Speech to the EU Convention, official visit to Serbia, 31 January 2018
[Check against delivery]
Ladies and gentlemen,
I should like to start by thanking the organisers of this meeting. It is an honour and a great pleasure for me to be with you here today in Belgrade as part of my second visit to the region as President of the European Parliament, six months after my first, to Montenegro.
If you will allow me, I should like to make a few brief remarks before we move on to the interactive discussion.
I was keen to come here to Belgrade to emphasise the fact that the Western Balkans are one of the European Union’s key priorities. I also wanted to demonstrate my commitment to a country and a region which are particularly important to me, both as an Italian and as a European.
When, in December, I read the findings of the regular opinion poll conducted by the Ministry for European Integration, I was particularly pleased to note the significant increase in the level of support among ordinary Serbs for the idea of EU membership.
I am pleased because Serbia is part of the European family and we cannot imagine a Europe without it.
As evidence of this, in addition to the country’s location and the wealth of historical and cultural ties between us, I would cite the strong values which we share and which we must nurture.
Last year, 2017, marked a turning point. This year, 2018, it is time to step up a gear.
For the first time, the letter of intent which President Jean-Claude Juncker forwarded in September 2017 sets a tentative date for the accession of Serbia and Montenegro to the EU.
Together with Montenegro, you can point the way forward by completing accession between now and 2025.
I bring you this message of hope because I know that I can count on Serbia to play, more effectively than ever, its role of guide on the path to the European Union. It is a demanding role, which calls for sustained, unwavering efforts.
You in turn can count on my support and on that of my institution in fulfilling that responsibility and overcoming the many challenges that lie ahead.
I am also following with interest the resolute approach being taken by Aleksandar Vučić and his government.
Serbia is making good progress: 12 chapters have been opened, and two of them have already been provisionally closed. But good progress of course implies that your country can go still further, drawing on the groundswell of political support which is building.
One and a half years after the opening of Chapter 23 (Judicial system and fundamental rights) and Chapter 24 (Justice, freedom and security), I want to encourage you to move ahead in these areas which have such a vital bearing on the rule of law.
The reform of the judicial system, which will require an amendment to the Constitution, is just one example.
Throughout this process, you can draw on the expert advice of the Venice Commission.
I would remind those who have misgivings about this revision of the Constitution that it is essential and that the good will of all the parties involved is needed to bring it about.
The primacy of the law must be a political priority.
The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. This is a message we have repeatedly hammered home, also among the 27: the rule of law is fundamental to a stronger, more united and more democratic Union.
As you know, I wanted my visit to Serbia to have two components, one political, the other economic.
The economic aspect will be the focus of the Eurochambres conference we are holding this afternoon with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, which will be attended by President Aleksandar Vučić, leading politicians and businesspeople and representatives of the European Investment Bank.
To my mind, the economic component is vital. After all, the European Union is Serbia’s most important economic partner: that partnership covers trade, investment and subsidies. Think, then, of the support which will be available in the future, under the Structural Funds, the common agricultural policy, research programmes.
Here are a few figures to illustrate what I’m saying. Roughly two-thirds of your imports and exports come from or go to the European Union, and almost three-quarters of your direct foreign investment comes from the European Union.
Then there are the grants which the European Union pays to Serbia, which have totalled more than EUR 3 billion since 2000. I can assure you that we will go on providing support, so that we can create more opportunities for cooperation between our SMEs, and so that we can draw up an ambitious digital agenda. In that connection, I should like to applaud the ambitious approach taken by the Commission and by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who are working to secure the implementation of the Wifi for EU initiative in the Western Balkans as soon as possible and to bring rates for telephone and internet users into line with those in the EU27 following the abolition of roaming charges.
But you know as well as I do that without a healthy business environment, without a transparent judicial system, without comprehensive measures to fight corruption, an economy cannot develop to its full potential.
That is why I place so much emphasis on the need to reform the judicial system and guarantee the rule of law.
As a former journalist, there is one fundamental value which is particularly close to my heart: freedom of the press.
It is vital to maintain and foster an environment conducive to freedom of expression. That in turn implies support for non-state bodies, for human rights defenders and for independent journalists.
Serbia must also provide leadership in the areas of good neighbourly relations and reconciliation.
For more than 60 years, the European Union has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Disagreements between us, when they arise, are no longer resolved by force, but around the negotiating table.
In that regard, it fills me with confidence to see, in the dialogue with Priština, the commitment that President Vučić and President Thaçi have shown to moving this process forward towards a new phase, towards comprehensive normalisation.
I believe that President Vučić and President Thaçi can accomplish something genuinely historic and I want to reiterate my full support for them. Because you know as well as I do that achieving this objective is crucial to the future and stability of Kosovo, Serbia, the region and Europe as a whole.
The internal dialogue – in Serbia itself – on future relations between Kosovo and Serbia is also vital.
The assassination of Oliver Ivanović on 16 January, which I condemn in the strongest possible terms, could have undermined the efforts made by both sides.
That it has not is a tribute to the work done by the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to ensure that the incidents which followed the killing did not escalate. I have been heartened by the appeals for calm which have stressed the need to continue the dialogue between the two parties.
As for the assassination, a thorough investigation is imperative: the circumstances in which it occurred must be established and the perpetrators and sponsors identified. Justice must be done.
Serbia’s commitment to joining the European Union will require it gradually to fall into line with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy - certainly much more than has been the case in recent months.
In unity there is strength; Serbia will have far greater influence as a member of the European Union.
Our challenges are your challenges. Your security is our security.
We need to step up our cooperation in order to tackle the migration crisis, which is far from resolved. On this point, I believe that we can deploy as many border guards and patrol boats as we like, but it will make little difference in the long run. To respond to the demographic challenge, the hunger crisis, climate disruption and political uncertainty, we need to address the root causes of the problem. This is why I am a strong advocate of a genuine Marshall Plan for Africa.
We must also step up our cooperation in order to tackle the challenges to our security and the terrorist threat.
The recent attacks in London, Barcelona, Finland, Nice and Paris have added to an already long list: 25 terrorist attacks have taken place on European soil since January 2015.
Today, 80% of Europeans believe that the EU must form a united front with its partners to combat this evil. They are right; without closer cooperation we will not defeat terrorism.
Our security depends on our ability to work together, to build trust between us, between our police and intelligence services; and also on our ability to anticipate and prevent the return of foreign fighters.
The European Union must stand shoulder to shoulder with you in countering the influence of those who show, by fuelling nationalism, populism and radical Islamism, that their interests are at odds with ours.
Lastly, let me say a word about the importance of young people. Young people need to be given opportunities to develop and find employment.
Young people can more easily put the quarrels of the past behind them and create new hope.
I am delighted that more than 5 000 scholarships have been awarded to Serbian students and higher education teachers through Erasmus+.
It is thanks to these programmes that our young people can more easily get to know each other, interact and nurture what they have in common.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I repeat, Serbia and the Western Balkans are at the centre of our priorities.
I am pleased that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will be visiting this country in a few weeks’ time.
I also welcome the step taken by the Bulgarian Presidency of the European Union and the Prime Minister, my friend Boyko Borisov, to convene a summit on the Balkans in Sofia in May next year. It will take place 15 years after the Thessaloniki summit, and I am sure it will come to be seen as a milestone.
We are the guarantors of the success of that event, and beyond that of the success of Serbia’s accession process.
I am counting on you, on your ability to meet the accession criteria, just as you can count on us to help you meet them.
This is the message of encouragement and confidence that I wanted to bring you today.