Published on: 27 April 2017

Speech of Minister Bushati at Civil Society Forum Tirana

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear Friends,

I am happy to be here today and welcome you not only as a Foreign Minister but as someone who has personally and actively been involved in civil society in the past.

I spent my youth in the times of great expectations, as the title of a good book says, that is, when EU was the new kid on the block of an old and failed Cold War. Everybody loved it.

Now the European Union seems a bit outdated, like a once famous music band, now out of fashion, with us the old fans and groupies still clinging to the good old tune.

To those who these words might seem cuddled in pessimism, I say that I strongly believe, as I believed back then, that the EU is still the only viable option to the Western Balkan countries.

As we pace ourselves towards European integration, I am happy to see that the Berlin Process has provided a new impetus to regional cooperation.

Over these last three years we have shaken hands more than previously, we have removed some of the stereotypes of the past and we have started to cooperate through joint connectivity projects. We hope that these efforts will bring prosperity to our citizens and will change the Western Balkans from a patchy region into an interconnected and functional one.

The Berlin Process has the potential to provide a long-term strategic development vision for the region which goes beyond our political mandates.

It has set up a forum for political actors in the region to closely interact with EU and international financial institutions, the Regional Cooperation Council, the Energy Community and Transport Organisation.

This has brought another important component to the process:  the human dimension – people to people contacts and relations. Therefore, I see your gathering today, in this very format – the Civil Society Forum – as a logical and a positive outcome.

 

Dear friends,

Through its constructive engagement Albania has proved to be a driving force in promoting regional cooperation.

This political commitment is being materialized in concrete projects and initiatives. As you know, Tirana is hosting two regional initiatives directly connecting citizens: the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) and the Western Balkans Fund (WBF). Those familiar with these two organisations know how much energy and sustained efforts we have invested in order to make these “two first Western Balkans’ owned bodies” fully functional.

In these troubled times it is not enough to fight against stereotypes and hate speech. That is why it is important to strengthen regional civil society and engage in youth projects able to promote democratic values, rule of law and human rights. This is not only about soft measures and “Pokémon games”.

Connectivity is not only an economic development plan. Rather, it is about adding the people to people dimension as a fundamental part of a new thinking which goes beyond national and regional borders. The Berlin Process is not simply a regional development plan. It is also the blueprint of our path toward European integration.

Yet, the latest developments have shown that positive achievements in the region can be easily threatened by divisive and excluding rhetoric.  Recently we have witnessed a lack of political engagement and dialogue in the region, thus provoking a backlash in good neighbourly relations.

As a consequence the commitments we have all taken in the last summits to genuinely improve bilateral relations have been hampered by short-term political interests.

We are familiar with alliances along ethnic lines, but the region is recently experiencing alliances against rule of law and accountability. Throughout the region we see artificial crises fomented by the resistance against reforms as a result of the Justice stress test the Western Balkan countries are going through.

In a polarized environment in and around the region we should keep up the momentum of the Berlin Process.

But good will is not enough! As we pile in our projects Summit after Summit we are constraint by the lack of financial means. We are falling short of delivering tangible results to our citizens and risk making this an abstract process for them. Also, we are recovering from the global financial crisis which led to a fall in private investment across countries in the region and to a simultaneous fiscal consolidation. This limited our capacity for public investments.

There is a clear risk that the development gap between the European Union and our region is deepened instead of being bridged. For example, the IPA allocation to Albania in the period 2014 - 2020 is 225 Euro per capita. To compare with a new EU member state the size of Albania: the net position of Lithuania in the same period is 3296 Euro per capita – 14 times as much as Albania’s.

That is why, together with the European Union, we should think and design a more sustainable financial agenda for our connectivity projects. This perspective becomes imperative in a context where the region is becoming a fertile ground for investments and capitals originating from third countries that could potentially derail the European trajectory of Western Balkans.

To reap the real benefits of the connectivity agenda we need to make progress on regional economic integration, particularly in the areas of trade and investment.

We welcome the initiatives for further cooperation that build on existing cooperation in the context of CEFTA, RCC and the World Bank. It is important to underline the continuity with these existing initiatives and to emphasize that economic integration is part of preparations for EU accession.

However, further economic integration can be successful only if there is progress in the normalisation of relations between the countries in the region and resolution of bilateral disputes. And every initiative should be based in a forward looking vision towards the European Union, and not on nostalgia for old times.

All of this is beneficial if the end result is more opportunities for cross-border business. Therefore, we should work with the private sector and make progress on a regional investment agenda.

Albania suggests that for the upcoming Trieste Summit, the focus on macro-regional transport and energy projects of connectivity should be complemented with a new focus on local cross-border infrastructure interventions that will ease the flow of goods, services and people across borders and enable effective cross-border business environments.

Furthermore, economic connectivity cannot be considered separately from innovation. Hence, there is great potential in digital connectivity – as an engine to economic development – which needs to be further explored within Berlin process, as the right platform to anchor concrete digital and economic connectivity projects.

In this regard, we welcome the Italian proposal to include the Small and Medium Enterprises in the framework of this process. The region needs a better and strengthened connectivity, but we also need to improve local production, boost youth employment and increase growth and prosperity.  

In addition, we should give a more focused attention to youth professional development and their employment opportunities. In this regard, Albania has been focusing on the vocational education, specifically, in infrastructure building while at the same time assisting this target group to enter the labor market.

It is important to leave Trieste with concrete initiatives people can associate with. It is not sufficient to sit around the table once per year. Therefore, we should put more emphasis in follow-up events to track the progress and address the obstacles.

When it comes to linking citizens to the Berlin process, civil society could be a great communicating agent on the ground level. It is an important linkage that would make sure that there is no gap in the narrative between the political establishment and the society.

This process remains key platform where the EU integration of the Western Balkan 6 remains the exclusive focus. This is particularly important and relevant given the overall environment of heightened debates about the EU and its future, fueled by Brexit, the rise of extremes in Europe and the challenges EU has been facing lately.

In a challenging international environment and strategic uncertainty, Western Balkans has also proved to be a reliable stability and security provider for the European Union.

The strong and prospered European Union is linked with the future of the citizens of our region. It is a future, a common future that we can and must build together.

Thank you. 

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