Building Confidence through Dialogue
Ladies and gentlemen,
The title of this Forum asserts that the Western Balkans are a missing puzzle piece, without which Europe is incomplete.
This is of course a nod to the aspiration of those countries to become European Union member states:
A perfectly understandable aim.
But there is a wider, pan-European Organisation which encompasses almost all European countries:
And in which, indeed, Western Balkan countries play a central and valued role.
The Council of Europe protects and promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law across our 47 member states.
Each of those countries has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which has the force of law throughout our common legal area.
And each is committed – as our Statute says – to achieving greater unity between the Organisation’s member states in the pursuit of peace:
Peace based upon justice and international co-operation.
This is important because dialogue builds trust, trust enables co-operation, and co-operation is the basis for multilateral progress.
Inside the Council of Europe, Western Balkan states work with one another, and the rest of the 47, to address issues of concern to all of Europe, and often of particular relevance to this region:
Strengthening the independence of the judiciary;
Fighting corruption and organised crime;
Strengthening the freedom of the media.
In recent years, our Commissioner for Human Rights has worked hard on specific issues relating to transitional justice and reconciliation in the Western Balkans.
On establishing the fate of missing persons, for example;
On protecting war victims’ access to justice and reparation;
And on fostering inclusive education.
Alongside this, national authorities have taken important steps to bring their legislation and practice into line with European and other international standards.
There has been regional co-operation on the prosecution of war crimes;
Laws to prevent discrimination and better protect minority rights;
And human rights action plans which contribute to progress in key areas, backed by the Council of Europe’s co-operation activities, with a strong field presence.
Our Organisation also carries out confidence-building measures in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This approach supports reconciliation and democratisation by enhancing co-operation across the entity boundary line.
Today, it involves most of the divided municipalities;
And it focuses on co-operation between them, involving young people, and strengthening the role of locally elected women.
As a result, there are now joint projects by pairs of divided municipalities across the entity line;
And seven female mayors have signed an agreement on inter-municipal, city co-operation.
So, over two decades after the end of conflict, reconciliation is still a work in progress.
But that progress is clear and real and must move forwards.
Another mechanism that will help that happen is the Council of Europe – EU Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey.
Now in its second phase, it puts an emphasis on the regional dimension of co-operation.
And it is important for a specific objective.
The Western Balkan countries’ aspirations for European Union membership rest on the EU’s “fundamental first” approach to enlargement.
Alignment with the Council of Europe’s standards is therefore a centrepiece of the accession process:
With the EU’s annual enlargement reports relying on those standards and on our monitoring.
And, last year, in Zagreb, the EU added a specific emphasis on the importance of reforms that ensure the rule of law, democratic values and the fight against corruption and organised crime.
These objectives are at the core of the Horizontal Facility.
So too are anti-discrimination, the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups, and freedom of expression, information and the media.
The results are there to see.
There has been increased compliance with European standards and the EU’s acquis in all of these areas.
And further progress will surely come.
But this, like everything achieved so far, requires the dialogue in which the seeds for progress may be planted.
The Council of Europe is proud of its role in facilitating that dialogue and helping the Western Balkans along its path to peace, prosperity and rightful place in our common European family.