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Statement by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference with President Michel and Andrej Plenković, Prime Minister of Croatia, following the EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op woensdag 6 mei 2020.

Thank you Charles,

Thank you Andrej,

Indeed, we have had very good discussions between the European Union and our Western Balkan partners, discussions on our common challenges and how to take our cooperation forward.

This Summit, even if it is virtual, is a testimony of the importance the European Union gives to the region. And it is a testimony that the Western Balkans are an absolute priority for the European Union and for my Commission.

The Western Balkans belong in the EU. There is no question for us about this. And this is why I firmly believe that the European Union has a special responsibility in assisting its partners in the region.

This is particularly true regarding the impact of the coronavirus. And there were many strong signs of solidarity in difficult times going back and forth. I want to thank very much the countries in the region for their solidarity with the European Union.

I recall that Albanian doctors went to help Italy. And Serbia and Montenegro helped enormously to fly back home EU citizens that were stranded. The donation of protective equipment for example made to Italy. On Monday - this is another sign - we had a global pledging conference, we collected globally USD 8 billion, and more than EUR 4 billion came from the so-called ‘team Europe' and Serbia was part of that team by pledging too. I think that is a strong and very clear message.

Likewise, the European Union has mobilised an unparalleled financial package of EUR 3.3 billion. EUR 750 million have been micro-economic financial assistance. So it has been designed to help the Western Balkans to address the immediate needs in the health sector but also of course to take the first measures to mitigate the socio-economic impact and to inject liquidity to small and medium sized companies in the Western Balkan region, this has been done together with the European Investment Bank.

We have also associated our Western Balkan partners in the European Union initiatives that are normally only reserved for Member States. For example with the Joint Procurement Initiative to buy medical supplies like masks and ventilators. But also in the concept of the so-called ‘green lanes' crossing the borders that helped enormously to have the flow of goods going.

All this is a demonstration that the Western Balkans are our privileged partners given our unequivocal commitment to their European perspective.

Once we put behind us this immediate phase of the coronavirus crisis, the European Union will accompany the longer term recovery with an economic and investment plan. I expect the plan to be presented later in the year, because of course it is linked to our European budget.

I can already tell you that the investment plan itself will focus on the necessary transport and energy infrastructures to interconnect our regions, but also on our main policies, that are the European Green Deal and the digital transition, which will also be at the heart of the European Union's recovery.

The regional cooperation and good neighbourhood relations are key for the economic recovery in the region. We know this too well in Europe where our Single Market is our strength. And we want the Western Balkans also to get closer to the Single Market and benefit from it.

For this, governments in the region will need to continue to deliver on reforms. Particularly in the area of the rule of law and the fight against corruption, on the functioning of the democratic institutions and public administration. This means tackling corruption and organised crime, where we want to see a clear track record established.

Let me stress in particular that a free press is also a cornerstone of democracy and in Europe's DNA. We know if we want to fight disinformation, we need a strong and a free press. This is the best means against disinformation.

But it will also give the possibility to those countries that show faster tangible results in reforms to move faster in the accession negotiations, opening more chapters in one go. This is the new methodology which we adopted earlier this year.

I am particularly happy that the Summit takes place under the Council Presidency of Croatia, our newest member in the European Union. It is in this Croatian Presidency, that the European Council decided to give the green light to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania - a strong sign.

We have just celebrated a few days ago the biggest enlargement to the European Union 16 years ago. The enlargement policy - this is something where I am deeply convinced - is one of the most successful EU policies. It has spread peace, security and prosperity across the continent.

I am sure it will continue to be to the benefit of the Western Balkans and the European Union.

Thank you.


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