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AS Pol (co-operation activities of the Council of Europe in the Western Balkans)

Strasbourg 1 February 2022
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As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

 

Chair,

Distinguished Members of the Committee,

Ladies and gentlemen,

“Even after a quarter-century of relative peace, the Balkans have yet to achieve the lasting stability that was hoped for when the region's wars were brought to an end. And now that the EU integration process has stalled, one cannot rule out a return of violent conflict.”

This was the grim warning last year, by the former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, who has also served as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Balkans, and knows the region well.

With the substantial efforts of the previous Slovenian EU Presidency, and now the aims of the current French EU Presidency, let us hope things will move in the right direction.

And we, the Council of Europe, can certainly play an important role as well.  

It is the Council of Europe’s role to support its member states in meeting our common European standards in human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

And it is a strategic priority to work with other international organisations that share our values so that, together, we make progress in the interests of all Europeans.

As such, the European Union is our closest partner and our single largest donor.

So, it is natural that we should work together to promote reform in the Western Balkans:

Helping those countries put in place the institutions and policies required to meet our Organisation’s standards and, in turn, better preparing them for the prospect of EU integration.

The Parliamentary Assembly plays a notable role in achieving this.

Like many others, I look forward to the forthcoming report on Supporting a European Perspective for the Western Balkans.

And I know that its rapporteur, Mr Papandreou, from whom we have just heard, with his extensive political experience and knowledge of the region, will draw up an insightful report with valuable points for further reflection.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Mr. Papandreou for his introduction and for outlining two interesting, main narratives as regards the region.

I hope that my intervention today might be of some small use in that process.

Certainly, it is good to take stock of the work that is being done in the region and to ask ourselves what else we might do.

The assistance that the Council of Europe provides to the Western Balkan states’ national authorities is based on the recommendations of our monitoring and advisory bodies.

This includes the Venice Commission on very specific Constitutional issues.

And the technical co-operation that we offer on that basis is unique.

To deliver it, in addition to our expertise, we benefit from the EU’s political and financial support.

Our most important work in the region is outlined in our joint programme:

The Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey.

Our Programme covers four main thematic areas:

- Ensuring justice;

- The fight against corruption and organised and economic crime;

- Anti-discrimination and the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups;

And, last but not least:

- Freedom of expression and the media.

These are complemented by several bilateral and regional programmes funded by the EU and individual donor countries.

The implementation of the Horizontal Facility, and the reforms we promote through it, certainly rely on political will.

Not just from national authorities, but others – including parliaments – whose input is required for passing legislation, supervising and implementing reform, and ensuring the execution of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.

In all of this, the Council of Europe’s support remains important.

Take, for example, the legal expertise that we provide in an extraordinary number – over 200 a year, on average, as part of the Horizontal Facility.

Or the Expertise Coordination Mechanism that can be seized by national authorities, including Speakers of Parliament, in order to obtain an opinion by the Venice Commission or other Council of Europe bodies.

But the fundamental strength of our approach is it’s flexibility.

We can tailor support to evolving needs in the region, when necessary and requested.

The sum of our co-operation projects and programmes is presented in one, very useful document – an Action Plan.

Prepared, discussed and negotiated on the basis of consultations with relevant national authorities and thereafter discussed and agreed in a CM Rapporteur-group before it is finally endorsed by our Committee of Ministers.

The AP is not only a very useful tool for us, but also for the authorities and potential donors, as it ensures the sufficient degree of focus, as well as co-ordination, of what we do as an organisation in relation to a given country.

We have now a long experience with Action Plans to look back on.

There have been many over the last decade.

The tangible results of this technical assistance to the Western Balkan countries, be it through the AP or other cooperation documents, are many, varied and important.

Let me today give you just a few concrete examples:

In Albania, a land property registration helpline has been set-up to guide citizens, with a focus on women owners.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there has been a Policy Recommendation and Roadmap for Improving Inclusive Education.

And in Montenegro, we have seen the adoption of a new law on civil partnerships;

In North Macedonia, they launched the first LGBTI Helpline in the South-East Europe region;

And Serbia has amended its Anti-Discrimination Law, making use of specific Council of Europe expertise.

In Kosovo*, our project assistance is based on the principle of “functional capacity” – fully in line with UN Security Council Resolution No. 1244.

With “functional capacity” we mean that contacts and co-operation on projects are possible within the limits of the functional responsibilities exercised by the relevant Kosovo* officials.

At the same time, such interaction cannot be understood as implying, in any manner, that the Council of Europe takes any position with regard to the status of Kosovo*.

We also look at the region as a whole .

A no-hate speech campaign Block the Hatred, Share the Love was the first Western Balkan-wide anti-racism initiative.

It gathered a range of personalities around a message of equality and reconciliation.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Simultaneously – and this is an important point - this wide-ranging approach is helping to bring closer the prospect of the Western Balkan countries’ integration in the EU.

Of course, we are not the EU, but the EU sees a clear benefit in working with the Council of Europe in the region.

And for us, it is a way of assisting important member States in their reform efforts.

And I may add on this point, that the new accession methodology, adopted by the European Commission in 2020, also focuses strongly on fundamental reforms:

Starting with the rule of law and the functioning of democratic institutions.

And the Horizontal Facility and additional programmes make a particularly strong contribution to EU accession negotiations under Chapter 23: judiciary and fundamental rights –

And Chapter 24: justice, freedom and security.

So it seems to me that our technical co-operation is, at the same time, advancing both the Council of Europe standards as well as the European Union’s objectives, which is not too bad.

But more important than that, it is improving the lives of millions of people in the Western Balkans region:

Ensuring that human rights, democracy the rule of law are firmly rooted in rapidly evolving societies.

Of course, over the past two years, this work has not been plain sailing, due to the impact of
COVID-19.

But the firm commitment of national authorities, combined with the flexibility of our Organisation, has ensured concrete results, despite the difficult circumstances.

Dear friends,

Looking back, the tragic armed conflict on the territory of former Yugoslavia claimed more than 100 000 lives, displaced millions of people, and set back the region’s economic and social development by decades.

I do not know what conclusions you will come to in your discussions in this Committee and in your report, Mr Papandreou.

But I believe we, as an organisation, have played an important role in the region, and that this must continue.

Reforms don’t always yield results overnight, but they lay the foundations for sustainable progress – political and legal, social and economic.

The physical presence of our field offices has been integral to this.

And the work carried out by the staff has been vital, to help ensure the momentum and find ways forward, given, at times, difficult circumstances.

As also Carl Bildt has underlined on several occasions – the alternative for the Western Balkans is a slide backward into violence.

It has happened before. It must not happen again in Europe. 

Thank you for your attention.

 

* All references to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.