Joint press conference by Prime Minister Edi Rama and the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi:
Prime Minister Edi Rama: Hello everyone! We are gathered in Tirana and I would like to thank all the participating heads of state and government from the Western Balkans and particularly thank the Commissioner, who promptly expressed readiness to modify his agenda and attend this meeting, which, in my view, is of a particular importance for two main reasons. The today’s meeting is especially important primarily because we have come together take forward a process, which doesn’t matter what one calls it, but to advance the four EU fundamental freedoms in our region and on the other hand, because this process is based on a financial package in the framework of an EU economic and investment plan in terms of the volume of funds made available for regional cooperation and radical improvement of road infrastructure, railways, ports, interconnection and the entire sector of energy, constituting the largest historical EU move regarding the Western Balkans.
It was a pleasure because finally the meeting was not virtual, as we now can afford welcoming our friends without the restriction measures in place and I believe that the Commissioner and the Brussels delegation feel good for removing the Brussels mask here in Tirana and also because the action plan is now tangible and we should now admit that the EU did its part and it is now up to us to do our part.
Undoubtedly, the government of the Republic of Albania, and I personally have been since day one and remain steadfast in our conviction that the project I refer to as Regional Schengen, some others like to call it Mini-Schengen, someone else may not prefer to name it at all, is actually a strategic project with extraordinary socio-economic and, eventually, political benefits for our entire region and I am happy that this vision’s synergy is in full harmony with the European Union.
The Berlin Process is the start of this and we now control the process and I hope the Berlin Process will soon be transferred to the hands of the European Commission and the European Commission President, hoping and aspiring that the July 5 meeting is the last to take place under the current format and instead it takes place under the auspices of the Commission next year, with the presence of the Western Balkans and the EU member states.
This is our ambition we all fortunately share and a desire we fortunately fully share with the Commissioner. In the meantime, as part of the programme on the issues I already mentioned, we have set a series of ambitious points to connect the progress made in our region with the very way of functioning in those directions of the EU space, where we will make progress. Which means that if we take steps towards delivering on the four freedoms of the EU and it is our ambition that these steps of ours are also recognized in the EU space in terms of trade, in terms of data management and exchange, in terms of opportunities and economic activity.
Last but not least, we, as you know, within the region, but also with Hungary just two days ago, have bilaterally agreed on the post-pandemic free movement of people, without being obliged to show tests and things like that, just because we are non-EU members, while today, all countries have submitted to the European Commission and the European Union the request that the digital green card of the citizen of a country in our region in terms of health safety be recognized throughout the EU, so that we can travel freely just like every EU citizen.
Again, thank you very much dear Oliver, Mr. Commissioner and the floor is yours. In the meantime, I would like to underline that although you have frequently visited the region and Albania recently, every visit has offered something new and very good fresh news that I will allow the Commissioner to announce.
EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi: Thank you very much Prime Minister. Thank you very much for having me today on this wonderful day in Tirana! I am particularly happy to see that maybe this is the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 crisis and we can start to get back to do business personally and to have such important meetings of the leaders of the Western Balkans – physically present – and to be able to bring forward our common agenda in the Western Balkans.
Because this meeting has been about a common agenda for the Western Balkans, an agenda that is not only being created by the European Union. It is also being created by the Western Balkans’ leaders themselves and this is why this meeting is so important. We see a clear commitment and engagement from their side, which we have seen already taking shape last year when they have agreed to establish a common regional market. Today we were able to look back and see the progress we are making. We are not yet there, but we have to get there – by July when we have the next Berlin Process summit coming up.
We see already the first deliverable arriving, changing the lives of the citizens by the launching the free roaming zone, the ‘Roam like at home’ – we have it in the European Union – for the entire Western Balkan region.
That is a first and we still have a lot to come: like citizens travelling with ID cards, mutual acceptance of diplomas, work permits removed, facilitating e-commerce. There is a lot this Western Balkans cooperation has to offer; this regional market can offer for the people of the Western Balkans. We are ready to put our offer on the table. We confirm our commitment that we have put on the table in October with the Economic and Investment Plan. The Economic and Investment Plan, which is mobilising one third of the GDP of the region – almost €30 billion of investments to come.
But that Plan will never work, if the region does not work as one. If we do not have a regional market, there is no point in building highways, where the trucks will have to stop every hundred kilometres at the borders. There is no point in building railways, if the trade is slowed down by obstacles. There is no sense in creating new trade routes, if you need to have at least 6 different types of certifications of goods and having to pay taxes on goods.
So, this economic plan will only deliver, if the region also delivers a regional market – that is the environment in which this Economic and Investment Plan can work.
For my part, the additional news that I brought here today is that we have an agreement in the European Union on the financing of this plan. We have come to an agreement last week with the Council and the European Parliament on the IPA III, as it is called, so the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, which will be the financing tool for this plan.
So, on our side we are ready to start the implementation and now we need our Western Balkan partners to come with implementation as fast as they can. As you see, we are entering a month of June which is a critical month for the Western Balkans. We have many issues on our table in the European Union.
We in the European Union want to have Intergovernmental Conferences with Serbia and Montenegro to continue their accession negotiations. We want to have the first Intergovernmental Conferences with Albania and North Macedonia. And we have this summit to deliver for the people on the ground. This month and this year could be the year of the Western Balkans, but we all need to deliver. And this is the message I want to bring everywhere, not only here, also in our Member States. Thank you!
– A question for the Commissioner and you, Mr. Prime Minister. Do you think Albania will be sacrificed again just because of the issues between Bulgaria and North Macedonia? Can anyone predict how long this situation could last and have you made efforts to find a solution given that Albania has fulfilled all its obligations? It seems that no member states are rejecting plans for the first intergovernmental conference. Thank you!
EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi: As I already told you, this month is critical. June is the month when these decisions should be made. We are working very hard at this stage, behind the scene let’s say, because this is a period of the quiet diplomacy to find a solution. The Presidency is committed and fully engaged to reach a solution and this is also the case with the European Commission. However, it is yet too early to say what is going to happen. We are fully engaged and we want this happen.
Prime Minister Edi Rama: As far as I am concerned, my answer remains the same. First and foremost, it is important that we fully deliver on our obligations and the requirements, because we don’t do it just because Brussels, Berlin, Paris or The Hague ask us to do so, but because this is our obligation towards our children and the future generations. Doing the homework for the European integration is also the way to modernize our state. This is the way to make Albania a European state in terms of its justice system, in terms of its welfare institutions system, public service delivery system, in its overall democratic system in terms of every element of the democratic system.
As long as the European Commission, not this year but for three years now, has constantly told us that we have done our homework properly and has asked the European Council to recognize the outcome of our homework and allow for the next stage of the process, we feel calm and relaxed.
The European Council has had its own reasons that have nothing to do with us. I have stated and I reiterate, although they say these reasons have to do with us and this has taken a considerable time, fortunately our accomplishments in delivering on our obligations are not being rejected, not only by the European Commission, but also by the EU member states. But, my friends, this is yet another example to learn about Europe and ways to join this big family, where things are increasingly interconnected with each other. There is an impasse between North Macedonia and Bulgaria and, of course, based on the way how the entire enlargement and integration system works and how the EU’s internal system works, this impasse should be tackled before the process can advance further and at this stage we are not concerned and have no reason to say that we are being sacrificed , because meanwhile we are here together with the EU and we are continuing our work to improve lives and the future of Albanian citizens, not only in terms of entire new legislative architecture and functioning of the institutions, but also in terms of infrastructure and all other elements of economy. I have a legitimate question to make on how long this would last, as we have already seen how long another story took concerning the yesterday’s Macedonia and today’s North Macedonia with the southern neighbour, but we are not asking for an answer to this question today. Let’s wait for the Council’s meeting and see whether there will be new developments, and we will be here again, and what matters most is that there is no time to waste on our part.
–A bit earlier, you Mr. Prime Minister touched upon the citizen’s free movement during this period, even though the pandemic continues formally. What else should Albania do? And you Mr. Commissioner, what is the Commission willing to do so that the free movement of the citizens is restored just like it was during the pre-pandemic period?
PM Edi Rama: You asked me first, but it is the Commissioner who should answer first, because it is the EU that decides over this issue, as we will move to their yard, although we can move freely in our own backyard, since we are doing better than them in terms of the health situation. But it is them who should speak for their own home.
EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi: As you know, the Commission has made a recommendation to the EU member states, as it is the competence and responsibility of the member states to decide on the non-essential travels and non-essential purposes from third countries, which means for tourism purposes. And so far, it is the member states that should see and consider their condition that would allow them to lift these restrictions, which already exist. Of course, the key factor is the epidemiological one, namely the epidemiological situation in various regions or countries.
We see that the overall situation in the Western Balkans has improved. We see that there are also bilateral agreements on mutual recognition of the COVID-19 certificates. So with this type of EU certificate and throughout the EU, starting on July 1, this process will actually accelerate and while we in the EU achieve a very high level of vaccination, then and the risks will be very low in terms of people coming and traveling from your countries.
Of course we will consider facilitating free travel.
We have all have been through this and it is certainly uncomfortable. I do not think it is pleasant for anyone, but it all actually depends on the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody should see it as a diplomatic or political issue, but it really is a matter of public health. But I believe that with the start of the summer season in early July, this issue will be part of our shared history.
PM Edi Rama: Do you see that joist over there? The joist we have tied our threads is the EU. We are right here and we keep gradually weaving on our loom. We have tied our threads, but this is a road we have to go. And whatever those on the joist do, if we approach and arrive up there through standards, the values and principles with the system that works. But it is up to us. So, it is for sure we are on the right path and while walking on this path we are fortunately enough that what has already changed throughout the course of our history in the period between the centuries before the EU was born and after the EU was born it is precisely the EU that has granted us the opportunity to have our threats tied on that joist over there.
Thank you very much!
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