Joint press conference of Prime Minister Edi Rama and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte

Prime Minister Edi Rama received the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on a visit to Tirana today. The two counterparts held a joint press conference following the bilateral meeting:

 

PM Edi Rama: Good afternoon everyone! The visits by all our friends and partners here in Tirana actually represent a special moment, but, without exaggeration, I would say this is really a very special moment to finally welcome in Tirana today, after a long time since I had the honour to be the guest at his office in the Hague, where I was extended a home-like welcome. Prime Minister Mark Rutte is in Tirana today.

It took him four election victories before coming to Albania and it is really a pleasure, because in addition to being in Tirana today, his visit takes place at a very positive moment in our ties, namely the relations between Albania and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and our relations between the two governments, at a time, as you know, the Netherlands has openly supported the next step for Albania and the launch of the First Intergovernmental Conference.

However, this is a relation extending beyond our European integration process.

We celebrated 50 years of bilateral diplomatic ties with the Netherlands last year, we have a continued and very positive work relation and the Netherlands’ impact in Albania is growing year by year; one the one hand through joint projects and the support we receive from the Dutch government for these projects through its embassy in Tirana.

On the other hand, due to the growing presence of Dutch business in Albania, from the Shell company, one of the symbols of Dutch entrepreneurship, to Dutch architects, who are directly involved in the latest developments in Albania, and moreover, Dutch visitors . We have seen annual increase in number of tourists from the Netherlands and we very much hope this number with further grow in the coming years and we are very pleased with that, because they come, they experience first-hand a reality, which is often different from what Albania is perceived in Europe, when you are told by others, and become ambassadors of another image of our country, the ambassadors of the everyday image. 

With the Prime Minister we discussed security cooperation, the fight against organized crime and we are convinced that the progress already made in the context of such cooperation will strengthen further with the enhanced capacities already available to this cooperation. Both sides will benefit from this.

We also explored the opportunities and I asked the Prime Minister that the Netherlands supports a faster alignment of our universities with the European universities in the framework of the European universities network, which, through the EU support, is succeeding in building fantastic synergies among various universities in the European space.

In the meantime, we have also discussed ways for a more open approach towards young people in the rural areas and ways to include them in more support programs designed to promote rural entrepreneurship.

Last but not least, we also discussed the current moment we are in.

We know quite well that France, the Netherlands, Germany and everyone else in the European Union are ready to sit in on the First Intergovernmental Conference and formally launch the long process of the accession negotiations, but the impasse created following Bulgaria’s veto has yet to be resolved.

I would like to thank my friend Mark for his personal contribution by communicating with the Bulgarian side, as other officials in EU member states are also making all efforts to bridge Bulgaria’s position towards a maximum solution and possibly resolve this issue before the next European Council summit in December. 

Mark, it is a great pleasure and I believe our pleasure was obvious by how much we have so far been able to express our hospitality and gratitude. This is a country that is home to many admirers and fans of the Dutch national side and today is a very special day for them, because Tirana’s streets are decked out with Dutch flags and it seems as if you finally won the World Cup, here in Tirana, at least.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte: Thank you Edi! You and I have built a friendship over the years. I am so happy we have been able to take the initial step forward in the EU accession process. Yes, it is right that to formally commence the intergovernmental conference it is crucial to address the veto imposed by Bulgaria. We hope we will be able to do it. This Sunday, [Bulgaria] will be holding their elections. I will visit North Macedonia later today. It would be fair, we already said, it would be strict and fair. You have made so much progress and have delivered on so many issues and this is why we now agree to formally start the accession negotiations, because, to be fair and rigorous, right progress has been already made.

Of course, a lot remains to be done and we should certainly be involved in this process and we discussed ways to do it and practically bring Albania closer to the EU. We talked about what needs to be done regarding the universities, the agricultural sector, other opportunities, exports, so that it is not merely a “Yes” or “No”, in terms of full-fledged membership or nothing, but something in between, as we move forward along the path and I believe we will work on that.

I am also very happy about the fact that our two countries are developing bilateral ties in a very deep and satisfying way. We cooperate economically through investments, through exports, and almost half of the country’s exports are EU-bound. Meanwhile, the Netherlands is the largest investor in Albania and I assure you that these companies are working to do more business in this country and in fact we are working together not only on economic ties. We work in the same way and in relation to the architects. The architects who are involved here in Albania, in Tirana and you yourself, being an artist, are very well known, not only as Prime Minister, but also as an artist. 

We continue to meet. We met at the NATO summit, at the Western Balkans summit, and most recently we met again last Monday at COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. 

Yes, let’s continue working this way, meeting and building this friendship and make it very practical, and I believe we both are very practical people, because there are long-term objectives and we are working on that, we are supporting them, but we also should make sure that some long-term benefits be also present at a short-term as well and especially, let’s already hope that we succeed, after Sunday’s elections in Bulgaria, to make sure that both intergovernmental conferences start. 

Thank you so much for the immensely warm hospitality in this pretty city.

I am really happy to be here today and it has taken a long time, since after your visit in 2014, it is now 2021, but here I am after four elections.

***

– First question for the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. To your knowledge, what reforms has Albania implemented to fight the organized crime in the last three months, a little more than three months indeed, since your election win and reconfirmation as Prime Minister, that the country failed to deliver in the past three years and which was the reason why you demanded to impose the veto on Albania’s bid to open the EU membership negotiations?

The second question for the Albanian Prime Minister; Mr Rama, the situation in our region is not the best possible one and peace in this region has actually always been fragile. Do you think the situation in the Balkans would improve should the EU integration process of the six countries be faster? Would the EU pay greater attention to this process? Thank you!

Dutch PM Mark Rutte: Over the last two years, we have developed a very close cooperation in the fight against organized crime, security and justice cooperation. At our bilateral meeting, we also explored the opportunities to step up this cooperation. This has built confidence, but also the fact that being strict and fair, since we always go over European Commission reports showing how far Albania has progressed with the judiciary independence reform, the Vetting of Albanian judges and the fight against organized crime.

We all have a lot of work to do, my country, as well as Albania will have to do more in the coming years, but the progress already made in the last five 5 years has been so great as to convince us to say “Yes”.

I have to say that we have been reluctant for so long by saying “No” to the accession talks. This is of course not just a matter of organized crime but also of the rule of law, of economy and how we converge in our work together in this part of the Western Balkans with the EU. 

The point is that we want this region to have an EU perspective for many reasons, because we are friends, because we are neighbours, and also because others can take advantage of this, by exercising leverage in this region, something we don’t want to happen. So there are geopolitical and geostrategic reasons to do so on top of accepting the fact that under the stewardship of Edi Rama, so many steps have been taken.

PM Edi Rama: The Dutch Prime Minister’s visit to Albania today is of another importance, extending beyond the bilateral ties between the Netherlands and Albania and beyond all the issues we discussed and with his trip set to go on with a visit to Skopje, the Netherlands’ presence and the attention of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to this region as a whole becomes more obvious.

We see the Netherlands as one of the countries from which we can learn a lot, as one of the countries with a fantastic success story and where the need to move further forward is a daily impetus and from which we can learn and borrow a lot, but, on the other hand, this image and power of the Netherlands is crucial to the Balkans. It is very important for the Balkans to feel the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Dutch government closer and for this reason the Prime Minister’s visit is of paramount importance, beyond the fact that he is just visiting Albania and North Macedonia today. This is a visit to the region indeed. Together with Mark, we also discussed the Berlin Process, the Open Balkans initiative, and how indispensable it is for the initiatives, arising from the need to increase communication, to boost cooperation within the region, to be successful ones. And for the sake of truth, in this case I wouldn’t find any reason to blame the EU for what is happening today, as the integration and the enlargement process is a very complicated one, since the EU has ushered in a very complex phase and it has nothing to do with any refusal or hesitation to consider the Western Balkans part of the European Union’s map and fully-integrated part of the EU at a given moment.

I would say that we need the EU very much, and I believe that the EU needs the Western Balkans very much too. The European Union does not need a Western Balkans, where there are ongoing conflicts, and the EU doesn’t need a Western Balkans where a feeling of boredom or the feeling of betrayal by the European Union prevails. The EU doesn’t need a Western Balkans, where other where other forces gain ground, because we are physically inside the European Union and the European Union is the only reality on the world map that has both an external and internal border, and the Western Balkans is located within this internal border, and as such it is an integral part of the EU body and the integration process is irreversible, but its speed is dictated by other dynamics.

As for specifically what we are recently noticing in the region, I can say they are not good signs, neither in Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor in Montenegro, nor in North Macedonia, or on the Kosovo border with Serbia that we saw a few days ago. They are a reason to gather forces, to boost cooperation and therefore I repeat, the Open Balkans is not a magic key, it is not the only thing to be imagined, but it is an instrument, a mechanism serving this purpose. 

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte: It is a matter of the Western Balkan countries, however I think it is a way to experience this as well and to be part of the European common market, but the initiative also contains some positive elements and I fully understand that the initiative already includes also Serbia, North Macedonia, and other countries can join it. Of course they should understand what you are doing and understand that the initiative can help them in the enlargement process.

-I have a question for both prime ministers. You Mr. Rama touched upon it briefly. I would like to know a bit more about what the EU and the countries in the region should do in order to maintain calm, peace and stability in the region. Taking notice of what is happening recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, analysis suggests that a fresh conflict can erupt in the region and what the EU should do more in order to avoid a potential conflict? Should the EU speed up its steps and encourage the EU integration process of the countries in the region. And I would like to ask Mr. Rutte about his opinion on the Western Balkans initiative, since Mr. Rama said that the initiative was part of your talks today.

PM Edi Rama: First of all, I believe that everyone in the Western Balkans, including the ones perceived as a destabilizing factor, have already realized that nothing good ever comes of destabilization, nothing good comes for them too. The war in the Balkans is not a lesson we have learned from the textbooks. It is an experience we all have been through, some have been directly involved, and someone like us, the Albanians of Albania, being involved indirectly, but anyway involved because it suffices to recall that half a million war refugees came from Kosovo fleeing Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing and we were part of it, we have witnessed the horror, suffering and pain from war, and I don’t think – it is my opinion at least – that we are on the eve of a conflict, but I believe these are actually dangerous symptoms that should be taken very seriously and I believe that there are not two options, as the Prime Minister said, it shouldn’t be just “Yes” or “No” in the steps towards integration, but in between the steps towards integration as a process of formal negotiations, we need to jointly create spaces to provide various society groups, young people – I mean the young people graduated from high schools in Tirana, Albania or elsewhere across the Western Balkans – the opportunity not to leave the country in order to attend European universities, but instead find the European universities here.

The EU is not doing this for itself. With the support from the governments of the EU member states an opportunity has been created for the universities to establish ties with one another and build amazing synergies. Although Europe is home to the world’s best universities, they have felt it is necessary to boost cooperation.

If our universities join this process, it would be an additional reason for us to feel more connected with the European Union, to feel part of the very same space and help us to relax a level of natural frustration due to the impossibility to be on par with others.

I provided just an example. So I reiterate, I thanked and I appreciate the Prime Minister again because really, and I told him, it is not merely a visit to two countries, but a visit to a whole region that needs to feel on focus of the attention and interest of the European community and of course the Kingdom of the Netherlands is one of the brightest stars on the European flag and the presence of the Prime Minister here represents a very beautiful message today, not only for Albanians, not only for Macedonians, but also for all other communities. 

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte: As far as the Open Balkans initiative is concerned, we favour regional integration as long as it is open to everyone. I understand that the initiative is totally open also to Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for them to become part of the initiative, as it helps, and this way further steps forward will be made in the context of accession talks, by applying, I guess, as much as possible the EU standards, so that it becomes a space suitable for what is going to happen further.

I am really concerned about Bosnia and Herzegovina, as it seems that Bosnia’s Serbs are now openly violating the Dayton Accord and Bosnia’s constitution. We are working hard at the EU level to stabilize the situation and prevent the political system from division along the ethnic lines in that country. This highlights the importance of dialogue, but also the importance of the leadership of Balkan high-level officials and politicians, with Edi Rama being a truly good and respected example throughout the region and active enough to do what he can to make sure that the region remains as stable as possible. We are concerned that what comes as a negative side effect of this is a growing influence of the power of Russia and China and we are interested in the EU perspective being present here and not the perspective of closer ties with Russia, China or Turkey.