Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the eighth Aspen Southeast Europe Foreign Ministers' Conference

My esteemed fellow Foreign Ministers,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased that you have come here to Berlin!

I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to you, Mr Ambassador, and the Aspen Institute for the hospitality and preparation of this conference.

I am especially pleased to open our discussions today on the Western Balkans together with you, Jacub [Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic].

Because we stand here today as the representatives of two countries whose parents’ generations still faced each other as bitter enemies.

They became enemies after the peaceful coexistence of our two countries was brutally destroyed by the Nazi policy of expansion and aggression.

Destruction, devastation and forced displacement – all of this left deep and painful scars in the relations between our two countries, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Therefore, we had to rebuild trust and learn again to deal with each other peacefully. This rapprochement required strength, time and also some courage. Because not everybody in the Czech Republic and Germany was in favour of a new beginning after so much violence and hatred.

With the German-Czech Declaration of 1997, we allowed our common history to become fertile ground for a close partnership, and even a friendship. We are now neighbours and friends, closely connected to each other through the European Union.

Today’s conference is another result of the excellent cooperation between the Czech Republic and Germany. This genuine reconciliation between our countries and the very close relations we enjoy today – not only between governments but also between our societies – could perhaps be an inspiration for the Western Balkans, too.

Because when I look at our neighbouring region today, a region which is so important to us, I am concerned about the developments there.

This is why I am convinced: All of us, especially the countries of the region, must work harder for a peaceful, prosperous and European future for the Western Balkans.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me therefore share with you which I think are the trends in the Western Balkans that are worrying me. And also what I think we can do to reverse these trends.

Tensions within and between the region’s countries have increased. We see that political divisions within societies contribute to more confrontational regional politics – and vice-versa. The demons of nationalism and of ethnic divisions that seemed to have been overcome already, seem to be re-emerging.

I believe we have to look closely at what is causing these developments.

We then come to the conclusion that the main problems are homegrown. I am talking about reform gridlock, corruption, economic stagnation and political instability. And we see how fears and unresolved traumas are used to divert attention from these problems. These are issues internal to the region.

However, we must also be aware that the Western Balkans region isn’t immune to what is happening in Europe and around the world.

I am concerned that countries from outside the region try to re-establish spheres of influence through old geopolitical thinking. Thereby, they pit neighbours against each another – and also against the European Union!

Of course, it also doesn’t help either when the impression is created that Europe is primarily attending to its own affairs and does not care enough about the Western Balkans!

These factors – which are not rooted in the region, but have an impact on it – weaken the reform dynamic even further. This is only strengthening the forces that are interested in maintaining a bad status quo.

In other words, ladies and gentlemen, something must be done – because the critical developments in the Western Balkans have a direct impact on us in Central Europe.

The positive message here is: The close interdependency also holds true in a positive sense – when things are going well for countries in the Western Balkans, this is also good for the European Union because we need strong partners in the Western Balkans.

Therefore, I am convinced that it is in the interest of the countries of the Western Balkans as well as of the European Union to do everything to jointly adopt the right course again.

And the overall direction is clear since the summit in Thessaloniki, and I would like to reaffirm it: European Union membership for the six countries in the Western Balkans – that’s the goal! Because the accession process and subsequent membership in the European Union are the best ways we can imagine to stabilise the region in the long term.

But an honest analysis also has to include a bitter truth: The prospect of membership in the European Union has lost some of its appeal in recent years in the Western Balkans.

There was always a downturn in enthusiasm for EU accession when the public realised that the process itself is challenging and takes a long time.

There are of course tangible reasons for this trend: The benefits of closer ties with the European Union, as well as the progress already achieved, have so far been barely visible for the populations. On the contrary, many people are primarily confronted with the social hardships that are a consequence of implementing long-needed reforms in the candidate countries.

It is often the elderly and underprivileged who suffer most from this, but also the younger generations. The employment statistics show a clear picture. Youth unemployment is sometimes over 60 percent. This means that young people barely have a chance of finding a suitable job in the domestic labour market.

One of the consequences is that many of those people who have the opportunity “vote with their feet‟ and leave. Young and well-educated people, in particular, are leaving the region in great numbers. This, of course, is the group of people most needed to build thriving economies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is therefore clear to me that we can’t simply continue doing things as we did before. And we must target different levels:

Firstly, we must work together on changing the stories that we tell here in the European Union – but also in the countries of the Western Balkans – and adapt them to reality. That applies to all sides!

We in the European Union have to acknowledge, more than we have previously, that such a profound transformation process requires a lot of strength and courage. We must give greater recognition to the fact that societies in the Western Balkans are in the middle of a huge reconstruction process – economically, politically and socially.

However, I think it also means that the elites, in particular, in these countries should avoid telling the wrong stories about the European Union.

The European Union is, of course, not a messiah that can suddenly solve all the problems of the Western Balkans. Such expectations can only lead to disappointment!

And the European Union is also not the devilish power that forces the countries of the Western Balkans to implement reforms. I completely understand that economic reforms are difficult and not always popular – we have seen this in Germany in the last decade and we have similar difficult discussions in the Euro Zone today.

But one thing has to be clear: Regardless of the accession process to the European Union, it is in the interest of the countries of the region to push these reforms ahead. Because this is the only viable way to make their countries competitive in the long term. These reforms are not a favour to the European Union. They are in the interest of your own countries!

But we have to be careful not to limit this conversation to economic issues. We should encourage a more comprehensive discussion.

I say this because sometimes it seems to be forgotten that the EU is first and foremost about peace. There is no better guarantor of peace with your neighbours than being member states of the European Union. Nowhere else in the world can people live with such freedom, safety and social protection as in Europe.

Instead of blaming the European Union for all that goes wrong, responsible politicians should encourage their citizens not to forget this  – because our offer of membership still stands!

We must also make sure that the extensive support that the European Union already provides for the Western Balkan countries becomes more visible. It should not be the case that in Serbia, for example, a large proportion of the population – according to the surveys – still believes that Russia is the country’s largest financial supporter. If the people are completely unaware of everything that the European Union does, it’s hardly surprising that their interest in the accession process is limited.

One example: I don’t understand why one is greeted on the trip from Belgrade Airport into the city centre by a large poster that celebrates the Russian-Serbian friendship, while the yellow and blue of the European Union is totally invisible.

In this regard, we must make significant improvements together – meaning the EU as well as the Western Balkan countries.

However, it isn’t just a matter of the stories that we have to change, ladies and gentlemen. The second level on which something needs to be done is the area of practical cooperation.

We, as Europeans, have to take concrete steps: The European Union’s enlargement process must be enhanced and given additional support. Otherwise, it cannot be ruled out that the Western Balkans will slip away from us before our very eyes. This is not what we want. Therefore, we must stay the course!

That does not mean – and I want to stress this – that I am advocating compromises in the conditions for membership. Nothing of the sort. There should be no discounts in key areas, particularly in relation to the rule of law, the justice system, the fight against corruption and press freedom.

However, I am firmly convinced that we in the European Union must develop more and fresh ideas. Yet not only ideas. We should also provide more financial means for their implementation in order to reduce the social hardships associated with the region’s transformation.

Furthermore, it would be in our own best interests if we were to allow the Western Balkan countries to participate in more of the European Union’s programmes.

Another key point that we have to consider is the strengthening of regional cooperation. I am pleased with the positive dynamic that the “Berlin process” has created. But I also say quite openly that all of us here need to be much more ambitious. We need a “Berlin process reloaded”! The process must generate visible improvements for the local populations. Therefore, we should give priority to ideas aimed at making the region an attractive economic area. This would inevitably lead to closer ties with the European Union and would help to accelerate the accession process.

I therefore welcome the efforts of Commissioner Hahn who is actively working toward the creation of a common economic area in the region. This path is both right and forward-looking; better conditions for intra-regional trade and investment don’t just help to unblock development potential. Economic integration of the Western Balkans based on European standards also makes integration into the European Union easier.

But we should not stop there. We must now also accelerate the large infrastructure projects that are economically vital! Projects that also have special symbolic significance, such as the highway between Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. In order to finance it, I propose that we should set up an additional fund for infrastructure projects. Member states of the EU as well as the EFTA and the European Economic Area could contribute to the fund as donors.

The growth of Industry 4.0 also offers great prospects for the Western Balkans. However, the Western Balkan countries will only be able to benefit from this, if they have an efficient IT infrastructure and if there is a reliable legal framework for IT services. It is imperative that the Western Balkan countries address this collectively so that each country doesn’t end up with a different standard. It is important not to lose any time on this. In my opinion, an IT summit in the region would be an ideal opportunity to promote this idea.

I am convinced that generally more should be done to make the region more attractive for foreign investment.

But we all know that investors are less likely to invest if they feel the rule of law is not taken seriously. So there is also a strong economic argument to strengthen independent institutions: the parliaments, the justice sector and to protect the independence and freedom of the media.

We all know also that countries with well-educated skilled workers are attractive investment locations. Germany has benefited from this for decades. The key to success in our case is dual vocational training, meaning the theoretical transfer of knowledge combined with an apprenticeship at a company.

Why don’t we establish a fund for the countries of the region to finance projects in the area of dual vocational training, which the countries can then apply for? This would create positive competition and ensure that the funds are used where they are really needed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am aware that all these things cost money. But I say to you: If we don’t make money available today to keep the Western Balkans on the right track during this crucial phase, the consequences will be a lot more expensive for all of us! The European Union needs strong partners in the region.

But, my fellow Foreign Ministers, it is now your responsibility to make it clear to the European Union that your countries want to stay the course in the same way. To stay the course toward a future that won’t just benefit your citizens economically and socially. But a future that also binds your countries together as neighbours in a peaceful manner.

We – Czechs and Germans – have experienced this wonderful transformation! Therefore, I appeal to you to take advantage of this historic opportunity! And I can assure you: We will support you on this path!

Thank you for your attention.

Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the eighth Aspen Southeast Europe Foreign Ministers' Conference

Südosteuropa-Konferenz des Aspen Instituts