Op-ed by Nataliya Apostolova, Head of EU Office in Kosovo/EU Special Representative
“If we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. (…) The European Union will be greater than 27 in number. Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority in the negotiations.” – European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, State of the Union Address, 13 September 2017
Kosovo’s has a clear and strong European perspective, like all others in the Western Balkans region. This is what the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker will say tomorrow in his first visit to Kosovo.
The President, who will be accompanied by High Representative/Vice President (HRVP) Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, will demonstrate that the EU is on the side of the people of Kosovo, as they work hard to move closer to the European Union.
The new EU Western Balkans Strategy sets out that message. The Strategy is for all 6 partners in the region, for Kosovo as much as for the others. Kosovo will be part of the flagship initiatives unveiled under the Strategy which will reinforce its ability to implement reforms needed on its European path and to achieve a better living standard for its people. However, like for everyone else in the Western Balkans, this European perspective will materialise only if reform efforts are reinforced and Kosovo is able to deliver in areas such as economy, rule of law, public administration.
The strategy also says that border disputes in all of Western Balkans must be resolved before they can join the EU.
Tomorrow, Kosovo’s Assembly will discuss the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro. I sincerely hope that all parties in the Kosovo Assembly will support border demarcation and that the agreement is ultimately ratified; Kosovo will show that it cares about good neighbourly relations. And, its leaders will show that they can look beyond party politics. The ratification of the demarcation agreement is one of the remaining conditions to achieve visa liberation, which is for all in Kosovo. At the same time, the EU looks forward to the fulfilment of the other outstanding benchmark concerning a track record of convictions in high-level organised crime and corruption cases. In 2015-2016, over 2,200 Kosovo participants were included in student, academic and youth exchanges under Erasmus +. With visa liberalisation, this number will only grow, opening many other doors for Kosovo people, especially its businessmen.
Kosovo is a vibrant democracy, which shows impatience at times. Kosovo is young; the ten-year celebration only one week ago shows just that. Kosovo naturally needs time to reach the societal standards of older democracies. Kosovo of course is impatient to close the gap as soon as possible. However, the changes to the political and economic systems, to the rule of law standards, and the behaviour, will take time. Implementing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) will make this change happen. However it will require time. This is why the SAA is so crucially important. It provides concrete tools to improve economy, create jobs, fight corruption, strengthen democracy and rule of law, and increase political and institutional stability. The more Kosovo implements the SAA, the closer its standards will be to those in the EU. As President Juncker will reiterate during his visit, the EU will continue to stand close to Kosovo on its path towards reforms.
The European Union has been and will remain the main partner of Kosovo. It is the largest investor and trade partner. Half of all grants to Kosovo come from the EU, totalling to more than 2.5 billion euro since 1999, having created thousands of new jobs and contributed to improving lives of Kosovo people in terms of education, rule of law, economy. It is because of the EU investment that e.g. Pristina has 24/7 water and district heating. The EU will invest another 645 million euro in Kosovo by 2020.
Finally, let me mention the important issue of reconciliation. Together with improved regional cooperation, further efforts towards reconciliation are crucial to firmly anchor peace and ensure lasting stability in the region. All countries must unequivocally commit, in both word and deed, to overcoming the legacy of the past, by achieving reconciliation. The leaders of the region must take full ownership and lead by example. There needs to be a comprehensive, legally-binding normalisation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo so that they can advance on their respective European paths.
Let me finish by stressing my conviction that the future of Kosovo is bright. I have faith in its people, who are hard-working and want a better Kosovo. The energy felt on the streets of the Kosovo cities, produced by its young population, is the guarantee of that. The youth is Kosovo’s greatest asset: unburdened by the past and ready to learn and change the patterns for the future. The political elites need to give their contribution to a more prosperous Kosovo, by concentrating on the needs of their people.
As always, the EU will be here to support Kosovo. The visit by President Juncker, HRVP Mogherini and Commissioner Hahn is the best proof of it.