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Honourable Minister Cakaj and Mayor Veliaj,
Dear EESC president Mr Jahier and Ms Slavova,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would firstly like to thank the European Economic and Social Committee and the city of Tirana for having organised this forum and for hosting it. I know that a lot of work has been put into realising such an ambitious programme. Congratulations and a big thank you to everybody involved.
I would like to join the previous speakers in welcoming the participants from civil society, Member States, parliaments and the EU. I am certain that together we will ensure that the coming two days will be intense, enriching, productive and successful.
The EESC has done a formidable job in bringing us all together here. It is important that we are gathers under the aegis of the EESC because it is an institution of the EU that contributes significantly to the deepening of the EU-Western Balkans relations.
I greatly appreciate the role the EESC is playing in facilitating exchange on topics of shared European interest.
EU integration is the strategic objective of the countries of the Western Balkans. Opinion polls consistently show that the citizens of the Western Balkans strongly support the EU and their countries' integration into the Union.
What is particularly interesting is the reasons that citizens give. They share an interest with their neighbours in the EU in security and prosperity – indeed there is a growing understanding that these shared interests are best served by European integration.
But beyond interests, primary among the reasons is that the people of the region want and share EU values - respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.
And it's these values that civil society, in its widest sense of non-governmental organisations and social partners together, play a key role in helping foster and take forward.
The path to EU integration is not always easy - there are difficult choices to make and painful reforms are often required. It's a process that can only move forward if all parts of the state and of society play their roles with dedication and determination.
Governments have a leading role in proposing policy and laws, parliaments and within them oppositions, have an essential role in holding governments to account and proposing their own vision.
And civil society organisations too, play a vital role in enhancing understanding, transparency and good governance by contributing to public debate and policymaking.
This is particularly important when it comes to the formulation and implementation of EU-related reforms. Civil society's role in actively pursuing inclusiveness and participating in the formulation of policies and legislation is irreplaceable. The social partners – both from the side of employers and of employees – are a vital part of this.
Quite simply, where people and businesses affected by policies and legislation have a route to contribute to making them, the resulting laws work better.
Additionally, the Civil Society’s scope has widened. Besides the important areas such as rule of law and transparency, CSOs today are highly engaged in job creation and working conditions. And one of the most pressing questions for our and the following generations: the cross-border challenge of climate change. Only with civil society engagement, can sustainable progress be achieved.
Furthermore, with the ongoing electoral campaigns and upcoming elections in the WBs, CSOs engagement in genuine and credible elections has to be mentioned and its importance underlined here. Democratic culture and values are also promoted and spread by you. Your commitment in this regard is welcomed and needed. This is particularly relevant for fostering the inclusion and empowerment of the youth in public space.
Being a member of the EU implies duties and obligations, and having strong civil society, including effective social partners, is also vital to fulfilling these duties and obligations in a way that works for all parts of society. Without civil society's active and demanding role, effective reform leading to deep change that improves peoples' lives cannot be achieved.
CSOs are key to fostering stronger commitment from political leaders and societies towards a change in political culture, towards more democracy, transparency and rule of law, towards more sustainable economies.
At the Sofia Summit last year, the leaders of the EU Member States and our partners from Western Balkans together recognised in the Sofia Declaration the key role the civil society plays in fostering democracy.
To that end the EU has set-up a well-functioning system of support for CSOs in the Western Balkans through the Civil Society Facility. In fact, for the period 2014-2020, around € 400 m have been earmarked to support the development of civil society and media in the region and Turkey. For 2018-2020 approximately €150 million have been made available for civil society support.
The Western Balkans does not need to wait for EU accession to hold to EU values - that transformation has already started - but progress does need to be speeded up. Change can be challenging and there will certainly be bumps on the road. But we know that with determination from all actors involved positive change is possible.
On the regional level, the historic Prespa agreement demonstrates this and sets an example for the region and for Europe as a whole. In this context, may I quote you [Mr] Luca [Jahier] when you said in February that the Prespa agreement represented “the resolution of [a] long-standing issue, which is an example of reconciliation for Europe”. I totally agree with you and in this context I support your efforts to re-launch the regular meetings of the Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee in North Macedonia.
Concerning our ambitious security cooperation with the region, a number of security and defence instruments and initiatives are already in place, including CFSP/CSDP dialogues. Our genuine objective is to enhance EU-WB cooperation on security and defence around the key priorities: countering terrorism and countering violent extremism, fighting organized crime, countering hybrid threats, participation in CSDP missions and operations, capacity building and resilience, addressing small arms and light weapons, and preventing irregular migration.
Together we can achieve more, if we speak with one voice on international fora. We are aware of the sensitivities when aligning with some of the EU positions. It is particularly welcomed that Albania aligns with all EU positions. This is clear evidence of your commitment to the European path and of our close cooperation in common foreign and security policy.
With Albania, we continue to move forward on our cooperation in security and defence. For example, the Albania-Eurojust Cooperation Agreement was signed in October 2018 and ratified in December 2018. Albania was the first country to sign an agreement with Frontex/EBCGA. Albania also signed a working arrangement with the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) on drug monitoring.
We in the EU institutions are determined to keep the EU integration of the Western Balkans at the top of our political agenda and to maintain a positive momentum. We are working to achieve important goals in the WB in the coming months:
The coming months are crucial for work on:
Potentially agreeing on the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia;
Swift resumption and intensification of the normalisation process between Belgrade and Pristina to unlock and advance on their respective European paths;
Moving forward with the Commission Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina's EU membership application;
Acceleration of accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro;
Visa liberalisation for Kosovo – I know this is particularly important for citizens.
These goals are important not just in themselves, but because they will set the tone for the next mandate of the European institutions – the new Parliament and a new College of Commissioners.
This is an ambitious agenda, and there is much still to be achieved, but I believe that if governments, oppositions and civil society actors play their roles with responsibility and determination, real steps forward are possible.
I can assure you that from the side of the EU institutions, we will continue to offer you the strongest support we can on your road to the EU.
With this in mind allow me to close by wishing all of you two successful days of constructive and lively discussions, fruitful exchanges and meaningful insights.
Thank you very much!