Ambassador Reeker, Civilian Deputy to the EUCOM Commander, remarks at the Balkans 360 Conference

Ambassador Philip Reeker, Civilian Deputy to the EUCOM Commander, and Deputy PM for European Affairs Bujar Osmani at the opening of the “Balkans 360: Economic Development and Regional Relations in Southeast Europe” (photo credit: 2019)

Ambassador Philip Reeker’s Keynote Remarks at the “Balkans 360: Economic Development and Regional Relations in Southeast Europe” Conference
Skopje, North Macedonia
March 4, 2019

Thank you all for inviting me here today.  Thank you Deputy Prime Minister.  It’s not only great to share – [inaudible] – with you, but also to hear your wise words, and I look forward to meeting with you today, as well as with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and others here.

I want to extend my sincere gratitude to our hosts – the George C. Marshall Center and to the German Marshall Fund, two institutions for which I have the most profound respect and have worked with over the years.  I bring the greetings of General Scaparrotti, the Commander of US European Command, my current boss. I am very pleased that my colleague, Andy Plitt has come also from Stuttgart to join us today and participate through the rest of the day.

I think it is very important to underscore, as was said at the opening, this is a German and U.S. initiative and partnership, and really represents the best of engagement, cooperation and leadership, which is something that Secretary Pompeo, whom I joined a couple of weeks ago in his travels in central Europe, underscored at every stop.

As a former Public Affairs Officer here in Skopje, and later the U.S. Ambassador, I am absolutely delighted to be back.  It is especially heartening to visit now, as North Macedonia takes an enormous step forward towards its rightful place in Europe and NATO.  The same enormous potential that I have always proudly promoted as part of U.S. foreign policy, and felt from my heart, is still very much here.

I have spent much of my diplomatic career working to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Europe more broadly, and to advance our mutual interests.  I am a great believer in history, and as we look at the anniversaries we will celebrate this year – with the 70th anniversary of NATO, and move towards the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII – and contemplate exactly what we have built and accomplished in the years since, the tremendous level of stability and peace and prosperity that would have been unimaginable to generations like my grandparents.  My grandfather fought in World War II, a second generation German-American who became a navy officer and landed in Normandy some 75 years ago.

It’s about advancing mutual interests, and that’s very much what I take to heart as I return to Washington exactly two weeks from today, on March 18, when I will take the helm of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, following Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell, who as you know is very much a friend of the region.

While I am here today to talk about the Balkans, I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate up front that the United States remains fully committed to building and sustaining strong relationships in and across Europe with European governments and with the next generation of leaders.  The Transatlantic community remains the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy.  The European Union is one of our closest partners on a whole range of international efforts.  While others may seek to draw attention to our differences, in reality we agree on far more than we disagree.

The U.S. commitment to NATO and collective defense under Article 5 also remains ironclad.  As President Trump himself has said, the Alliance has been the bulwark of international peace and security for nearly 70 years.  While NATO is grappling with complex challenges and must focus on increasing forces, capabilities, and readiness to meet both today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, we can and will do so together as Allies.

I think our European partners would agree that from the Caucasus to the Balkans to the Baltics, and to the Arctic, Europe’s frontiers are of renewed geopolitical interest for Russia and China, as Minister Osmani mentioned in his remarks.

Today, Europe is undeniably a center of geopolitical competition.  In recent years, Moscow has attempted to forcefully redraw borders in Eastern Europe, bullied its neighbors, launched disinformation and destabilizing interference campaigns against the West, and engaged in military buildups on its borders.  To what ends it will go to extend its malign influence was made clear by Moscow’s attempt to derail the NATO accession of Montenegro, where it went so far as to back a failed attempt to violently overthrow the government in Podgorica.  China’s 16+1 platform and Belt and Road Initiative are projects aimed at expanding its global footprint, leveraging often questionable economic terms into malign political influence, and like Russia seeking to undermine Western solidarity.

The United States and Europe must work together to ensure the West remains the most attractive model for modern, free societies.  In countries that have chosen the Western path, we will continue to champion efforts to accelerate democratic reforms that will embed them in the Western community of nations.

In this context, the United States remains committed to supporting the aspirations of all the countries of the Western Balkans to secure membership in the European Union – not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because it is in the strategic interest of the United States to have peace, prosperity, and stability in Europe, something we fought for together 75 years ago.

Enlargement is a critical driver of the political and economic reforms necessary to qualify for membership in Western institutions.  In the face of internal and external challenges, we must remain focused and sure-footed in working to advance the goals of more transparent and accountable government, rule of law, media freedom, and an engaged citizenry.  These pillars are indispensable to building greater resilience to malign influence from outside actors which are looking to keep Western Balkan countries divided, fractious, and vulnerable.  Key to this transformational aspiration in these countries are leadership, courage, vision, and a willingness to take political risks, something we saw the two prime ministers of Greece and North Macedonia take very much to heart.

Turning to Southeastern Europe, the topic of today’s remarks, the historic Prespa Agreement is an excellent example of just that.  This Agreement paved the way for North Macedonia to join NATO as its 30th member.  General Scaparrotti and I have often talked about the fact that outside his office at SHAPE headquarters in Mons, there is space for one beautiful flagpole number 30, and he really looks forward to seeking that fulfilled.  As North Macedonia works to join NATO as the 30th member and to further its European integration, NATO Allies have jockeyed to be among the first to ratify North Macedonia’s NATO Accession Protocol.

For 27 years, mutual distrust and historic disagreements between Skopje and Athens blocked a path forward.  I can tell you from my own experience that the issue was incredibly complex and, by many, considered intractable.  Getting to this point, as we know, was not easy.  I know personally that many times the leaders involved refused to give up on the process and pressed ahead.  The success of the Prespa Agreement is a testament to what hard work and compromise can accomplish if individual leaders demonstrate such leadership.

In particular, Prime Minister Tsipras and Prime Minister Zaev and the Foreign Ministers should be commended on this historic achievement.  I trust other leaders in the Western Balkans are taking note of this experience.  It proves that deeply-rooted sources of historical conflict can be overcome.  Indeed, as one of the foreign ministers was quoted saying, history should be a school, not a prison.  Challenges posed by bad actors, by nationalist hardliners, and those who benefit from an environment plagued by weak democratic institutions and endemic corruption can be surmounted – if the vision and the political will are there.

We should all take a moment to imagine what the future of the Western Balkans could look like if leaders across the region build on the momentum from this historic success, leverage it, to advance similar compromises and reconciliation.

Normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia under the EU-facilitated Dialogue is indeed the next opportunity to resolve a fundamental fault line that holds back not just those two countries but the whole region.  This is a strategic priority for the United States.  President Trump himself has called for leaders in both Kosovo and Serbia to see beyond the zero-sum thinking of the past, and move forward together towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.  With mutual recognition at its core, a comprehensive agreement to normalize relations will allow both countries to realize their full potential and put the violence of the 1990s firmly in the past.

Both countries, however, risk squandering the best chance in a generation to resolve this issue as their negotiations stall.  I repeat here again our call on both Belgrade and Pristina to remove barriers to negotiations and allow the Dialogue to move forward.  Part of this has to be Kosovo suspending the tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian goods.  To the citizens of Kosovo:  we understand your frustration.  We understand your desire to control your destiny and to advance Kosovo’s integration into the international system.  There is no question of U.S. support for your sovereignty and independence.  The United States has invested significant equity into Kosovo’s success as an independent, multi-ethnic, sovereign country.  We have stood behind you.  Repeatedly.  But on occasion, we have come to you with an important request.  This is one of those times.  The United States, perhaps your closest, strategic friend and partner, believes that reaching agreement with Serbia is the only path forward for Kosovo.  The hard fact is, Kosovo can’t get back to its negotiations with Serbia unless it suspends the tariffs, which we believe is in the interest of Kosovo, of the United States, and of the whole region.  So it is unfortunate – and, frankly, surprising – that we still have a serious disagreement with the government of Kosovo on this.  I fear Kosovo’s stance has done damage to our bilateral relationship, a relationship that we value deeply.

So as I start my new duties as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, it is an opportunity to move ahead.  We are not asking for the moon, just a time-limited suspension of the tariffs.  Then we can see what can be achieved at the negotiating table.  No deal is signed until there is agreement on all its aspects.  Kosovo gives up nothing by negotiating; it risks everything by not negotiating.

I also call on Belgrade, which has been aggressive in its rejection of Kosovo, to focus on its strategic interest too.  Through its campaign to incentivize countries to withdraw recognition of Kosovo and to block its membership in international organizations such as INTERPOL, Belgrade soured the atmosphere for compromise and progress toward an agreement it needs to reach its own European future.

Kosovo and Serbia must ask themselves, what is the alternative to normalizing relations?  Both have the most to lose from a frozen conflict.  No deal means reduced security, slower economic growth, and a freeze to the countries’ aspirations to join the European Union.  The leaders owe it to their publics to accept the need for compromise and return to the negotiating table, the best place to resolve disputes.  I know EU High Representative Mogherini is ready to convene the parties.  I was with Secretary Pompeo when we met with High representative Mogherini just a couple of weeks ago in Brussels.  Both sides must set their eyes on the future and negotiate a locally owned solution.  For any agreement to endure, the international community cannot dictate the terms.  The United States is not advocating for any particular formula.  Neither are we offering a blank check – any solution obviously must be implementable, durable, and contribute to regional stability.  We will seriously consider any agreement the Parties believe meets these conditions and work with the EU and the Parties on a path forward.

Even while efforts to normalize relations are ongoing, other aspects of Serbia’s EU accession process must not lose steam.  Belgrade must accelerate reforms necessary to meet all EU conditions.  As the EU has said, these include strengthening the rule of law and the judiciary, increasing media freedoms, and improving public administration and democratic governance.  We stand ready to help Serbia do these things, as we have with so many other countries in the region.

This imperative to couple courageous, far-sighted, political vision with hard but necessary democratic reforms is a common theme throughout the region.  Our NATO Ally Albania has made tremendous strides on its reform path.  But it must stay the course – root out corruption, revamp key rule-of-law institutions, reform the judiciary, fight organized crime, and demonstrate that no one stands above the law – in order to formally open EU accession negotiations.

All political parties assert they share the same goal: Albania acceding to the European Union.  But the opposition took to the streets and relinquished its mandates, even as urgent, necessary work must be done within the democratic process.  Any EU member state and those that are currently EU aspirants will tell you that this must be a whole of government, in fact a whole of society, effort.  We urge all political leaders to demonstrate political will and engage constructively within Albania’s democratic institutions to advance reforms.  And if parties exercise their democratic right to protest, it must be done peacefully.

The United States also shares Bosnia and Herzegovina’s goal to see the county take its rightful place as a fully integrated member of the Euro-Atlantic community.  The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognize that this is their best hope for a stable and prosperous future.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has several opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the West on the immediate horizon.  In December, NATO Allies agreed to accept Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Annual National Program, the ANP, when Sarajevo is ready to submit it.  This is an important chance to deepen its relationship with NATO, which offers all kinds of opportunities.  It is proof that progress toward Western integration is possible through hard work and the enduring political will to make difficult – but necessary – reforms.  We sincerely hope the country’s leaders take advantage of this opportunity soon.  We are also pleased that Bosnia and Herzegovina is completing the necessary steps to become an official candidate for EU membership.  We will continue to partner with all those working towards these shared goals.

While the opportunities are great, many challenges remain.  Good governance and the rule of law are key elements to political and economic stability in any country.  But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, short-sighted and self-serving politicians deploy nationalist rhetoric to exacerbate divisions among the three constituent peoples.  The United States is particularly concerned about crackdowns on freedom of assembly in the Republika Srpska – a position incongruous with democratic norms or a European future.

Perhaps no other place in Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates the dangers of political stasis and lack of leadership more clearly than Mostar – a city where citizens have been denied their right to elect local leaders for more than a decade.  The citizens of Mostar deserve better.  The United States believes this electoral impasse must be resolved before the municipal elections of 2020.

So the United States is committed to working with the new government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to address these and other challenges.  Major steps must be taken to improve the economy, strengthen the rule of law, and build a brighter future for all its citizens.  We need to think about our kids, and our grandchildren.  This is going to require statesmanship from the elected leaders.  Here too the United States is ready to help.

Another recent success stories from the region show us that while these efforts are difficult, the hard work really pays off.  For Montenegro, NATO accession was no small feat.  It should be proud of this accomplishment.  The next goal is EU accession.  To sustain progress, Podgorica will need to redouble its efforts to strengthen the rule of law, eradicate organized crime, and bolster the economy. The same messages to all.  It must also improve media freedom and the protection of journalists, which underpin democracy and are essential enablers of good governance.  Montenegro could become the next EU member state, if it completes necessary reforms in these areas.

Finally, to make the full 360, I would like to cite one more regional success story.  In its journey to joining NATO and the EU, Croatia embarked on serious reform efforts, sustained hard work over years that resulted in government more responsive to the people and more responsible with public funds.  Croatia understands these efforts could not end with accession.  As a regional leader, we look to continued Croatian engagement on legacy challenges, including the promotion of stability and growth in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and good-faith neighborhood engagement to reconcile past differences and move forward in cooperation.

To this end, I want to congratulate Croatia on its decision earlier this year to commit to the Krk Island Liquid National Gas import facility.  The project will significantly enhance energy security, not just at home, but for the whole region.  This project was first envisioned over 20 years ago, I remember people talking about it when I was first serving in this region, but it took the courage and vision of the current Croatian government, working closely with its EU partners, to make this a reality.  And to that I say bravo!

In closing, I would reiterate this call for political courage and vision by all the region’s leaders.  The United States supports EU membership for all countries of the Western Balkans and NATO membership for those who want it.  But we cannot want it more than you do.  Our hope for your future is a thriving and stable Western Balkans, aligned with our shared values, fully integrated into Western institutions, and thus resilient to destabilizing and malign outside actors that would thwart your ambitions.

The Western Balkans has taken notable steps forward in recent years.  To recap: the historic Prespa Agreement, EU membership for Croatia, opening of accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, and NATO membership for Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, with North Macedonia well on its way to full membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization .

Of course, the process has not been linear, nor has it been even.  Stability and prosperity are earned through hard work and sustained commitment to reform.  This region is intertwined by history, culture, and geopolitics.  So it must work together, as neighbors, to find solutions and propel each other forward.  To these I could add more: Bosnia dropping its veto on Kosovo membership in the A5; Serbia and Croatia resolving legacy issues; Albania and Greece concluding an agreement on their outstanding issues.  This and much more needs to be tackled.

I pledge to you all that the United States, certainly this diplomat in conjunction with my colleagues in the Bureau of European Affairs working under Secretary Pompeo, and with all of our missions throughout Europe, we stand ready to support the countries of the Western Balkans as they pursue these efforts. Thank you very much.