Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström at seminar about the EU and the Western Balkans
Europahuset, Stockholm 29 May 2017.
Check against delivery.
Ministers, Excellencies, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very warm welcome to Stockholm, and to this timely and important discussion on EU accession of the Western Balkan countries.
Much has changed since we met in this format a year and a half ago.
One of the EU Member States, and a close friend to many of us, has unfortunately decided to leave the Union.
Some might even say that since we last met, we have witnessed a shift in the global political climate, a shift towards what has been called "the age of anger".
But we have also seen a progressive candidate, with EU flags at his rallies, win the French presidential election.
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The political winds may change direction, but Sweden is resolute when it comes to the Western Balkans.
We have always been a strong advocate of deepened democratic and economic reforms through EU enlargement.
This policy enjoys broad parliamentary and public support in Sweden. But, here too, there are voices that question whether the EU should expand any further.
These voices may say: "Perhaps that's enough for now; perhaps it's time to pause; perhaps this is a good time to wait and see."
My view is this: if we go down that path, we will not only threaten European stability.
We will be shirking our moral obligation to honour our promise. In 2003, the EU declared that all the countries of the Western Balkans were potential EU candidate countries.
Predictability and credibility must be hallmarks of the European Union.
We must stay true to our commitments.
Some of the countries in the region are already candidate countries, and some have started negotiating membership through their own hard work.
For these countries to enjoy continued stability and development, the door to the EU must remain open.
It was therefore extremely encouraging to hear High Representative Frederica Mogherini clearly reaffirm this message during her Western Balkans tour earlier this year.
Continued democratic and economic reforms in the Western Balkans are perhaps more important today than ever before, both for the countries of the Western Balkans and for the EU.
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As you can hear, my conviction is firm: closer relations with the EU for the countries of the Western Balkans are crucial for our common European future.
I will now outline three reasons for this conviction.
Firstly: the EU accession reform agenda brings stable societies.
The EU accession process has brought peace and prosperity to central Europe and the Balkans.
The process has helped to transform societies, profoundly and for the better – even though many challenges remain in the Western Balkans, as we all know.
But in order to meet these challenges and enhance stability where tensions remain, I believe that more and deeper cooperation with the EU is needed. Not less.
And the job is not finished until all the potential candidate countries of the Western Balkans, who want to become members, are members of the EU.
Since we last met in December 2015, positive developments have taken place:
- In September last year, the Council asked the Commission to prepare an opinion on whether Bosnia and Herzegovina was ready to start negotiations.
- The Stabilisation and Association Agreement between Kosovo and the EU has entered into force.
- Both Serbia and Montenegro have continued to open new chapters in their negotiations.
- If Albania continues its crucial justice reform, we might soon see a decision by the Council to open negotiations.
- And with a new government soon in place in Skopje – within a few days according to the latest reports – we are hoping for some movement in Macedonia as well.
Only through dynamic EU integration processes can we build lasting stability.
But commitment must be shown by all EU Member States.
Individual Member States cannot use bilateral issues to block progress.
The pace of progress on EU integration should be based solely on the merits of reforms and EU alignment.
This is how we guarantee the credibility of a process that has been so successful thus far – strict but fair conditionality.
The European Commission's task is to guide us all through this process with unwavering drive and dedication.
We need this engagement and commitment to be supported by Member States at the highest political level, and to be accompanied by adequate resources.
However, and most importantly: the enlargement countries will set the pace through their determination and ability to address the key challenges they face.
Rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms – as well as economic development – are at the heart of the European Union.
It is therefore natural for them to be at the heart of your countries' accession process.
We all know that major challenges exist: lack of respect for the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression, as well as organised crime and corruption.
For all of the Western Balkan countries, serious efforts are still needed in these areas on your path towards the EU.
Secondly: regional cooperation and socio-economic development – connectivity, openness, youth, reconciliation – are the way forward.
Regional cooperation is a cornerstone of the European Union. We can never achieve stability and peace, let alone economic development, without good neighbourly relations and cooperation.
Therefore, the EU has insisted on regional cooperation in the Western Balkans.
Over the last few years, the Berlin process has helped to boost the connectivity of the countries in the region, and we fully support this. The Western Balkan countries may be relatively small, but together you can be competitive.
Here, your situation is comparable to that of the Nordic countries. We have long-standing cooperation including a customs union and freedom of movement. And this remains in place, despite the fact that some of us have joined the EU and others haven't. Because it is still very valuable to us.
There is a need for socio-economic development in the Balkans. Here too, you could help each other and support progress in your countries for the benefit of all.
Regional cooperation will also help reconciliation between countries and within countries. The younger generations need to get to know each other and understand that they have a common future, regardless of the events of the past.
I would like to see more youth programmes in the Western Balkans, with people coming together to learn from each other.
And thirdly: let us communicate the EU to our citizens.
Friends, we have a common challenge – how to communicate all the benefits of the EU to our citizens: peace and prosperity, freedom and justice.
We have to work together to ensure that our common values are understood and appreciated.
We need to work together to better explain how all the rules and regulations, and meetings and compromises, translate into a better life for us all.
We need to counter the disinformation about the EU and its Member States from those who want to undermine us and curtail our fundamental freedoms.
To this end, we know that free media and the freedom of expression are fundamental. But we need to ensure that people understand the difference between free and responsible media, journalists who scrutinise power through democratic means, and those who use the freedom of expression to do harm.
We also need to discuss and debate why further EU enlargement, for example throughout the Western Balkans, is in the interest of Europe as a project for peace and prosperity.
And when we communicate this important vision, we need to remember the following: communication, at its core, is about democratisation.
We need a European Union for the citizens, where people feel that it is their Union and that they have a say in where it is heading.
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My vision is perhaps best encapsulated by a music school in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar Rock School.
As we all know, the wonderful city of Mostar has had its fair share of challenges. But this school gives young people from across the Mostar region the opportunity to engage with one another, and the focus of everyone's attention is music – not ethnicity or family history.
This project has been very successful, bringing young people together around a common passion. Sweden is very proud to support this music school and welcomes plans for similar projects across the Western Balkans.
This wonderful example shows that reconciliation is possible; it demonstrates the power of music and culture; it reminds us that young people are the future; and it illustrates that efforts to support the Western Balkans bring hope and stability to our common continent.
* * *
I began by talking about how the winds of change shift.
But the fundamental values of the EU remain the same.
They are, as always, enshrined in our Treaty: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
These values – and I feel honoured and proud reading them out loud – might be challenged by some, even within the EU.
But, at the same time, they remain our moral compass as we face the future.
In challenging times like these, we have to stand together, and recall how and why our union was first established.
As we know, it was created by linking the economies of France and Germany. A historic and political journey followed, as more and more countries joined.
As the Franco-German engine might once again give renewed impetus to our European project, Sweden's position remains the same.
We are well aware of the impact of Brexit, including on the will to deepen and enlarge our Union.
We are well aware that further enlargement is governed by the Copenhagen criteria, and that the current state of our union underlines the importance of democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law.
But as I have clearly indicated, Sweden remains a strong advocate of deepened democratic and economic reforms through EU enlargement, not least with regard to our friends in the Western Balkans.