Statement by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference with President Michel and Prime Minister Janša following the EU-Western Balkans Summit

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC) i, gepubliceerd op woensdag 6 oktober 2021.

Thank you so much,

First of all, let me also congratulate Prime Minister Janša for this successful Summit. And thank you very much for the outstanding organisation and hospitality we have had here.

So let me reflect on the Western Balkans Summit first. The Commission's message is very clear: First of all, the Western Balkans is part of the same Europe as the European Union. We share the same history, we share the same interests, the same values, and, I am deeply convinced, also the same destiny. The European Union is not complete without the Western Balkans. So my Commission will continue to do its utmost to advance the enlargement process and the region's EU integration. We want the Western Balkans in the European Union. There cannot be any doubt that our goal is enlargement.

My second message today was that the Economic and Investment Plan is at the core of our engagement with the region. Indeed, with EUR 9 billion put on the table in grants, we can leverage up to EUR 30 billion for the region. The Economic and Investment Plan is accompanied by the Berlin Process and it is crucial for the development and the deeper integration of the common regional market. The market integration will be as beneficial to the Western Balkans as the Single Market is to the European Union. Therefore, our focus is now on developing this common regional market.

Last week, I was travelling to the six Western Balkan countries. And besides the discussions on the topics I was just mentioning, I also felt people's impatience and partly their frustration over the length of the process to join the European Union. And I understand that. So what is the way forward, based on this?

On the issues of reform, it is clear that our partners in the Western Balkans are undertaking important reforms. I am not saying that they are there yet, but there is obviously a lot of progress visible. If you look over time, a lot has changed for the better. And now, it is important to stay the course in key areas such as justice, the fight against corruption and organised crime, media freedom and economic reforms.

But in the meantime, the European Union also has to deliver. And in particular, the lack of a decision for opening the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is jeopardising our standing and our leverage in the region. Therefore, it was very important today, throughout the course of the day, to move forward on this process, to clarify this process.

There is an intensive work being done by the Commission to really find the key issues in the bilateral topics between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, it is 5+1 issues; and to make sure that we get it into a roadmap, so that there is a very practical step forward to solve problems. We have been discussing at the Summit that the dialogue, the willingness to solve problems, and the capability to address difficult and problematic issues, is the core of what the European Union is all about. If you look at our more than 70 years of history, that is how we built the European Union. And therefore, I am very confident that we are able to solve these issues.

Important is also the practical work on the ground. For example, if we look at overcoming the pandemic: We have provided EUR 3.3 billion to the region to address the emergency of the crisis. We have donated 2.9 million doses of vaccine. And we have proven that we were the Western Balkans' most reliable partner in this crisis. And we will continue being the closest partner in years and decades to come.

As I have said, we have put EUR 9 billion on the table for the Economic and Investment Plan. This could be a game-changer. To give you very practical examples: To help Serbia improve the wastewater management, so that the Danube can be clean right down to the Black Sea. Or we discussed with Bosnia and Herzegovina the fact that they want to phase out its coal-powered power plants and replace them with clean alternatives - this could be part of the investment. Or improvement to rail and road connections across the region, thus also better linking Greece to the rest of the European Union. Just to name a few of the topics.

We prepared an Action Plan for the Western Balkan Green Agenda. We are launching an Innovation Agenda to help promote innovation in the area. And we agreed on a roadmap to reduce roaming charges between the European Union and the Western Balkans.

Finally, last week's agreement between Kosovo and Serbia on the tensions over the licence plates - an agreement that was facilitated by the European Union - was an excellent message also to the region that it is possible, by sitting down at the negotiating table, by showing the willingness to find solutions, that, even in very difficult situations, we are able to find those solutions and to move forward. And I think that if you look at our Declaration today, it is a very clear statement that our commitment to enlargement is in the very first paragraph, that shows our willingness here to move forward.

Thank you.