Ambassador Philip T. Reeker Remarks at High-Level Plenary Session “Resetting the EU-U.S. Synergy Towards the Western Balkans”

Ambassador Philip T. Reeker
Remarks at High-Level Plenary Session
“Resetting the EU-U.S. Synergy Towards the Western Balkans”
Ohrid, North Macedonia
July 2, 2021

Thank you, blagordoram and good morning.

It’s a distinct honor for me to follow three distinguished presidents who I consider good friends, mentors, friends of the United States, as well as our other distinguished panelists today.  And I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be here.

I do want to acknowledge our gracious hosts for their coordination and efforts that have made this Prespa Forum possible, and to all the people of North Macedonia for hosting us.

Of course for me personally it’s always a pleasure to be here in the beautiful city of Ohrid that I first visited about 25 years ago, and it reminds us the context of history.  This occasion itself is a historic milestone and a chance to recognize frankly how far we’ve come in the last 20 years since the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement and in recent years since the Prespa Agreement.  It really is a chance to take stock of what comes next and exchange views among government leaders committed to the same end: to resolving the most pressing challenges facing the Western Balkans region.  History can guide us, history can provide us context, but geography is for real, and cannot be changed.

The question was posed as to what can we expect from Washington. Well, I think this past month, the month of June, is a very good illustration of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy–the continuity of policies, in fact, that we’ve had throughout multiple administrations for decades.

President Biden came into office on January 21st facing extraordinary challenges, primarily from the COVID pandemic, and focused the first days and weeks, indeed months, of his administration on dealing with COVID, getting it under control in our country and then beginning to help around the world in the tradition of American leadership, focusing on vaccinations and then thinking all along about how we will recover economically as we emerge from this very difficult period.

President Biden took his first trip, his first trip as President of the United States, to Europe, and he traveled first to Great Britain to see one of our oldest allies, and the historical irony there is never lost on us.  We talk about the special relationship with the country from which we declared independence 245 years ago, but he also attended the G7 summit meeting because to President Biden, to the United States, the G7 represents democracies, free market economies, the largest in the world, that come together to seek agreement on ways forward voluntarily, together to deal with the great challenges of our time that include COVID, that include climate, that include the challenges of a rising China, as well as the possibilities that include the conflicts that we see around the world that this region knows too well from decades ago, that we together as leaders can solve.

From there he traveled to Brussels for the summit of the NATO alliance, celebrating with 30 allies–29 others, including our most recent member of the alliance, North Macedonia–and for that I am personally very proud and so should the people here and all of those who worked including through the Prespa Agreement to make that possible.

This is about repairing relations, this is about revitalizing alliances, this is about reimagining what we can do together, because as the President said, we cannot deal with any of the issues we face in the 21st century alone.  Even an enormous country like the United States, with a tremendous military might, with an economy that no one could have imagined even just a generation or two ago, we have to work together to face the challenges that we have, and that was the president’s message–NATO being the backbone of our transatlantic relationship.

He went across the town then to have a summit meeting with the European Union, the first time that we’ve had a U.S.-EU summit meeting since 2014. That represented our strong partnership, the determination of President Biden and his administration to work closely with our European partners because we share the same values and together we are able to take on the challenges that we see in our own backyards and around the world.

And of course he then took the opportunity, having underscored the importance of our alliances, to meet with President Putin, because nothing replaces face-to-face diplomacy, to discuss our hope that we can have a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia, but to make clear that if Russia behaves irresponsibly and aggressively against our interests or those of our allies and friends there will be a price to pay.

And so the following week Secretary Blinken continued this transatlantic travel, again this focus on Europe by traveling–and I joined him–in Berlin, in Paris and in Rome, the three countries–Germany, France and Italy– who belong to all three of those major groupings, the G7, NATO, and the EU–to reconfirm at a bilateral level our joint efforts, our interests, and how we will continue to work together and to do that in a multilateral context, including the G20 meetings that were held in Italy representing a significant part of the world’s population and its economies.  And from the G20 Secretary Blinken sent me here to Ohrid to underscore our firm interests and engagement with our European partners in seeing the Western Balkans fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations.

And so I think you’ve seen progress in just these few months where we’ve held visits and calls with leaders throughout the region and with key European Union officials to indeed revitalize our efforts–efforts that never went away.

We met with the EU Special Representative for the Western Balkans Miroslav Lajcak, who focuses on the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, underscoring our long-standing commitment to the Western Balkans and the importance we place on cooperation and coordination with our allies and partners in realizing our vision, a vision that as I said has been consistent across multiple administrations for decades.

It’s too easy, I think, to take a year in which travel and diplomatic engagement was limited because of COVID, to focus on certain meetings, highlights, individuals, and to forget the broad context of our engagement throughout this region over decades, generations, and indeed in my own case at least 25 years of direct engagement.

It is a region here that we believe can be at peace with itself and its neighbors and fully integrated into this European, this Euro-Atlantic framework that President Biden thinks–knows–is so important. Building on existing strong U.S.-EU efforts in the Balkans is part of our overall priority to revitalize and raise the level of ambition of the transatlantic relationship.

To that end President Biden issued a new executive order–I think you’ve seen some news on–updating and modernizing the Western Balkan sanctions regime, refining and modernizing the tools that the President has to reinforce our commitment to combating malign influence and corruption in the region, promoting accountability reflecting the importance we place, specifically mentioning the 2018 Prespa Agreement as well.

In May at the UN Security Council Secretary Blinken was very clear that we need and want partners in all of these endeavors and the EU’s partnership in addressing the most pressing obstacles in the Western Balkans is indeed indispensable.

For more than two decades the vision and driver of U.S.-European collaboration in the Western Balkans has been Euro-Atlantic and European integration, motivating the kinds of reforms that enshrine, promote, and reward the common values and like-minded ideas throughout the transatlantic community.  The EU accession process itself helps to lay the foundation necessary for prosperous and peaceful democracies.

But I think we’re all aware that the credibility, and thus the influence, of the EU in this regard in the region is right now at a low point.  That’s why I’m so inspired by President Pahor’s remarks.  The EU and all 27 member states must work to re-establish and restore that credibility if it is to be effective in promoting a seriousness of purpose in the Western Balkans, and this was very much a message in Secretary Blinken’s meetings in Berlin, in Paris, in Rome.

We need to make clear to leaders and peoples in the region that reform progress will indeed generate meaningful movement along a clear, tangible, and credible EU path, and we do this as the United States because it affects us too.  Indecisiveness and inconsistency on this issue weakens the U.S.-EU collective efforts throughout this region and gives openings to those who try to drive wedges within and among the members of the Euro-Atlantic community.

The decision of EU member states to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania over a year ago was so uplifting to the whole region. Now we’re at a critical juncture, where the promise may no longer carry the same level of credibility unless real action follows, and to make good on that commitment.  For more than a year now we’ve seen EU member states failing to hold the first intergovernmental conferences with both aspirants.  This will come–I don’t need to go into the background of this here.  President Pahor has already demonstrated that the Slovenian leadership and its presidency will address this in coming days. The dynamic is very well understood by all of us, and I’ll just underscore that we believe it’s inappropriate and corrosive to the EU’s credibility to our shared values for bilateral issues to hijack the EU accession process.

German Foreign Minister Maas recently said if these countries deliver as North Macedonia and Albania indisputably have, then the EU must deliver.  How can we effectively ask other countries in the region also pursuing the EU path that they undertake difficult reforms if they have strong, and in fact empirical, reasons to doubt that there’s a payoff.  So again it’s essential the EU member states follow through on their promises and we hope to see that in coming weeks and months.

Let me mention another place where the EU could shore up consistency and credibility, and that’s visa liberalization for Kosovo.

After repeated attestations by the European Commission and European Parliament that Kosovo achieved all the prerequisites for visa-free travel within the Schengen Zone, denying Kosovo visa liberalization on top of the larger denial to Kosovo of a visible EU perspective saps the momentum for reforms as well as the motivation to approach the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue with the spirit of compromise and flexibility that is necessary to secure a comprehensive normalization agreement.  The lack of an agreement holds back both countries, the region, and frankly all of Europe, from reaching their potential.  Holding Kosovo to a different standard weakens the argument for holding the Balkans to any standard.

And let me just say with respect to the dialogue, the United States strongly supports the EU-facilitated process.  Special Representative Lajcak joined my deputy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer on a joint trip to Pristina and Belgrade in early June to underscore our coordination, and together we coordinated and encouraged Kosovo and Serbia to resume negotiations with both seriousness and urgency. We welcome the high-level talks that resumed June 15th, and that process will continue with another meeting likely in July.

All of these things reinforce what President Pahor has done with the Brdo-Brjuni process.  Both parties, as you know, are far apart, but the best way to bridge these differences is through dialogue.   We believe a binding normalization agreement is the only way for these countries to reach their full potential and unlock their EU accession paths, and I can’t imagine these countries taking their places in the transatlantic family without being able to conclude a normalization agreement.

Normalization is exactly that–it’s normal.  We believe an enduring agreement is one that includes mutual recognition, which would allow both countries to really put their disputes behind them, to put history in context, and to move toward more secure stable and prosperous futures.  Getting their demands flexibility, compromise, and forward thinking. We’d like to see more of this and I’m quite confident our EU partners would too.

Let me underscore that we, the United States, welcome and need the European Union’s partnership and engagement, as well as the partnership and engagement of the leaders of these countries, in this region, to press ahead in other parts in terms of fulfillment of key reforms.

One thing I want to point out, one of last year’s great successes that went under-noticed during the pandemic, was the electoral reform in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Their citizens had the ability to vote in municipal elections for the first time in 12 years, resulting in formation of a city council and budget adoption so that citizens and their concerns could be addressed, that governing structures could deliver on behalf of the people who elect them.

So the United States and its key European partners in Bosnia and Herzegovina spoke then with one voice and convinced the leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina to accomplish something big and meaningful for its citizens.  That unity of message is key to pressing ahead, and 2021 is a non-election year, I think it is a crucial moment for Bosnia and Herzegovina to take another big step by finally addressing Sejdic-Finci and other European Court of Human Rights decisions through limited constitutional reform, and to implement key ODIHR and GRECO recommendations for freer and fairer elections.

I realize how much more I have to say and I don’t want to go on much longer. so let me just say we’ve got to also prioritize economic integration.  What citizens want is government to deliver for them, to give them better lives, better opportunities, to restore hope, and by prioritizing economic integration, which we believe is central to this region’s future prosperity and preparation for eventual EU membership for all.

The United States strongly supports the Common Regional Market Initiative. Regional cooperation and economic integration [are] essential to the Western Balkans, particularly in the post-COVID recovery.  It’s also in the region’s long-term interests and competitiveness, and in turn a competitive Western Balkans region is one that’s attractive to high-quality global investors who can offer alternatives to the predatory overtures by Russia and the People’s Republic of China.

To fully realize the enormous potential for prosperity, peace, and stability the countries of the region must view their leaders’ political commitments as starting points, not destinations, and seek to hold leaders accountable.  And the leaders have to take real actions to press ahead on difficult reforms and resolve difficult political issues internally and with their neighbors to strengthen multi-ethnic democracies and judiciaries, and to move towards a more prosperous, integrated future.

The United States seeks to support competitive, integrated, and modernized markets, including energy markets that will underpin diversified and resilient energy systems, and economies that aim to integrate more fully into the EU themselves may best be posed to do so by undertaking their own reforms including with energy markets first. Let’s consider how we might increase our investments engagement and influence in these areas.  Let’s not leave gaps in the effort because geopolitical competitors will move to fill them.

In conclusion I want to mention one other issue discussed this morning, and that is how the Russian Federation capitalizes on this region’s history of political and ethnic divisions. Exploiting the region’s dependence on Russian energy and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, endemic corruption, weak rule of law, cyber-security vulnerabilities and unresolved political and territorial disputes Russia has sought to undermine good governance and keep tensions alive, and prevent reforms that would bring these countries into the western fold.

So we all must be attuned to that.  This was President Biden’s message broadly as he spoke in June at the three summits, to underscore again, as we have for decades, that we are  deeply invested.  The United States is deeply invested in European development and security, and we remain so today, because it is in the United States’ interests to be that invested.  A Europe whole free and at peace is a stronger partner for the United States, and as the President says, we all need partners, bilaterally and multilaterally.

So then as now, our goal in the Western Balkans is to work with our like-minded international local partners to support and advance aspirations of these countries to realize their strategic goal of European integration.  I very much look forward to hearing from others on this panel and throughout the continuation of this forum on how we might utilize this strong U.S.-EU relationship to accelerate that process.

Thank you very much

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