It is always a pleasure to be back in Tirana, and I am so glad to be here, for the first time, at the University of Tirana.
And I would like to thank all friends and colleagues who have arranged this wonderful meeting – let me tell you that this is not just an honour for me, it is really a pleasure. You might know that I visit Tirana in these hours as part of a regional visit. I am paying visit to all the “Western Balkans Six” and as Ditmir [Foreign Minister Bushati] was saying these are not necessarily easy times for the region and so I would like to thank you because you offered me probably one of the most pleasant conversations I am having in these days.
I meet institutions, politicians, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Parliamentarians and so on and so forth but for me meeting the people of a country – and a country like Albania for me, as an Italian, is somehow special – but for me meting especially the youth of a country gives me the opportunity to somehow look the country into the eyes. It is a luxury I do not always have, but it is a luxury that I always love to have and I hope that we can have this opportunity also to have a conversation after I try to deliver a sort of speech. But, really, for me this is a great opportunity.
Before I arrived here in Tirana this afternoon, I was reminded of a slogan that it was carrying popular support here in Albania during the final days of the regime. Most of you are too young to remember, but I guess history is part of what you study, and the slogan was, I quote, “We want Albania to be like Europe”. Now, I understand very well what this meant and why it has been such an important request, but let me say something that I shared already with some colleagues who have done the Erasmus, as I did and as the Foreign Minister did: that to me this is absolute clear that Albania is Europe and we have to move away of this rhetoric that you have a European path. You have a path towards the European Union integration.
This is something different and I will come to that in a moment. But you are Europeans. This is the heart of Europe and Albania, Albanian people and the Western Balkans are part of Europe. I know am I am stating the obvious. I am Italian and you can literally see Albania from Puglia in a clear day, so it is quite obvious to me that geography – also history for good and for bad, sometimes being Italian for bad – bind us together but beyond geography and history there is so much that bring us together: the culture, the future and the present.
Over the past 25 years our ties have grown stronger than ever. Over 500 hundred Albanians have studied inside the European Union thanks to Erasmus. I don’t need to tell you, because you know the mixed couples, you know the many Albanians who have settled in European Union countries, and we discussed the fact that this is a good but it is also good for them to have good opportunities to come back. So this is something to take note for the Minister to see how we manage to make the most out of the experience that Albanian students have in the European Union through Erasmus coming back to the country. But also you know of the European Union companies and businesses investing in Tirana or elsewhere in the country.
So, if I can, I would rework this slogan I mentioned and say: Albania is Europe and we want Albania to be part of our European Union. I think this is the slogan of today and more than a slogan, I think this is the programme we are working on a daily basis. I believe our Union will not be complete until all the Western Balkans join our community. And this is a strong personal conviction that I always had – it is a mix of my nationality and my generation -, but this is something I say on behalf of the institutions I represent here. Our Union will not be complete until all the Western Balkans join the European Union. The door of the European Union is open for this country, for the region, and we want you to enter the European Union; Albania and the entire region. This is the clear message that I am bringing.
You know that we call this process in technical but also common European Union language “enlargement.” Let me tell you also that I don’t like at all this word. Because if you are talking about an enlargement, it means that you have a centre that progressively expands. I believe that the real point is European integration or even reunification of our continent, because as you are at the heart of Europe is only natural that the European Union will be composed also of countries in the region, all the countries in the region. So, I prefer to talk about European integration or European reunification – the reunification of the European continent.
Also because if we talk about enlargement – and we do and we are continuing to do, and I am not proposing changes in our institutional language, I want to reassure all colleagues here -, but if we talk about enlargement we give the impression that the process is driven by outside, from Brussels, from the EU institutions and you have a certain path to follow, some obstacles to overcome, some homework to do. While actually it is a common choice to get together in a family, in an union; it is a work that we do to change our way of being society, country, institutions, be it judiciary, rule of law, whatever, in all fields. And it is a path that we walk together. It is about shared decision and a shared journey we do together.
And in this very moment let me say that it is up to Albania to take a step forward. In recent years, your country has changed a lot. I was here several times in the last years. Albania is now a respected member of the international community – thanks also to an excellent Foreign Minister – it is a NATO member, it is an important player in this region with its responsibilities that need to be exercised wisely with respect and constructive approach because this region has a sort of label on it.
And I am testing it first hand; it is not the first time that, in particular these times, I see this label very clearly. And the label says ‘handle with care’. And this requires to be done not only from the outside, but also from the inside. I believe that regional players, countries in the region, need to be very careful in handling their neighbours, the region as such and I know that Albania can show wisdom and leadership in this respect. Because cooperation in the region is what this country needs also for its own stability. And your potential for growth, as I mentioned, is really huge. Young people like you can, I believe, dream big, and have great expectations about your country.
I know that the message that you would expect from me would be ‘be patient!’. And I would say the contrary ‘be impatient!’ and ask to leaders what you want. So if you want carrying your country inside the European Union make it clear, make it clear, make it heard. I do not say loud because this can lead to interpretations. No, I am not calling for demonstrations, not at all. And work for it because you are part of that change that the country can have through engagement, commitment, studying, participation in the society. You are the country.
This is another thing that young people are used to hear is that you are the future. No, you are the present of this country, so you have also responsibility here to exercise. I believe that exercising this responsibility, being clear to yourself, to those that represent you in the institutions from what you expect from the present and the future and from those who have institutional responsibilities in your country is the right thing to do. I was impressed last year – I think it is more or less one year since I last visited – and I was honoured to address the Parliament and in July, few months after I visited, your Parliament has approved by unanimity a ground-breaking justice reform. Few months before, when I was visiting, the same reform was subject of a hard political debate, if I remember correctly. And the reason why this reform is so important is not that the European Union asks for it.
This is something that is not only accurate to countries that are involved in negotiations for accession or candidate countries. This is also something that happens in European Union member states that are already in. I know this is a shortcut that can be comfortable for decision-makers. I have been a national politician myself, so I know the temptation is always there to say that this is something asked from the outside, so we have to simply fulfil and tick the boxes of what others ask us. But it is a dangerous game because you risk to de-link your institutional activity from what your citizens are asking for. My impression – and I think I was saying this in the Parliament last year -, my impression is that the Albanian people expect a deep reform of the justice system to make the country work better.
And so I believe that it is not because the European Union asked for it but because the Albanians ask for it: a more independent justice system, that there is a responsibility now for the institutions of this country to implement that reform with the same unity that they managed to find when they voted the reform in Parliament last July.
Also because a more independent justice system will help Albania fight organised crime, corruption, all sorts of illegal trafficking. It will give more confidence to young entrepreneurs; it will make the country more attractive for investors that are coming from the outside; it will boost economic growth and also something – which is not irrelevant – it would give the justice system of this country a credibility that would entrust it in the eyes of the citizens, a system that is equal and fair for all.
So it is not important for the European Union; it is important for Albanians and when we see something important for Albanians then it becomes important for the European Union.
So when I say that now the time has come for Albania to take its steps on the European Union integration path, I mean that, on our side, we are ready to start negotiations. We need the Albanian leadership to take the consequent decisions in terms of implementation of the reform that was taken last year. I believe, I hope, that decisive steps including the vetting can be implemented and that it can be a continuous progress in all five key priorities.
I guess this is the headline I want to leave here also for beyond this audience. We are ready; it is up to you. It is up to you to make a move, to make a step forward with the same unity that the country managed to show last year, finally.
Of course, I know that the political situation including in these days is tense. This is not exception, you are fully European also in this, I guess. Polarisation is on the rise, not only in the region, but also in the continent and also beyond the continent and I believe that it is not a matter of inviting to overcome differences or divisions. Differences are the essence of democracy and we are enjoying that. The important thing I believe is that when a country’s fundamental choices are at stake like the European Union membership, then, leadership has to be exercised in the most responsible way within institutions in a constructive manner.
I am sorry, I hope I did not disappoint you too much as I did not talk about my Erasmus, or my university time, or how beautiful being young in this part of the world is. This is all true, but I think that you are grown-up enough to have your own opinion about the direction this country is taking and the opportunities are in front of you, as Europeans, as future member of the European Union.
And I would like to finish with one thing, doing as the Minister has done, taking away my papers that I have not followed that much anyway, as usual, to finish with one thing. For me it is really symbolic that we have this conversation about the future of this country and the future of the Western Balkans inside the European Union in the same days when the European Union starts its reflection on its own future. You might have seen it, in a few weeks from now, in Rome, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties. We have launched a debate on how the European Union will look like in the future years or decades and I would like to tell you something that I have very, very clear in mind.
The future of the EU will not be at 27 because for one country, that will eventually leave the Union, when they will find the way to do it – that is up to the UK decision-making process -, there will be others joining the Union. So, one thing I have very clear in mind: the future of the European Union is not going to be at 27. It is going to be at more than 27, at more than 28, because I am serious when I am saying that the door is open, we are looking forward to welcoming you inside the Union. There is some work to be done, on our side, on your side, hopefully together, but I am one hundred per cent convinced that this is going to happen.
Because I see, especially in this kind of meetings around this region, that there is a strong determination of the younger generations – and not only the younger generations – to not only be Europeans, but also be members of the European Union, because we see what is at stake, we see how much we risk to lose form Erasmus to the currency, to the freedom of movements, to some of the policies we have proudly put in place – and I know I was going to finish – I will say one last word.
I think the Foreign Minister and myself have a privilege, many but one more than any other. We see Europe and I see the European Union through the eyes of our partners in the world and if you talk to our friends in Africa, in Latin American, in the Arab world, in Asia, everywhere in the world, you see that they consider the European Union in particular and Europe as a continent, as the place where life is better than in any other place in the world; economy is even if we are coming out of a difficult economic crisis, solid and growing; human rights and rule of law are the essence of our living together and I could continue.
So, sometimes I have the impression that as Europeans we do not fully realise the richness of our experience, our history and how much we have achieved: 60/70 years of peace, but also economic growth, rule of law, human rights, a space for everybody. A lot has to be changed, a lot has to be done but we have something precious that the rest of the world considers us unique and that I think here in this country, here in this university, you value as the objective of, as I said, not a distanced future but hopefully a very close future.
I thank you very much and I count on you to if you have time, a bit of a conversation and more than that, bring your country in, bring your country in, thank you.