Statement by EC President von der Leyen on the occasion of her official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina

What a special moment. I am very pleased to be here in Bosnia and Herzegovina today and to inaugurate the Svilaj Bridge with you together. It connects the Western Balkans and the European Union in yet another way. The European Union has invested EUR 25 million in this bridge, but much more important is the symbol, the very essence, of this project. Building bridges between people, countries and cultures, that is so crucial for our common future. Because Bosnia and Herzegovina, and all the Western Balkans, belong in the European Union. It is in our common interest, but I also believe, it is our destiny.

Our joint priorities for the future are clear. Of course, we have to work in the present, which is the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. And we need to speed up vaccination, for example. We need to boost the economic recovery of the whole country. So let me spare a few moments on that, those two actual topics.

So far, we have been successful in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Union and its Member States – and I am really grateful to Team Europe for having done that – have donated over 1.3 million doses for Bosnia and Herzegovina. And more donations will come. But we all know, vaccines are important, yes, but it is vaccination that saves lives. And we know we have to convince our people to get vaccinated, to protect themselves, but also to protect their beloved ones. And in this, we can join forces. And I want to offer that we convince them, we share knowledge, we share trust and information. And even EU funding, if you wish so, could be used for this purpose.

I also hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will soon join EU Digital COVID Certificate platform. It is a long name for something which is very practical. Because it would greatly facilitate the safe travel between the European Union and Bosnia and Herzegovina. And we are ready to support you in these efforts. It is a universal certificate that works all over the place in the European Union. But we have even more – 42 – countries connected from four continents. So please, here is the invitation to use that.

And now, let me shed a look on the recovery, the economic recovery. And we have first of all invested significantly together to address the emergency of this crisis within the European Union. And Andrej, we have been working very well together on that. But we also mobilised EUR 3.3 billion for support for our friends here, in the region, in the Western Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina has received EUR 330 million in grants and financing to help you deal with the consequences of the pandemic. We know the topics, these are vital medical supplies, regional economic recovery, health system support, just to name a few.

But now, we must look forward to build a common future. We must look at investments that will ensure a lasting recovery. Just like the people in the European Union, I think I am deeply convinced that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina – especially young people – deserve a greener, more sustainable, more digital and more prosperous future. That is what we are working on together. With plenty of opportunities to succeed, these young people are full of ideas and entrepreneurship, they just need the framework to be able to deliver. And they need quality, well-paid jobs.

That is what our Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans is all about. As you know, we have put EUR 9 billion on the table for that. Now we need you, we need you to design the projects, to present mature projects we can together invest in. If we do that together, we can leverage those EUR 9 billion, for EUR 20 billion on top, so a whole package of EUR 30 billion is possible to deliver to the region. Just to have a look at this year, the plan delivered EUR 500 million already. And I am very pleased to announce that, because the project is going so well, we are able to put another EUR 600 million on the table, for this year still to deliver. So this shows the progress and the success this plan has – it is a joint success.

Right now, what the projects are concerned, we are working hand in hand with our Western Balkan friends to create jobs and to connect the region. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, we together plan to invest further in the modernisation of Corridor 5c, both rail and road, and for example in the demining of the Sava River – two very important projects.

The Economic and Investment Plan will bring jobs and growth to the region. But of course, it is crucial to support integration within the region. It is vital that all six Western Balkan partners move forward quickly to develop the common regional market. We know by experience, this makes a big difference if there are no more obstacles or hurdles within a common regional market. We know it with the Single Market. Opening here this road is a symbol too, no more barriers, no more obstacles, just movement that is smoothly and integrated in the region is so important. This is key to ensure the success of the Economic and Investment Plan and to speed up progress in the EU accession process.

And this process, the EU accession process, is something that we are discussing in detail, rightly so. It is clear that the region has to build the most important bridge of all – and that is the bridge of reconciliation. We count on you to cross this difficult, but so beautiful, so necessary bridge of reconciliation. We owe it to the victims of the past conflicts that have torn this beautiful region, and we owe it to the youth that have a European dream. And we want that this dream is becoming reality. So leaders in the region must put the interest of the people first. And to move forward on the candidate status, we need urgent progress in the electoral and constitutional reforms. But rest assured, we are ready to go every single step with you, together, as friends, as partners. You need to help us to help you – that is so important, by delivering on what has been agreed. And that is that equality amongst all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina must be guaranteed. This is key for the country to move forward in the its European aspiration.

And finally, on an encouraging note, concerning the tensions of the last days between Serbia and Kosovo: I am very pleased to hear the good news from Brussels. I discussed these issues with President Vučić and Prime Minister Kurti, and it is very positive that they have reached an agreement to resolve the tensions in the north of Kosovo. This includes work towards a sustainable solution allowing freedom of movement on both sides. And this is, again, a bridge they have been walking upon, a bridge of facilitated dialogue, a bridge of reconciliation, a bridge of trust in each other. It is hard work to reach it, but then we are rewarded with results that benefit the people of the region.

Let me conclude by saying that I am very much looking forward to the EU-Western Balkans Summit in a few days in Slovenia. Together, we will chart a vision for our common future. I also want Bosnia and Herzegovina to fully take part in the Conference on the Future of Europe. Because I want to hear the voice of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The voice of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of the youth of the region, in shaping the future of the European Union.

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