Speech by Ambassador Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Head of EU Delegation and EU Special Representative in BiH, on behalf of Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, given to students of eight public universities, at the Rectorate of the University of Sarajevo on 2 March 2017.
Thank you, Rector,
Professors, dear students, friends,
Gatherings like this are always the best part of any trip. This is where we clearly see why we are working so hard to make change happen. And this is where I clearly see the energy that is needed for that change. Because it’s all about people. Real life.
When we talk about European integration and the path towards the European Union, there are plenty of important benchmarks, chapters and criteria. But we cannot forget that each of these parameters has an impact in real life, on real people. This whole process – we call it the path towards the European Union – might sound very technical and even abstract at times. But it is concrete, it is real, and it is developing right now.
Today, I will probably surprise you. I am not going to tell you: “Be patient”. No. My message today is: let’s make it happen. Let’s bring Bosnia and Herzegovina inside the European Union. It is possible. And if you want to do it, you will do it.
I believe that real and lasting change in any country has to come from within. It seems to me that young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, confronted by a society that clearly has deep-rooted problems, are the ones that have the energy and interest to fight for positive change.
Change does not happen overnight. There is a lot of hard work to do. But don’t let anyone scare you off, and tell you that you will never make it. If you don’t see progress, don’t get cynical or, even worse, violent: speak up, engage, be active, in a committed, constructive way. Show the best you have inside, this will inspire others. Change is not easy but it’s worth it. It can make a huge difference, and I know this from direct experience – let me tell you how.
It’s been two years since the last time I was here in Sarajevo. It was very close to the beginning of my mandate, and we all had the impression that the discussions between the European Union and BiH were stuck. But I saw that there was a lot of goodwill to put the country back on track towards European integration, and turn the page.
Many people told us: forget it, give it up. It’s a lost cause. But every cause is lost if you don’t try. So we tried to understand together how to remove the obstacles, or maybe to get around them. And one year later, something happened that many did not believe would be possible. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership of the European Union exactly one year after we started working with determination together on that. And today we are working to chart the next steps on your path towards European integration.
Sometimes we just need to be a bit stubborn, and ambitious. BiH can be part of the European Union – not in a far-away future, but in our generation. So it is for this generation, our generation, to accept the challenge and make it happen.
In fact, all the Western Balkans can, should and I believe will be part of the European Union. I believe the European Union will not be complete unless this region joins our community. The Balkans lie at the heart of Europe: no political boundary can change this reality – a reality based on geography, on history, on culture. You are European, that’s why I refuse to speak about the ‘European perspective’ of the Western Balkans. You are already European! You deserve the same opportunities, the same safeguards and rights as all citizens of our Union.
— EU in BiH (@eubih) March 2, 2017
More than two decades ago this country came out of a tragic war. But many of you here were born since then. You have the possibility to choose freely the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of country you want to build.
I am not saying to forget what happened. It would be impossible, even for you, who have not lived through those times. And it would be wrong: memory is crucial, so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes of the past. But there should be no contradiction between preserving the memory and looking towards the future. As there should be no contradiction between the pride for your own identity, and the respect for other identities.
Actually, I believe that strong identities are the foundation for openness and respect. Too often, those who are afraid of a diverse society don’t have a strong identity, but rather a very weak one.
So it is very important that everyone can learn the language and the history of their community. But pride about our own culture and traditions must not lead to segregation, especially in our education systems. It’s impossible to understand who you are, if you don’t meet “the other,” who’s different from you.
This is one of the greatest challenges for our European societies – all of them, not just here. The challenge is to make sure that every community can find its place inside our societies, without isolation from the rest of the world.
In our complex world, it is normal to have multiple identities, to feel a sense of belonging that is not limited to one dimension only, that is not exclusive. Personally, I feel Roman, and Italian, and European, and I could go on defining my identity with many other elements. All compatible one with the other and complementary. Each of us is one, unique and precious, different from anyone else and equal to anyone else.
I learnt it during my first European experience. In 1994, I took part in a campaign of the Council of Europe called “All different, all equal”. I joined people from the Balkans on a train trip from Thessaloniki to Strasbourg, all across the Balkans. It wasn’t always easy. We didn’t get along well with everyone. We had to understand, accept and manage conflicts. But we understood so much better who are, what makes us different from people of other backgrounds, and what makes us similar to all other Europeans, and all other people.
And just like I feel Roman, Italian and European, I am sure many of you feel part of your communities, citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and part of a larger European family.
We do not need to draw new dividing lines inside Europe, based on ethnicity, nationality or religion. Your history tells us how dangerous this can be. What we need is to build new spaces for cooperation and coexistence. Spaces where there is no contradiction between ethnic rights for everyone, and civil rights for all. Spaces where all can contribute to the common good. Because the common good can only be built if we all do it together.
I know this is not easy, especially in times of uncertainty, of polarisation, when walls are being built instead of torn apart. It is not easy for Europe, and it is not easy for BiH. But it is possible, as our recent experience shows.
Last year, when you presented your application to the EU, you did so on behalf of the whole country. Differences were put aside, to reach a common goal. And we, as the EU, responded to your desire to move forwards, together. Your leaders should now do no less.
Bosnia and Herzegovina will need more unity in the months and years ahead. You will need more unity to make your education system work for everyone. To improve the labour market, so that merit is what truly matters – not personal or political connections. You will need more unity to fully implement the Reform Agenda.
These reforms do not matter because the European Union asks for them. They matter because they change your life for the better.
If young people, like yourselves, decide to work for positive change – we will support you. We will be with you every single step as we have been in these last two years. Working together and moving forward together.
You have a role to play, and an important one. Make your voice heard. If you want your country to move forward on the path towards the European Union, say it clear. And work for it. On our side, we see very well that BiH is part of Europe and it should be part of our Union. There is no doubt about it. But European integration will not happen without us working together. Your engagement makes a difference, your passion makes a difference – for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the region and for the whole of Europe. Thank you.