Posted: 27. August 2018

Regional economic integration, informal meeting of Prime Ministers of Western Balkan region

Joint press conference of Prime Minister Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Montenegro Duško Marković, Prime Minister of Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj, the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, EBRD President Suma Chakrabarti, following the informal meeting of Western Balkan government heads on the topic “Regional Economy Integration” held in the western coastal city of Durres on Monday:

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Good afternoon everyone! We have come together with the prime ministers of Kosovo and Montenegro, Commissioner Hahn, and the President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), whom I would like so much to thank and express gratitude for participating in the today’s informal meeting.

Meanwhile, due to objective circumstances, some our important friends were unable to attend the meeting.

I avail myself of this opportunity to express our condolences to Prime Minister Borisov for the tragic accident, which killed several people, and was the cause for the last-minute cancellation of his visit.

Likewise, the Prime Minister of Macedonia, after waiting for more than one hour at Skopje airport, he obviously couldn’t depart due to inclement weather.

Serbia’s Prime Minister has sent her regrets for being unable to attend. However, I believe we had a fruitful, useful meeting, having taken stock of the progress of the process and efforts to create a joint regional economic zone. We then also widely discussed the relations and common progress on the road to EU membership.

First I would like to give the floor to the Commissioner, who also plays the key role as the Coordinator of the process for monitoring the measures plan for creation of the economic and regional zone and elimination of non-tariff barriers, the increase of trade exchanges between countries, but also for aspects related to initiatives within the group of countries, such as the most recent initiative on establishing the South-East Europe International Institute for Sustainable Technologies in Montenegro, an initiative we strongly support. The floor is for you:

 

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn: Thank you very much Mr Prime Minister!  First allow me to say that I am deeply impressed that, particularly in Albania, the media world is more or less dominated by ladies, so I’m really impressed about this.

Secondly, thank you Prime Minister for convening us again and hosting us here in Durres. It is the second time we are here in a country we know best. We in Austria use to say that if something happens twice it marks the beginning of a tradition. So I expect such an event to take place again in next August as it provides a good opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved in a course of one year and what has to be done further.

Actually we are indeed mainly focusing on further implementing in the framework of the regional economic area. But it is important to underline and recall what has been achieved over the last couple of months, in particular when it comes to the six Western Balkan countries. In Albania and Macedonia has been made progress that led to the conclusions of the European Council that we should start the preparations for the accession negotiations and I hope that the final endorsement becomes a reality next year as foreseen.

Sitting next to the Prime Minister of Kosovo, it is important to remind that we have given the green light concerning the visa liberalization for Kosovo and I hope that the European Parliament and the European Council will deal with it so that the implementation of the visa-free regime for Kosovo starts in a near future.

But when it comes to what we have discussed today, it is important to highlight the economic integration agenda. We took stock of what has been accomplished so far and what has been achieved is impressive. During the past year, around 80 000 new jobs have been created in the region and for the first time in many, many years the inter-regional trade volume has increased 18 % compared to 2016. But, I would say most of these 80 000 jobs have been created due to the economic growth and the opportunities created within the country, but also due to the doubled trade between the different countries in the region with the European Union, which has doubled over the past years. But, at the same time, this demonstrates and shows the region’s existing potential that expects to be tapped in order to have the opportunity to improve trade among the countries in the region and beyond by also removing the formal and informal trade barriers.

I really appreciate the fact that now under the leadership of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) the negotiations concerning the mutual recognition of the certificates and academic graduations has started, which is another important element.

Also I listened carefully that might be an opportunity that the remaining two countries, which are not yet part of the roaming agreement, may join the roaming agreement should the necessary political conditions are met thus taking a significant step under the negotiations and discussions to further cut the roaming cost and fees with the EU.

But it is not only that. At the same time, it is about the management of the expectations. It took for the European Union about ten years to find a solution on the roaming fees, but on the other hand it is a good thing we are now experienced how to achieve this goal. I think that should we have to walk on the same path again we will reach such agreement with this part of the region faster and in less than ten years we needed in the EU.

We also discussed the further investment and economic development reform agenda of the Western Balkans. I think it is important to start to promote the region globally as one brand. For instance, Prime Minister was referring to tourism and agriculture as areas with great potential, and on a personal note I urge you to pay particular attention on further improvement in the energy sector, because here there a lot of untapped potential for the country and the region. So, the region itself has every opportunity to be more self-reliable when it comes to energy output, provided that there is a strong coordination in terms of supplies and tariffs as well. However, this is something we need to seriously discuss in the future. Thank you very much!

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Thank you very much honourable and dear Johannes. I will now give the floor to a dear friend, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković.

 

Prime Minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković: Thank you very much for hosting this meeting, which is a very good platform to all of us. I agree this is a very useful platform which should turn into a tradition. It is clear that the region has made some significant progress over the past year. A high-level political dialogue has been established along with a higher level of trust and political confidence if compared to the previous years. The outcome of the negotiations between Macedonia and Greece and the agreement between the two countries, as well as the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia to address their issues have contributed to this higher level of political confidence.

What really matters in this sense is the new EU enlargement strategy, which is indeed a positive impetus to all of us when it comes to the European perspective. We have agreed to make the best of this vision and option set forth on the enlargement strategy in order to improve the rule of law, standards and economy.

We must therefore be ready and prepared for the EU accession and the common European market.

In this respect, it is important that we fully deliver on our obligations and commitments we have already undertaken in Trieste Summit under the Berlin Process by signing the action plan on the regional connectivity. Today we took stock of our accomplishments to date, of what we have yet to achieve and what are the limitations we face internationally to meet these obligations and commitments. Clearly, we decided and agreed that the action plan should be the agenda that keeps us moving forward so that our economies grow more and so that the living standards of our citizens are higher and we are able to create more jobs and to create further opportunities for our youth.

Therefore, on behalf of Montenegro, I would like today to thank and express a strong appreciation for the Prime Minister Rama’s support for our initiative to establish the South-East Europe International Institute for Sustainable Technologies and this is very important initiative to prevent brain drain and convince those young people who have already left to return home, making a good connection between scientific research and the economy and achieving far better results. So I believe that time and what lies ahead is full of challenges and if it yields good results then this platform and other ministerial platforms will be very important to our European perspective.

Prime Minister Edi Rama: I would now give the floor to the co-owner of the house, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj.

 

Prime Minister of Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj: Thank you Edi! Thank you for hosting the informal meeting of the head of governments to discuss the economic integration of the Western Balkan countries. I am glad to be here along with Commissioner Hahn, our colleague Duško Marković, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, as well as the EBRD President Suma Chakrabarti, an extremely important partner of our countries and economies, and other participants and stakeholders, who are very seriously doing their part to support economic growth and efforts to make the Western Balkan countries an attractive market to investments. In this case, we can talk about road infrastructure. We acknowledge that we lag behind in our efforts when it comes to construction of the railroads, but I can tell you that we are also in the process of joining the roaming agreement, that is, digitization and signing of other protocols. Understandably, we face difficulties that differ from those of other countries in the region. It is the freedom of movement. I would like to thank Commissioner Hahn for highlighting the visa liberalization issue. Kosovo citizens still face free movement difficulties when travelling to Serbia. Our citizens spend hours to cross the border and face movement difficulties. They even cannot travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kosovo citizens also need to apply for a visa to travel to Croatia, a EU member state. All these make our economic life more difficult. What we find easier and I believe we will advance to them to the right level is our relationship, the two economies, Kosovo-Albania. As we have agreed with you Edi, we will have the joint meeting of the two governments in Peja in the second half of November and I believe we will finalize all the remaining procedures to removing customs bureaucracies that hinder our citizens, but also the economy and entrepreneurs. Thank you!

I would like to add something about the most recent debate over the border issue. Kosova already has its borders with Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia too. We respect these borders and we don’t think that new creativity is needed to redraw them, but we should respect the borders in place.

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Thank you very much Ramush! I would like to reiterate, and this is not for formalism, but because I really appreciate him, in particular, for the fact that the presence of the President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development at today’s meeting is a valuable contribution. EBRD President is a good friend of the region, a manager who sometimes has to deal with the reactions from the Bank’s board because of the fact that thanks to his commitment our region has the largest volume of the Bank’s investments per capita. However, it is important to note today that despite these internal debates, the President is determined that the bank will increase funding for the region at this stage.

The floor is yours Mr President. Thank you very much dear friend!

President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Suma Chakrabarti: Thank you very much Prime Minister of Albania, dear Edi. I would like to express a big thank to you and to all prime ministers of the region really, because I think that without your leadership it would have been simply impossible for the EBRD to do more in this region. So it is because of this leadership and a new generation of leaders in the region so that we can do more. This is a strong story of successful partnership across the borders of this region and between the countries and the European Commission and the EBRD as well. I am very proud of that. Let’s say that the EBRD has created or launched this process back in 2014, when we held the first ever meeting of the Western Balkan prime ministers in our London headquarters. We have had three meetings until now, but we also need to main the momentum, considering the Berlin Process and the summit here in the region. I think we have a lot to do, but, as Dsko said, we should also take stock of the fact that quite a lot has been done people couldn’t have imagined just 4 to 5 years ago. Including investments in energy, transport, for example the Trans- Adriatic gas pipeline, which is a great example of that. We have also developed an investments platform, bringing together the region’s chambers of commerce, or pushing forward the connectivity agenda or bringing foreign investments in the region. That’s all has gone very well, but we know there is a bigger agenda ahead, like the removal of tariff barriers and their reduction in terms of building a business climate even more friendly for EBRD, foreign investors and domestic investors too.

As I’ve said, the EBRD has invested 10 billion euros over the years now in the Western Balkan countries. It is true that this is the region with the highest EBRD investment level per capita and I’m really proud of that. However, that couldn’t have happened without the changes happing on the ground within the Western Balkan countries. That’s why we have been able to invest more in this region. Therefore, this year, our teams in the region face a challenge to try and beat the 10-billion euros investment we have invested so far in this region. And I am confident as I looked to the numbers earlier today we will get ahead of that this year as well. To help the European perspective of this region, we will invest even more than that every year in the next five to ten years to really put this forward together.

That’s what I am committed to and that’s what the EBRD is committed to.  And to show our commitment, the next EBRD summit will be held in Sarajevo and the meeting will be all about the Western Balkans. I expect the prime ministers there and the meeting will be about challenging ourselves to do even more together in the years to come.

Thank you very much!

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Thank you very much and allow me to take the floor by highlighting from the very beginning that people here in Albania, Montenegro and elsewhere in the region know well that things are going much better than they did four or five years ago. But, on the other hand, I know, and we all know, that comparing with the four or five years ago is not enough, but we are challenged by the fact that people here in our country and our whole region compare their situation with Germany, France and other EU member states to which they are rightfully attracted to.

Together with Dusko, we had a long discussion about the employment challenges we here in Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and the whole region faces in our efforts to guide young people to the labour market and the private sector in particular as young people in particular tend to seek a government job instead of the private sector.

This was highlighted during the meeting. The EBRD President also mentioned it. The Commissioner underlined that the region has experienced a period of sustainable economic growth. New jobs have been created and employment has increased but yet people tend to remain sceptical when we talk and present data on employment growth because we know quite well that despite increase in employment people need not merely a job, but high-paying jobs.

So it is all about higher salaries and higher income and therefore we believe that in addition to further reforms in our country and other countries in the region, in addition to the domestic progress in all sectors, it is imperative that we make use of the huge untapped potential of the common territory of our region through the facilitation of trade exchanges, strengthening of the cooperation because at the end of the day, despite the fact that for many in Europe, being against the European Union, is becoming more of a trend, it is exactly being part of a European Union with far fewer barriers and much less difficulties we experience the things that strongly affect the economy of those countries. And if we are to look at how the economy of ex-communist countries has changed after joining the EU we would figure out that the reality of the European Union is a mirror in which we should project the region’s image.

We discussed the ongoing initiatives with the European Union. Initiatives of such nature and the EU integration process take their time and the peoples’ impatience is fully understandable. However, the connectivity program on construction of infrastructure projects that will better link the countries in the region, including the Blue Highway or the Adriatic-Ionian highway and other major initiatives are well underway. We talked about tourism. Tourism industry in Albania, Montenegro and elsewhere in the region has recorded higher figures this year, but there exists the opportunity to create a common regional centre of the tour and travel and leisure operators.

We talked about agriculture, the further growth of exchanges in this regard, and the establishment of a liaison information centre, both for farmers and companies operating in this sector. We talked about energy, as the Commissioner underlined, and we have certainly witnessed something that is a fact now. A whole new and completely different level of political will and cooperation exists in the region today but that is not accompanied with the same level of economic cooperation. In this regard, we have noted, the prime minister of Montenegro also rightfully underlined the need to go much faster with European interoperability standards, in terms of tariffs, controls, bureaucracies. Just as we have already found out in our own experience with Kosovo. The border between us does not stand in our way to do more when it comes to the trade exchanges.

PM Haradinaj already announced that the next joint meeting of the governments of both countries will be held in the second half of November and we have agreed to jointly overcome two or three inherited obstacles in our efforts to cut border and customs bureaucracy.

Thank you very much again for attending, especially to those coming from far away, but also to the local media representatives.

The conference is open to your questions.

-Mr Rama, you and Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati spoke with the foreign media about Albania’s readiness to take in 20 of the asylum-seekers from the Italian coast guard ship that rescued them. How much do you think this decision will affect Albania’s European integration bearing in mind the fact that many EU member states have hesitated to do so?

Prime Minister Edi Rama: We didn’t do that to influence over whoever be. We did it because we couldn’t stand as spectators at a show of pain and shame with people fleeing from hell turning into prisoners of the political impotence or European impotence if you will. So, of course, we can’t tackle this problem, but we decided to do our part by giving a hand and do as much as we could. Meanwhile, it was the case and it is the case to recall the fact that during the 2015 refugee crisis, the Balkans did what whole Europe should have done, proving to be a genuine European region, not only geographically, but also in terms of trust and belonging to the values ​​Europe embodies and make us so pro-European. So, it is worth mentioning that it was a very natural gesture to us Albanians, as Albanians, as Europeans, but as people who were the Eritreans of today and Italy did not abandon us in the sea. I want to reiterate that no secrete purpose stands behind our gesture. It is of course in the spirit of our media world to seek secret intentions.

-I have a question for Commissioner Hahn. The next meeting between Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic is scheduled to take place on September 7, when a final agreement is set to be discussed. Most recently, a border adjustment option is being discussed as the Kosovo President Thaçi has already floated as an idea. A possible territorial swap with Serbia has also been mentioned. Mr Hahn, do you support the border adjustment with Serbia or the territorial swap. Which would be the most acceptable idea, or Kosovo should reach an agreement with Serbia with the existing borders since the country proclaimed independence?

I have a question for you Mr Rama too. You have certainly followed the debate over the territorial swap or border adjustment. What is your comment on that?

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn: I think it is not appropriate at this stage to make any comment on the ongoing discussions and negotiations. I assume that the meeting next week in Brussels will not be the last one. It will be another one and certainly it will take some time to find an agreement. Therefore, please understand that I am not willing to make any comment beside the one that was clearly spelled out in our Western Balkan strategy that we will only accept any new member state if all the bilateral conflicts are resolved. Number two, for us, what counts is stability in the region, in the whole region and we should keep in mind that any kind of bilateral agreement should not endanger the overall stability of the region, but the other way round, it should contribute to more stability in the region. And whatever the final goal is, this has to be the key objective: more stability in the whole region by resolving the bilateral conflicts.

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Just translate this and you will have my signature upon the word the Commissioner just said.