Published on : 26 August 2017

Regional co-operation, informal meeting of Western Balkan prime ministers

Joint Press Conference of Prime Minister Edi Rama and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, in the framework of the informal meeting of Western Balkan prime ministers held today in Durres:

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Hello everyone! I took the initiative to invite the Prime Ministers of the region and also Commissioner Hahn, the Vice President of the World Bank Muller, their teams, because I believe it is a very important moment after a series of elections in the region, and in view of the continuation of the Berlin process, which must be increasingly owned by the actors of the region and certainly with the support of the European Commission and of all other relevant actors.

It is clear now that, from the point of view of what needs to be arranged on paper, as the Commissioner underlined in his intervention, everything has been arranged. We have an action plan of around 115 points in view of a radical transformation in the movement of goods, services, capital of skilled workers that will make the region much more attractive for investments, much more flexible for domestic trade exchanges, accelerating rapprochement with the European Union, and at the same time accelerating the pace of economic growth and prosperity.

And to close this part, we are really very much encouraged by the fact that there is a full agreement at the political level. There is a full synergy at the level of relations with the Commission.

The World Bank has been totally involved with our request, and also other instruments deriving from closer cooperation with the EBRD and the EIB are available, which means that this strategic reflection we are doing today, will be worthy of a more intensive and aggressive agenda in view of a much more attractive region for foreign investment. In view of a much cheaper freight movement, with a radical transformation of border procedures, with a radical improvement in monitoring, of the performance of the trade corridor and the establishment of mechanisms to reduce logistical costs, to maximize the benefits from the free movement of services and the other component, no less important, to strengthen the digital economy as a new front of economic growth in the region.

On the other hand, I had the pleasure of exchanging opinions with the Commissioner on the current status of Albania's relations with the European Union. We talked about the elections as an important moment successfully overcome, we talked about the will and the necessity to continue what was started as a new approach and willingness to cooperate between the government and the opposition.

On the other hand, I briefed the Commissioner on this mandate plan in view of the reforms, in view of a radical transformation of services to the public, as an important aspect of the fight against corruption and bribery. We underlined the necessity of continuing the vetting process, a key process for Albania but also for accelerating the integration process.

On the other hand, we shared the view that trying to limit the flow of asylum seekers is giving encouraging results, and of course it is obvious that there are no Albanian asylum seekers, but there are Albanians looking for a job and a better life in a labour market where Albanians and others in the region do not have the freedom to move, and this is the limitation that comes as a result of the position we are in the integration process. And on the other hand, I want to say here to the public opinion, that I refuse to accept the targeting of the Albanians, whether they are asylum seekers or they are perpetrators in the EU area, as a reason to point the finger at Albania.

Criminals are criminals everywhere and indiscriminately. They have to answer before the law everywhere and indiscriminately. There is no banner, no nationality, it is just them before the law. And in this respect, I strongly reject any political and media attempt in the EU countries for internal reasons and for internal consumption, to point at a so-called "Albanian crime, or" Balkan crime "or" National crime ".

On the other hand, it is clear that asylum is not an option, and anyone who takes that path simply enters a road where there is only loss.

Meanwhile, what we have to do is do our best to accelerate the integration process, and do our best to have more access to the free labour market.

Finally, together with the Commissioner, we shared the view that a fantastic job is being done in the fight against cannabis. We have pledged that this will be the year that definitely closes this story with a meaningful success of the State Police and the state against this ugly phenomenon. Today we have the results of the international monitoring, which show that the commitment being met.

The European Union will finance more monitoring flights for another month, and I am confident that by the end of this season of planting, harvesting and hitting, Albania will eventually come out of the map of problematic countries related to the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics.

Leaving the floor to the Commissioner, I would like to thank him wholeheartedly for everything he has done in order to resolve a major political stalemate before the June 25th elections, and through him I would like to thank all those who engaged, either at the European Commission level or at the level of the European People's Party, as friends of this country who made possible what was finally made possible, have the elections that were without doubt the best elections that Albania has ever had.

 

Commissioner Hahn: Thank you Mr Prime Minister! Thanks for your words! But I think it's a great team job of many people, which gave us the opportunity to go to the elections. I also take the opportunity to congratulate on the victory also for the fact that these elections were recognized by the international community, which was our main objective. This is also important for the future European perspective of the country.

First and foremost, I would like to thank you for the initiative you have taken for this meeting today, to gather here the prime ministers of the region, representatives of the World Bank and myself, in this wonderful country, in beautiful conditions to discussed the continuation of the Trieste Summit. As you heard it, the prime ministers agreed in Trieste on a roadmap on the establishment of a regional economic market that consists of about 115 points, which was also mentioned here today. We are discussing how to implement it because agreeing on the elements is one thing, but to apply them is another thing. Traditionally, it has been a weak point not just in the region but also quite often in politics. Weakness consists in the implementation of things that have been agreed upon.

Therefore, a commitment has been made, and as this informal meeting shows today, - as the Prime Minister mentioned earlier - the heads of government have defended this process, the so-called Berlin process. So, it is no longer needed that the European Commission urges you, rather have more and more initiatives coming from the region. So we need to support you, to cooperate with you, to move forward in your European aspirations. This helps countries and citizens, and in the meantime also your citizens to improve their living standards. The European Union is seen often as a subject that has only requirements; we ask for free elections, we ask for free justice reform, we ask for free this and that. Sometimes citizens welcome this, but it also happens that often, and this is human, they feel somewhat nervous, let's say they don’t not feel good and look forward to going to the end of the process that is of course a tough process. Our interest is to include all these countries, to welcome all these countries, including Albania, in the European Union as soon as possible, and that is why certain measures are needed, but in the end everything is in the interest of citizens, not to please us Europeans to make a reform or something else, but the goal is to improve the living of citizens. We are focusing here now. Therefore, we are focusing on the economic and regional areas. I will give you two figures to illustrate the importance of this. Over the past ten years, exports to the European Union from the six countries taken together, have doubled. Now they consist in 46 billion euros. But trade among these countries has not increased, it continues to be on the same level as ten years ago, and I am honestly telling you that it shows that there is a lot of potential that can be used. This is the idea behind the concept of the economic-regional market.

As we have seen today, the countries agree to appoint a common coordinator, people who can coordinate in each prime ministry to ensure that each country, in particular, the people in the ministries, the prime minister, or the chambers of commerce work with commitment on this agenda of reforms. In the six countries of the Western Balkans we will appoint these coordinators by mid-September to move forward and implement it.

Once again I am grateful for the initiative you have taken, but also for the spirit to master this process in the region, which shows that this is not our idea, this is not the idea of any bureaucrat in Brussels, but it is something that comes in the interest of citizens here. That is why the prime ministers themselves defend this process and lead it.

At the same time this applies to bilateral relations.

Fair and transparent elections have been a condition for moving forward on the path of the European Union. I believe there is a result. Perhaps many did not expect them to be so clear and transparent. Now there is no excuse that can be used. Political decisions are clear. Voters decided. Now we can move towards implementation, and I am sure that we will soon see the first concrete results regarding the Vetting process and other issues that have been raised.

As the Prime Minister also mentioned, some EU member countries have been affected somehow by asylum seekers, but these countries are recognizing the efforts made by Albanian authorities, which have started these efforts to reduce them, to limit the number of asylum seekers, as I want to say it also publicly, it would not be realistic to believe that anyone could get asylum as an Albanian in the European Union. It is pointless to go to European Union countries to seek asylum because you also harm your country from a diplomatic point of view.

That is why we welcome the efforts of the Albanian authorities to limit the number of asylum seekers, but also to curb anyone who thinks it is possible to get asylum in European Union countries. Because otherwise this would indicate that the country is not yet mature for the European Union, which is not true. Yet there is still work to be done.

I want to repeat what Mr Prime Minister said, the extraordinary progress in the fight against cannabis cultivation. This is a testimony to the member states of the European Union.

Our goal is to work together with the Albanian government to implement some of the key elements and priorities. Overall, I see progress. Now we have to look to move forward, to take the next step. I think it is of interest to have a positive recommendation. Once again I do not want to give a fixed date because it also depends on political intelligence, which means taking the right step at the right moment to present a report by the Commission of member states to be accepted by member states at the right moment. So, it's important that it is of quality and not a fast one. So the priority is quality rather than speed. The ultimate goal is to take the support of all member states to take the step next.

Therefore, I would ask for your understanding in not giving a fixed date, but I guarantee that my team and myself are very interested in taking Albania forward, otherwise we would not have invested so much energy in what we have done, not only these last two months but also in the previous years, in the past. Investing means getting yourself something, having a return on your investment. This return would be Albania’s membership in the European Union at some point.

Thank you!

 

***

 

- Mr Hahn, what is your opinion regarding the political and diplomatic scandal between Macedonia and Serbia this week? Is Brussels is involved in solving it? Secondly, how do you expect trust to be built in these countries with such issues and problems between them? Mr Rama, when will you organize the formal meeting without mediation from Brussels?

 

Commissioner Hahn: It seems and I have the impression that it was clarified, it was resolved very quickly, and since it was resolved so fast, there was no need for me to be involved. Of course, I am willing to hear even more about what's behind it. However, it is good that there is already a relationship of trust between the leaders of the two countries, who managed to sort things out with a phone call. In fact, that's what I appreciate and consider as something positive. As you may know, I am part of those who see the glass half full, and not of those who see it half empty.

As for the way of solution, it seemed to me a positive element of how things work in the region, and I hope that this will continue, of course, to have its benefits in the future as well.

I think the fact that there was such a prompt phone call, proves that there is already confidence between the leaders. However, it must be understood that this is not something that belongs to just the level of leaders but it is trust between the peoples, between the countries. So I expect these events to be events that in the future will belong to the past.

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: First, I would like to say that I do not expect and we should not expect the Balkans to become so boring that there is no clash. But at the same time, there is a very important change, because when these clashes occur, life goes on, people speak at the highest levels, meet at a higher level, people continue to build work and focus on the future. And that is important.

Secondly, this is not organized by Brussels. This is organized by us. Brussels has been invited. So, we have not been invited by Brussels here. They are here at our own expense, which is very important. It's a big turning point in this direction, which means we do not need a guardian to meet, organize, discuss.

But we should not forget, -  you should not forget that we do not forget - Brussels is crucial, it is a strategic partner for the entire region, for all countries, and I am very grateful that Commissioner Hahn accepted the invitation and is here with his team to accompany the process. So, it's a big difference!

The last thing I would like to add to what the Commissioner said about the 115 measures and perhaps the not visible part of the process, which is often perceived by you the media alike throughout the region, and by other actors like an ATM, and the discussion comes out at every meeting about who withdrew more from the ATM. This is an overall gross misleading of the public opinion. This is not an ATM issue. It does not work that way.

There are projects that exist, there are ongoing projects, there is funding for countries, and in no way it is a situation where one country gets more than another country. The essence of this and of what we were talking about today is as follows: I will give you two figures. The Commissioner said very clearly, these countries' exports to Europe have doubled in ten years. Exports of each country on a bilateral basis in the region remain the same. Meanwhile, we have to be aware of what we are missing out there. It's a great potential. I'll give you a figure. Only by implementing some of these 115 measures, we can save at least 900 million Euros in our budgets, which is an extremely large amount.

And the other figure is that we have such a problematic trade-related connection that within a year we waste 3 million years in terms of time, of hours, in customs. I'm talking about the goods. So, hours wasted in customs in exchanges and transportation of goods, which is unaffordable. We need to reduce 3 million years of bureaucracy, obstacles and quite different ways of handling administrative goods, and make them more flexible. This is economy. This is growth. That is what we can do based on our potential.

To conclude, if each of us were to stand alone, we are small markets and very small economies. If we come together, we become an important market and we can become an important economy. Of course, for our needs. So, I believe that this part of the process is essential, and the Albanian government will concentrate much on it. This is what I saw from other colleagues. There will be a focus, a great focus with the assistance of the EU, the World Bank and others in order to free this part of the growth and export that is blocked due to these crazy bureaucratic and administrative obstacles.

- Commissioner, four years have passed since the launch of the Berlin Process, and a number of projects, very few of them, not to say none at all, have started implementing. When do you really expect these projects funded by the European Union to start implementing in all Western Balkan countries? You have actually twitted that the regional economic zone does not mean Balkan membership in Europe. Where do you see the Balkans in this process? Mr Prime Minister, you said that you refuse to accept the labelling of Albanians as criminals, implying perhaps the Netherlands. Did you talk to the commissioner about the problem raised also in the media?

 

Commissioner Hahn: As for the questions you asked me, we are already at the fourth or fifth summit, and in some ways I've been tough with the countries. In 2017 we had events that were very important for the projects, which will provide acceleration in the next two months. We are already starting to build railways, highways, in terms of projects. The next step is the digital economy or the energy sector to have better lines, electricity or better networks.

Meanwhile, the next step is this regional economic zone. By the way, last year in Paris we agreed on a youth initiative, which means that young people will have the opportunity to work in other parts of the region, in other countries in the region. We have the office that has been established here in Tirana and is already proposing and producing concrete results.

Another initiative in Paris was to offer civil servants, young people, the opportunity to participate in qualification programs funded by France, and also to allow them to go to other countries of the region for a few weeks to share their experience, to create networks. This has been quite successful. Each of the countries has nominated 5 people, and of course since it was so successful, this will be repeated and we will have the second stage of this initiative, which is expected to start very soon.

So there are quite concrete results, some are more visible, some are less visible. But in reality we will have to work on what is most visible and also on others, so that we can build trust among the citizens so that this process can be understood. It should be supported and understood by the citizens as a major contribution to improving living conditions.

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: I believe it is very important for everyone to realize that this is a historic process with regard to a historical transformation. If we count 4 years and it seems a lot to us, roads, railways, energy interconnections, digital connections and, overall, projects with the European Union are not done the way we did until some years ago. They take their time to identify, determine, study and then concretize financing and contracts. So four years in this story for us are a lot, because we have been waiting for a long time, but they are quite normal in terms of what we are building together with the European Union, and having in mind that before these 4 years, 40 or 400 years have passed without doing anything in this regard.

Regarding the question on Netherlands. The Netherlands is a state, it is a kingdom, so I do not take the question in this form. We have no problem with either the Netherlands or with another country. I’m talking about how the media, or by the voices that their agendas have in European Union countries, target newcomers from other countries and target Albanians. At a time when in one place or another country, an ethnicity is related to criminality, this is unacceptable to me.

If there are criminals in Europe, they have all the possible passports, and each country should treat them as such, bring them to justice, but the identification and propagation of criminals' ethnicity has nothing to do with the Europe we have and with the Europe we want. It only relates to political and media agendas in a Europe that is going through a turbulent period in relation to its future.

So let me tell you there are 700 thousand Poles in the UK, and there are only 65,000 people from all over the Balkans, and Albanians were used and Balkans were used as the problem of Britain to propagate the need to leave Europe. This is all propaganda. This has nothing to do with the reality of things.

In the reality of things there is a disturbing problem related to the fact that the citizens of this region and the citizens of Albania have no chance to get political asylum in Europe. No chance!

It's just falling prey to criminal networks that use the normal need of people to look for a better life, to look for a job, and so on. And searching for a better life and work abroad is the most normal thing in the world. It occurs in any country, it will continue to happen. And for us the problem is that we are not part of the free labour market. There is no note anywhere in the countries where the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians move, by millions, and go to work in European Union countries or in Western countries. Or where hundreds of thousands travel from a country like the south of Italy to Germany, or from a country like Portugal to Britain. Nobody takes note, because they are a workforce in movement. When Albanians move, or others who are not part of this market, then they keep notes and stories begin.

We have to do our part and we are doing our part. But it is not even a question of accepting to be identified for propaganda as a criminal problem, or I don’t know what. Criminals have no homeland. They are people who commit crimes, and they must pay as foreseen in the respective countries. We have to deal with criminals in Albania and do not divide them in Italians, Albanians, Greeks or Brazilians. They should deal with criminals in their countries and do not annoy us with these divisions, because for us these divisions are unrelated to the Europe where we live.

Thank you very much!

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