Chairman of the Presidency, Mayor of Sarajevo, Ministers, Your Excellencies, honoured guests, dear friends, welcome to our reception to mark Europe Day 2016.
I am very pleased that President Izetbegović and his wife could join us tonight alongside the Ambassadors of the EU Member States resident here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I know you have a very busy schedule these days and I appreciate you taking time to be here.
Let me also thank the musicians performing for us tonight and who will now and later demonstrate the great cultural diversity of this country.
9th of May marks the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity in many parts of Europe. The stability enjoyed within the EU for more than half a century is based on a sense of common purpose, unity and solidarity among European nations. But today many of the goals of the founders of the European Union are under threat.
To quote the High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission Mrs Mogherini,
“This is not about terrorism and not about migration. A Union of half a billion citizens can manage this. The existential threat comes from within our own borders. Our Union is at risk when we build walls, instead of tearing them down. Our Union is at risk when we behave as part-time Europeans – we call for help when we need it, but we are not ready to help. Or if we discriminate people for the colour of their skin, or the language they speak, or the way they pray – if we do so, our Union is at risk, because our identity is based on diversity. What we need is leadership, not populism. We need to preserve Europe, and we need to reform it.”
These words could also be applied to Bosnia and Herzegovina. You are the most recent European country to apply for membership in the European Union. This is a milestone on your path to European integration and your application comes at an auspicious time. Together with your neighbours here in the Western Balkans you undoubtedly belong in the future European Union.
There have been many positive developments over the past year. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU finally entered into force on the 1st of June last year and an ambitious Reform Agenda was agreed together with the International Financial Institutions. Many important economic and social reforms are underway and the first phase of the Reform Agenda may come to a close in a few months. After years of stalemate, BiH is back on track for EU membership.
Like many other parts of Europe today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is country of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. You have a country of great beauty and with rich natural resources, including your people. You have great architecture and places of worship. The historic re-opening of the Ferhadija mosque two days ago is an important step towards reconciliation. As EU we have also supported the renovation of the Castel Fortress in Banja Luka and, of course, the magnificent building we have the privilege of being in this evening, thanks to the Mayor. But nobody can live only in the past. You also need to reform your country, to change it, to be able to join an ever changing European Union.
The EU is committed to supporting you. We are by far your most important partner and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But the change required to meet EU standards is demanding and you need to prove that you are capable of undertaking serious reforms. The EU today is much more complex than what it was just twenty years ago when my own country joined. And any country wishing to join, or stay in the European Union in the coming 20 years will need to have strong capacity and willingness to undertake change.
Most of the reforms required for BiH to become a credible candidate for membership in the EU do not require major constitutional re-arrangements. Yet, much time is still spent – even wasted – arguing over the constitutional balance of power in the country, distracting attention from what most people in BiH really want: More and better jobs, a good education and a safe environment.
So, I urge all decision makers in BiH to use the existing momentum on the EU integration path and move forward together. Just like the rest of us Europeans, you have much more in common than what may divide you. You are all committed to seeking membership in the EU. Don’t play narrow political games with decisions that are in the national interest of the entire country, regardless of which group you may belong to or identify with.
Nobody will remember the one who blocked an important decision or added another road block on your path to the EU. Who knows, maybe even your supporters and voters will recognise and reward those who put their real interests first.
Finally, I would also like to take this opportunity and thank my own staff in the EU Delegation and the EU Special Representative Office for all their hard work over the past year, many of them are here. I would, of course, also like to thank my wife, for putting up with the long working hours and sometimes tough challenges facing us as a family. And I would also like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all of you here, in particular the many colleagues at the administration of BiH at all levels, be it State, Entity, Cantons or Municipalities, as well as representatives of civil society, who on a daily basis work together with us on many different EU-related issues and with your country’s best interest at heart. You are doing a great job and we very much appreciate your dedication.