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Honourable President, Speaker of the Parliament, Prime Minister, Ministers, Honourable Members of Parliament, and please allow me, above all, dear citizens of Albania!
Let me start by thanking you for the honour you are giving me to address this house. You might feel a little bit of emotion in my voice, because apart from the Italian parliament where I served for seven years and probably one other occasion, this is the first time I address a national parliament and this is special to me.
I am really very happy to be here with you in Tirana today. I planned this visit for a long time, like a friend who is planning a family reunion. I feel particularly close to your country not simply because my home country is so close to your coasts.
This country and this region belong in Europe, we share the same history, the same culture and the same future. For the past 25 years, I have always believed that you should also find your place inside our European Union. As an Italian Minister, and as the High Representative of the European Union, I have always felt that this is as much in your interest as it is in ours. And that the challenge and the responsibility of our generation is to make this happen: all the Western Balkans’ countries in our European Union.
This is what we will be asked in a few years' time, both me, all of you, all the ministers sitting just here: Are the Western Balkans more stable, more secure, more reconciled than they used to be? Are they closer to be part of the European Union? We will be asked these questions because we can truly make a difference on this. We can work on many different things, in our region and far away. But we have this very clear in mind: it is in the Western Balkans that the European Union - and the European Union alone - can really make the difference, and it is the Western Balkan countries that count for real for all the European Union in every single day of our citizens' life.
This is something that truly lies in our hands – in your hands in particular, in the case of Albania. It is a shared responsibility that we must honour. As your Prime Minister - Edi [Rama], if you allow me - recently said: "The European path it is not about ready-made formulas that can or should be imposed on you or on any country, a top-down approach." T
oday I would like to talk about the road that we can, we must – I believe – travel together. There are so many challenges we share as Europeans and none of us has all the answers we need in these very difficult times. We are not in school. Sometimes we use words that are not appropriate to our times and to the respect we owe to each other. There are no homeworks, no teachers, no pupils.
We need to work together on common answers for common problems that are very difficult for all of us: security, radicalisation, migration, saving lives of so many refugees, protecting our societies, employment, economic growth, the present and the future of our youth. It is self-evident to anyone that we are, as we say in Italian and I am sure you might have the same wording or the same say, that we are in the same boat.
We discussed this recently with your Foreign Minister and with other Foreign Ministers of the region in Amsterdam, at our informal meeting of Foreign Affairs Council, how to find together solutions to problems that none of us can face alone. And I think that the challenges that this region is facing today make it self-evident that we are together on this. We need each other. We need to work together and we need to deliver, together, because only together we can deliver for the benefit of our people.
In these years, Albania has moved forward and fast. 25 years ago, Albania was one of the most isolated states in the world and the world's third-poorest country. Allow me to be a bit "unconventional" if I can. You might remember a movie from some years ago, Wag the Dog, where in Washington DC a presidential team was setting the stage for fake crisis or war and chose Albania, because, I quote: “No one knows Albania”. Well, that was not true in any case already at that time for the European Union and for sure not for my home country, but today that movie would be simply impossible even to conceive.
Albania is a NATO member and a candidate for membership in the European Union. This country, its international reputation, the life of its citizens, has changed immensely. And the citizens of Albania have much bigger dreams, wishes, aspirations and hopes. And that is so good, that is so good. It is something most precious you can have: people who have dreams, hopes and aspirations.
Such wishes and hopes put a huge responsibility on us. It is not only on your shoulders, it is not only on our shoulders. The responsibility to be honest and clear-eyed when we look at the results achieved – the many results achieved -, and also the way ahead. The five key priorities you know by heart. Our country report for 2015 has shown that in a number of areas there is still a lot of work to do, but also that the pace of reforms is steady and sustained.
A number of important actions have been taken on structural reform, from the energy sector to the fight against informal labour market. Something we have some experiences of also in many EU Member States. The economy is now growing – maybe not as fast as your people would wish to see, but these are no easy times for our entire continent and let me say for the entire world. And our economies are very much interconnected world-wide. More efforts will be necessary on competitiveness, to create jobs and a better business environment to attract more capital to Albania.
Our connectivity agenda can support your work towards some of these goals: the Western Balkan countries need to get reconnected in all possible ways, first of all among themselves, but also with the rest of Europe. Investing on infrastructure and on better rules will be vital.
But the best investment we have to make is with our youth. And I say we have to make with our youth – here and in the European Union. True growth needs people capable and willing to work hard and change things. To match these dreams and aspirations with projects that make things change. And I know that there are plenty of hard-working entrepreneurial young Albanians – who only need an opportunity to show what they are worth. This calls for better schools, better vocational training and higher education.
Only this year, the European Union will provide 30 million euros in budget support for Albania for creation of jobs, primarily for vocational training. Use all these opportunities and use them well, because this is the best investment for not only the future of your country, but for its present as well. And for the present and the future of Europe altogether.
So we are already working together a lot and well on many different things, but it is time to move up to the next level. You want it and we want it. And we both need it. To do so, you all know that a deep and comprehensive reform of the judiciary is point number one on the agenda.
Let us always keep in mind what judicial reform is about. I come from a country that knows something about that. It is first and foremost about the equality of all Albanians, who must be treated fairly beyond their social status, their family name, their beliefs. This is about your economy as well. It is about your companies, who should all play by the same rules. It is about foreign investors who need to trust this country and its institutions at the maximum level possible. And it is about your democracy as well and your citizens. They need to be fully confident in the State and in the institutions. They need to know that their success will depend only on good ideas and hard work and only on that.
It is for all these reasons that we attach such a high priority to this reform. This reform will open the way to a recommendation from the European Commission to start negotiations and for Member States to take a positive decision on it. It can be a new beginning, the start of a new chapter of our shared history. A good one, one that delivers for our people.
The judicial reform you are now discussing is one of the most comprehensive reforms proposed in the enlargement countries ever. Let me thank you, all of you for that: the lawmakers and experts of all different political backgrounds who have been involved in the impressive work done so far. The Venice Commission will soon give its final opinion on all the inputs they have received. So based on this, do the right thing: adopt the reform.
I know that all parties, government and opposition, are keen to move Albania forward on its path to EU membership. And I know very well that the citizens of your country expect you to deliver on this, so do it.
I also know that your politics suffer from a deep lack of trust and of dialogue among the parties. Again, I come from a country that has some experience in that. Accepting your opponent as a legitimate actor, not an enemy to fight against even beyond the merit of what is discussed is crucial to any democracy. And yet, I know, it is incredibly difficult to achieve – not just for Albania, but for all of us. For too long my own country, Italy, has suffered from a similar disease: the political debate has too often been dominated by insults not arguments. So I know the feeling.
But let me tell you very clearly: there are interests that are more vital than those of your own political party, and these are those of your country and your people. And let me tell you that in many parts of Europe, today, our democratic debate is not in the best shape ever. So this is not someone preaching from a position of strength. This is a common trend we all have to face.
This is something we all need to work on in these difficult times for our democracies. Because we need politics and institutions to deliver – or our citizens will grow more and more disappointed and frustrated about our democracies, about our institutions and also our Union. So we need to focus on what needs to be done and find the strength and the way to do it. This is particularly true in the Western Balkans. After the fall of the regimes, after the wars, too much time has already been gone.
We are now finally moving forward, everywhere in the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina has just presented its application for membership. Serbia and Kosovo continue to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue that I see as a positive trend. And I would like to thank you, each and every one of you, and some of you in particular for the very positive role you have played in recent times around the region. This is extremely important, not only for the region but for the European Union as such. You should be proud of that. In fact, the challenges we face tell us that reconciliation and dialogue cannot be delayed any further.
Terrorism and radicalisation are a threat that none of us can ignore, and the issue of foreign terrorist fighters has not spared the region, Albania as well as many EU Member States. Again we are together on this. The current refugee crisis has so far affected your country only to a limited extent – but we have all seen that news routes can be opened quickly, with the first signs already there. And we need to work closely together on this as we are experiencing the negative consequences and the dangerous ones of a non-cooperative approach among neighbours.
The present times and the times ahead don’t look easy at all for all of us. But I am sure, not only because I am an optimist, that we can manage all these issues successfully, if we finally embrace a truly cooperative approach, inside our societies, inside our parliaments, inside our institutions, inside our Union, inside our continent. If we understand that the strength of my neighbour is my own strength. If we reject the forces that are trying to tear our societies apart and rather focus on what keeps us together as countries, as societies, as institutions, as Europeans.
Whenever the EU engages with one of the “enlargement countries” we are all focused on – let me call it this way even, if it is not correct - technicalities, the acquis, reforms and chapters. We too often forget what our Union has to gain from enlargement. And that this is a process that is vital for the countries that are going to enter the Union as well as for the countries that are already in the Union. If we forget this, we forget what enlargement is really about. It is about being together, as a family, and find together solutions to common problems and also – to be positive, at least a little bit – to profit together from opportunities that we can only together manage to build.
Now if you listen to certain European politicians today, and you will get the feeling that our continent is about to collapse because of refugees and migrants. I have repeated many times that it is not the ‘other’ who will tear our societies apart, but the fear of the ‘other’ and the lack of capacity to manage diversity in our own societies. But we need to show our citizens that coexistence really works. That diversity is a point of strength and not of weakness.
And the history of Albania constitutes a great example. For centuries, different religions and peoples have not just coexisted, but cooperated in harmony. I was told a story – I hope it is true, otherwise you tell me - that Catholic families here used to keep a separate set of plates for their Muslim guests, out of respect for the culture and traditions of those they hosted. Is it true? Yes. This is a true treasure, respect and understanding for the ‘other’, respect as the ultimate principle of our culture and our values.
And more, think of your own history of emigration as I can think of our own history of emigration. We all remember the images of Albanians coming to Italy in the early nineties. For Italians, it was the first time they experienced immigration to the country, forgetting the emigration the Italians were experiencing in the previous decades, with very short memory. As you know all too well, many Italians at that time were scared. But look at what happened in the next 25 years. Look at all the success stories. Look at the boys and girls who have studied hard and who got a university degree, those who have risen to the middle class, those who have started their own businesses and help their families back home. As proud Albanians, they have enriched both their beloved homeland, my own beloved homeland.
You know these people better than I do. And you know those who have stayed here, and a dream to be part of a truly united Europe. This Parliament I believe has a duty to them. It is your responsibility, I know very well that it is also my responsibility, to deliver on the follow-up. We are together in this. But now your country is looking at you, all of you. My invitation, my suggestion is this: break free from the part of your past that blocks your future. Move this country forward. Bring it into the European Union. You owe it to Albania, to your people and let me tell you, you owe it also to the whole of Europe.