve Kosovo’s chances to receive positive VL decision.
There is no deadline in the VL process and Kosovo should at any cost avoid any backtracking in the rule of law which could damage Kosovo's chances of positive VL decision.
These issues are but a snapshot of outstanding work which continues to need commitment. I believe only close cooperation and critical but constructive engagement between the Government and the Assembly including the opposition are fundamental to ensuring success.
Lastly, returning to ERA and the way ahead. Clearly the Assembly needs to be fully engaged in the ERA implementation by adopting ERA/SAA laws as priority and understand that Kosovo's progress on the EU integration path will be measured by its progress on the implementing SAA and ERA.