Speech by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to BiH

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Dear Members of the Presidency-elect,

Honourable Members of the joint collegium,

Incoming Members of Parliament,

Dear representatives of businesses and civil society,

EU Ambassadors,

And of course, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is such a pleasure for me to be here with you in Sarajevo at this historic moment for Bosnia and Herzegovina. But before I speak about this beautiful city and this wonderful country, allow me to take you for one small moment to the city where I was born and where I live today. And that is the city of Brussels. In the heart of Brussels, there is a piece of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a huge, colourful mural, painted by a young artist from Sarajevo – whose name is Rikardo Druškić. It brings light and it brings joy from the Balkans into the sometimes very grey weather of Brussels. But beyond the beauty of it, the mural sends a very clear message: It says that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a place in the heart of the European Union. You are part of Europe. So you belong in our Union. And it was so moving to see the European flag shine on three landmark monuments in Sarajevo, in Banja Luka and in Mostar – to celebrate our proposal to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a candidate country to join the European Union. This is your success. And you can be so proud of it. Because our flag, that was visible this night, will be your flag, too. It belongs in this country. And this is why I came here today. This is what I want to say to all the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. You are the future of the European Union. Your future is the Europe Union.

And this is not only because you achieved candidate status. It is also because the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina deeply believe in Europe. Over three quarters of your citizens support EU membership. There is a solid majority in favour of it in all parts of the country. And this faith in Europe is even stronger among young people. For young people in this country, among others, Europe means economic prosperity. It means, for example, freedom of movement. But it is not just that. The path towards our Union is also the path towards a better Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is about turning this country into the country of the young people’s dreams. There is an entire generation of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who are born after the war. They respect the past. But they do not want their country only to be defined and divided by its tragic past. They want a country that is united. They want a country that has a common sense of purpose. Born from the experience of the past, but open and ready for the future. And membership to the European Union is part of this common purpose. And you, the new leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of this country, you are the people who can make their dream come true. You are the ones who have the key for the dream of these young people in your hands. With your political work, and it is a huge responsibility, the country has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move forward. This is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s moment, and I would like to encourage everyone here, everyone of you present here and working for this country, to seize this moment.

This is also the meaning of our recommendation to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Once again, from the bottom of my heart: My utmost congratulations to what you have achieved. It is your success. Without your work, it would not have been possible. The last four years, I know, have not always been easy. Because of COVID-19 for example, because of the war in Ukraine, because of deep political divisions. And yet, even in difficult circumstances, progress has been made – on public procurement for example, on achieving membership of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism for example. Or another success earlier this week on Europol cooperation – that you achieved. And these examples should teach a very simple lesson. The lesson is: If there is a political will, there is a way to make it happen. That is the lesson to learn from the past. Now is the time for the country to come together again and advance on the path towards the European Union. I will not dwell on the eight reform steps that we have clearly outlined in our recommendation. We all know that passing these reforms will not be easy. But I would like to invite you to always set your sights on what lies at the end of this path. Because Bosnia and Herzegovina, with your work, will be a country, for example, where everyone is equal before the law. It will be a country where young people unfold their talent and their hard work will lead into success. They do love their country. They want opportunities here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will be a country that is attractive for investors. You have the key in your hands for that. It will be a country where everyone feels represented – young and old, people who identify as Bosniaks, as Serbs and Croats, as well as people who just feel citizens of this country. The reforms do not only matter because they lead into the European Union, the reforms matter because they will make your country a better place for all its people.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The door of the European Union is open. Please seize the opportunity and use this invitation. It is up to you now to walk together through this open door. The more you do that, the more you help me to support your country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example to defend the candidate status in the European Council and to advocate for your country. And I know I can rely on you. This is your historic responsibility as the new leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is a lot of responsibility on your shoulders – I know it. But I am positive that you are able to carry it. And rest assured: We will always be at your side. This is my personal promise. Our proposal for candidate status is a very clear political statement. And we will support you and your reforms and your work, and accompany you along the way.

A good part of the work is already ongoing. I remember that, one year ago, during my last visit, I crossed an EU-funded bridge that links Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Later today, I will inaugurate the Ivan Tunnel. It will of course improve the connection of Mostar to Sarajevo and, further north, to Budapest. But this Ivan Tunnel is much more than that, it is very symbolic because it shows that Bosnia and Herzegovina lies at the heart of Europe, and you should also lie at the heart of our trade and our economic achievements. I think this cooperation – that we are enabling, that we are opening not only physically with the Ivan Tunnel but also by making sure that the trade and the economic exchange between us is getting more seamless and more intense – is even more crucial at a time when this horrible Russian war in Ukraine is raging. We see that Russia is not only waging war against Ukraine, it is also waging war on the energy side. And the energy problems are hitting vulnerable families as much as they are hitting for example businesses and small and medium enterprises. For us in the European Union, it is important to stick together with you. Therefore, as that in the European Union, I would like to announce here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that we are putting together an energy security package for the Western Balkans. It will bring EUR 70 million of support in grants for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is important now, as immediate support, for example to support vulnerable families and vulnerable businesses, small and medium enterprises which have a hard time. And there is a second part in it that is at least as important: This is – for the medium term, for the Western Balkans – EUR 500 million in grants for infrastructure. Infrastructure for the future so that together we get more energy independent. Investments in interconnectors, for example. Investments in renewables because every kilowatt hour from renewable energy that is produced here is clean energy at home that brings good jobs for the region and makes us energy independent and gives us security of supply. I am speaking about solar, I am speaking about wind or biomass power plants. These are energy projects that can be built in less than one year. So here is the opportunity to seize it and to really take this investment and to make a big step forward.

I know that many people in the country feel anxious because of the war that is raging. Not only has Russia launched an assault on basic international rules that have been providing peace and security for the region since 1995, but it is also having a direct impact on the economic situation of our European Union and thus on all people in the Western Balkans and the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As much as the challenge is out there, I think the best solution is in an even closer cooperation and to stand together. It is in your immediate interest to work closer together in our Single Market and to work towards the EU membership. Because we all know by experience that, whatever the challenge is – and we have gone through many challenges in the last year –, if we stand together, if we work together, we are strong and we are unbeatable. And we should use this strength in this very crucial moment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These are times of rapid change in the Western Balkans and in Europe. As you know, we have opened accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. We have also granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and we have recognised Georgia’s European perspective. What I want to say is that there is new momentum, there is a wind of change that brings the European family closer together. And now is the time for Bosnia and Herzegovina to move ahead, too. Let us be honest, it seemed impossible, we could not think about it, that we would reach the candidate status, if we think one year back [it seemed impossible one year ago, we could not think about it, that we would reach the candidate status]. And yet today, I am here with you in Sarajevo, we can celebrate together that you have achieved the candidate status. Therefore, let me tell you again: If there is a will, then there is a way to achieve your dream. And if Bosnia and Herzegovina finds unity of purpose, there is nothing that can stop you.

Let me give you a little example for that, which is a big one in its effect. This summer, the success story of one young girl from Mostar literally made waves throughout the world. It was and is 16-year old swimmer Lana Pudar who won, as you know, the European gold medal in the women’s 200-metre butterfly and broke all Bosnia and Herzegovina’s records. Her story is the story of her country. It was not easy for her to train and to reach this enormous success. For example, she could not train in the city that lacks an Olympic-size swimming pool. But Lana has made it against all odds. And now, because of her success, a new Olympic swimming pool will be built in Mostar. Lana has become a symbol, not only for her hometown, not only for her community, but she has become a symbol all across the country. Her victory has been celebrated by all people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in all entities and across all boundaries. This is the dream of your young people. This is the dream of your country. This is the dream to be united. United in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s diversity, united with your neighbours in one European family. And believe me, as with Lana, this dream can be realised. This dream can be realised if you take the responsibility, if we stand together and if we make the best of the responsibility the people have given you. So I want you to know that I will always be at your side. I know that a lot of work is ahead of you. But this is the moment to seize it.

Many thanks for your patience, for listening to me. And please join us in working together.

Thank you very much.