Western Balkans Summit 2021
South-East Europe: Enhancing Peace and Cooperation in a Fragile Global Environment
Ambassador Kate Marie Byrnes
October 14, 2021
Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here to talk about this broader context and share a few thoughts about how we are approaching these problems on the ground and dealing with the challenges and opportunities of what President Biden has called “a decisive decade for our world.” The challenges before us are enormous. We have to end the pandemic. We need to address climate change. We need to stand up for human rights and shape the rules of international trade, cyber, and emerging technologies. And we have to do it together, so we can define this decade not by our difficulties, but by our collective action in overcoming them.
That should be the way forward. And we in the United States know fully well that our success is bound up in the success of others. That no nation, country or government can do this alone. That’s why we are so active on the ground, engaged here in North Macedonia, throughout the Western Balkans, and around the world in what President Biden has called “relentless diplomacy.”
This idea of relentless diplomacy is already showing success. Relentless diplomacy led to the Prespa Agreement, unlocking NATO membership for North Macedonia and replacing regional division with regional cooperation. North Macedonia and Greece are now reaping the benefits of this kind of cooperation. Nothing demonstrates this better than the joint project to build an interconnector between Greece and North Macedonia. When completed, this project will not only free North Macedonia from its dependence on a single supplier of gas that has long held a monopoly on pricing. It is going to fundamentally change the picture of energy here in the region. It is going to establish a trusted regional energy hub and build cross-border energy cooperation that will prove essential to the region’s transition to renewables.
We have also seen important progress in using this energy cooperation to then build a path toward transition to renewables. We have seen expanded efforts between the private sector in the region. I was pleased to join a meeting of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce of North Macedonia in Thessaloniki last September, talking about opportunities to partner together to bring more investment to the region, and I look forward to welcoming a joint trade delegation here in Skopje next month.
These are all extremely important steps and representative of the changes that are taking place toward vital regional integration. Certainly the pandemic has convinced many of us, in the United States, in Europe and in this region, of the importance of shoring up regional supply chains, but also in investing in skilled labor and new technologies. This is a major opportunity for the Western Balkans, which is why, through USAID, we partnered with the Customs Administration of North Macedonia to improve border controls, facilitating the transit of people and goods along corridor eight and better connecting the region both politically and economically. All of this is going to help create a momentum that not only builds better political integration but economic integration. And we know that these kinds of investments will pay for themselves over time and for decades to come.
We have also seen relentless diplomacy in fighting the pandemic and improving health care. It turns out that an investment we made in 2018 to work with the Institutes of Public Health on their virology lab helped complete a renovation just when the pandemic hit. This very lab is having a direct impact on the citizens of North Macedonia, with the expanded testing capacity and data collection helping to address the COVID-19 challenges we all face. But our health cooperation will outlast the pandemic. U.S. funds recently helped renovate the blood transfusions laboratory so that it now offers plasma transfusion services, not just to citizens of North Macedonia, but to those in need from across the region.
In all of these areas we are seeing a profound economic effect. We remain focused on anti-corruption efforts and improving the rule of law. This is fundamental to promote transparency, building stronger, more independent institutions, fighting corruption and impunity, leading to a stronger economy and a more citizen-responsive government. We are working with media, with the judiciary here to address those fundamental issues that provide better trust of citizens in their government, and lead to dramatic changes in which the citizens of this country and most importantly, the youth, have a voice in how things develop.
I think it is important, as we start to look at the opportunities we have on the horizon for our defense partnership, to recognize the investments we have made in emergency preparedness, medical response, in environmental awareness, can be expanded to other parts of our cooperation as well. Last month I was in Vermont, the state partner of North Macedonia, to talk about how we can transition our defense partnership into new areas of the economy- into investments in telehealth, promoting ecotourism, protecting the environment, and transitioning traditional ways we have done diplomacy into much broader areas of national security across all sectors in society. There is a lot important work that we can do, and most of this relentless diplomacy is going to come through our cooperation with like-minded partners.
With the full support of the United States, we recently witnessed and agreement between North Macedonia and Estonia, to help develop a legal and institutional framework for digitalization. Estonia brings great expertise in e-governance, in technological and digital services. These kinds of partnerships will help North Macedonia, not only with its future goals in EU membership, but to deliver a citizen-responsive government that the citizens have demanded for a long period of time,
In this, and many other areas, our partnership with the EU remains very important. Our fundamental goal is to see North Macedonia fully integrated in the European Union and all of the work that we are doing is intended to help that process, working with our EU and other like-minded partners to help achieve that goal.
I will conclude re-emphasizing the importance of- whether we are talking about North Macedonia or our relationship with other countries in the Western Balkans- it really has to be an approach that is based on solidarity and working together to make sure that challenges we face now become the opportunities that the Western Balkans – and, by extension, Europe and its relationship with the United States – can take advantage of.