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Merci. Thank you very much.
Let me start by assessing the obvious: namely that the Western Balkans are part of Europe geographically, within the Member States of the European Union from a geographical point of view. The Western Balkans share the same history as the members of the European Union, the same cultural heritage, the same challenges, the same interests, the same opportunities. And I would say that it is clear today – and this is our message – we will share a common future inside our European Union. This is the key political message that comes out of the strategy we have just adopted in the College – the Western Balkans Strategy, a clear path for the Western Balkans, all our six partners in the Western Balkans, to finally join the European Union.
Over the last three years, we have already achieved results -that were impossible to imagine when we started our mandate - in relation to each and every of the six and the region as a whole. Our investments are increasing in the entire region. Our trade is constantly growing. Our security is more and more connected. Our foreign policy is more and more coordinated. Let me just mention that two out of the six – Albania and Montenegro – are 100 percent aligned with the foreign policy of the European Union.
And I could continue with a lot of examples, not only of the problems we can and have to prevent together, but also of the opportunities that our people can explore at full only if we do that together. We have seen this repeatedly over the last years. We have seen this when we have managed together the refugee crisis flow through the Western Balkans. We see this when we handle and we tackle the security challenges related to radicalisation or the return of the foreign fighters. We see the economic interconnections and we see how much our people benefit from any opportunity we have of working together.
This strategy today gives a shared, unequivocal concrete perspective for EU integration for each and every one of our six partners, obviously on merit based processes that are very well known. Because, of course, there is clear need for reforms, so that citizens can enjoy the same rights, the same protections, and the same standards as the citizens of the European Union.
And we have seen and we are seeing a lot of reforms ongoing in the region with a determination that tells us all a simple truth: that the people of the Balkans and the leaders of the Balkans have made a clear choice - the choice of bringing their countries inside the Union. Each at its own pace, each at its own time - but the sense of direction is set clearly on their side. And today we are telling them we have made the same choice, the perspective is very clear for us as well.
I know that there have been a lot of talks about a date - 2025. So I will tackle this issue from the outset. It is clear for us that this is not a target date, this is not a deadline - but this is a perspective. The text of the strategy is very clear. It is a realistic perspective to conclude - complete - the accession process for those that are currently negotiating, but also for others that might start negotiations in the near future and, personally, I would expect others to start negotiations in the coming months.
Let me conclude by saying that we have today not just adopted a strategy but also opened a certain path that in the coming months will lead us to further decisions and further steps. The Commission Annual Reports will come out in April; we will have the EU Western Balkan Summit in Sofia in May - 15 years after the Thessaloniki; and ultimately possible Council decisions in June.
The strategy also supports this agenda with very concrete initiatives - six of them. I believe Commissioner [Johannes] Hahn will elaborate more on them, but they cover all the key areas of our common work: rule of law, security, social and economic development, connectivity, and digital agenda - that would for example bring the costs of roaming down, which is something extremely important and I think especially for the dynamic, young population of the region - and support for reconciliation and good neighborly relations.
So the months ahead will be intense, will be ambitious, will be - hopefully - months of a turning point that will be remembered in the history, I believe, of the European Union. Because this is also about a choice of the European Union's future. It is part of our work on the future of Europe, as the President [Jean-Claude Juncker] said in September and as the strategy reiterates: the European Union in the future will potentially have new member states. The future of the Union is not bound to be at 27. It can be at more than 27. And this is a preparatory work that on our site we are setting up to get ready for this. Obviously, this needs the same readiness and the determination on the side of our partners in the region.
So the months ahead will be - as I said - intense, ambitious. 2018, especially the first six months of the year, can be a turning point - as the moment when progress towards the European Union's membership becomes irreversible and tangible for all. Our message is: let us make it happen, we are together in this. It requires consistency, courage, determination - we are there for that. And let us bring the Western Balkans inside the European Union not in a faraway future, but in our generation, with consistent work to be continued.
Questions and Answers
Q. Je voudrais savoir si l'élargissement de l'Union européenne à la Serbie nécessitait que la Serbie reconnaisse le Kosovo. Et par rapport au Kosovo, cinq Etats membres ne reconnaissent toujours pas ce pays. Comment comptez-vous convaincre ces pays de reconnaître le Kosovo, puisque vous avez dit que les six pays avaient vocation à rentrer l'Union européenne.
Oui bien sûr le futur du dialogue entre la Serbie et le Kosovo est fondamental, premièrement pour la Serbie mais aussi pour le Kosovo, pour le futur de leurs relations, pour le futur de la région, et aussi pour leurs perspectives relatives vers l'Union européenne. Ils le savent très bien. Nous travaillons bien ensemble. Ils travaillent bien entre eux. Il y a toujours des cycles électoraux, politiques qui doivent être pris en considération, comme on le fait, comme on le fait aussi parfois en prenant en considération les cycles électoraux des Etats membres pour certaines des questions auxquelles nous faisons face à l'intérieur de l'Union européenne. C'est normal. Mais maintenant, je suis encouragé par le fait que les deux présidents ont lancé il y a quelques mois maintenant sous ma facilitation une nouvelle phase du dialogue qui vise à la normalisation des relations, ce que je pense personnellement peut être conclu avec succès, beaucoup de détermination et de leadership politique des deux côtés, et beaucoup d'efforts aussi de notre côté, d'ici à la fin de notre mandat.
[ENGLISH TRANSLATION VERSION – From Italian to English] Q. First of all, you, as Commissioner Hahn said that Balkan citizens want to be members of the EU. However the problem – at least looking at it from this side – is the European Union citizens fatigue with enlargement. The Commission President said – there will be no enlargement under my term these five years. So what can we do about this problem? And, what about Russia and its negative impact including on the EU?
[ENGLISH TRANSLATION VERSION – From Italian to English] Few countries like Italy know that the perspective for all Balkan countries of joining the European Union is first of all in the interest of the EU's Member States. I will mention three areas in which it is crucial to guarantee this integration perspective. First, the economy: economic relations, investment, the development of trade and of the work of SMEs between EU Member States and Western Balkan countries are very developed and potentially very interesting. The Balkans are an interesting market for the European Union. So the first area in which the EU's citizens have an interest in ensuring that this perspective is credible is the economy and trade and investment relations.
Second: security management. Both Commissioner Hahn and I have reminded that the Western Balkan countries are surrounded by EU Member States. A security problem in one or more Western Balkan countries becomes automatically a security problem for the European Union and its citizens. The best, most efficient – and only – way to guarantee security and stability to the Western Balkans is to solidly anchor them to a credible EU integration perspective. It is a region that has witnessed several wars just 20 years ago. The common sense of a perspective towards the European Union guarantees there is a balance and some difficult work towards reconciliation and the creation of shared memories that can ensure peaceful coexistence. But we also face common external challenges – such as radicalisation and the return of foreign fighters – which will require an increasingly joint management with cooperation mechanisms in the field of security.
The third example comes from our recent past, from two years ago. We have held several summits at different levels – Heads of State or Government, Ministers – in which Member States and non-EU Western Balkan countries have come together around the same table to manage together the issue of the refugee influx from Syria. I think we all understood very well at that moment that we are in the same continent – many speak of a ''European perspective'' for the Western Balkans, I refuse to use this expression, because the Western Balkans already are Europe. There is a perspective of joining the EU, which is something different – and hence we share an interest in managing jointly some opportunities and some challenges. I believe that many EU citizens understand that we have an interest in anchoring the Western Balkans to an EU perspective, including for the rule of law, for the transformation of society and the fight against some wide-spread phenomena such as corruption, organised crime; we have an interest in consolidating the region's economic and democratic transitions. So it is in our interest; it is also in the interest of the citizens of the Western Balkans, but it is first of all in our interest. And I would not want to find myself in three, five, ten, twenty years from now saying that we betrayed the expectations of a region that wanted strongly to join the European Union and got as result radicalisation, increased organised crime, increased conflict within the region – which can always happen – and regretting not having made use of the stabilisation, development, growth and peace potential that only the European Union has in the region.
The influence of others in the region does exist – you mentioned Russia but I could mention other countries that have a presence in the region in different ways. Yet no presence can be compared even by far to the presence, influence and weight of the European Union in each of the Western Balkan countries – if we exert this influence, which is exactly what we are doing with this strategy. We are saying: the EU is here, the door is open, you chose the EU and the EU chose to support this path, it takes coherence and consistency from both sides. I think the path will not be easy, but it’s possible.
Q. Deux questions. La première: vous avez mentionné des sommes concernant les six "flagship strategies". Est-ce que vous pourriez être plus spécifique ? Est-ce qu'il s'agit seulement de 700 millions d'euros dans le cadre du budget 2014-2020 ? Si oui, ça me paraît assez peu étant donné qu'on parle de stratégies assez ambitieuses et de gros besoins de connectivité dans ces pays-là. Deuxième question, puisqu'on parle de relance de la politique d'élargissement vis-à-vis des Balkans: est-ce que ça va être l'occasion pour la Commission de trancher sur la question du processus d'accession de la Turquie à l'UE ?
Je vais juste répondre à la deuxième question. Aujourd'hui on parle des Balkans. Il y aura le moment de parler d'autre chose, mais ce n'est pas aujourd'hui.