Fellow leaders,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The war against Ukraine is a pivotal moment for Europe. And we must meet this moment. It is of course a blatant attack against the principles of the UN Charter. Principles we have collectively signed up to. But it is also a war against our values, and a war against the idea of a united and free Europe. For the first time in our history, a country is under attack because of its desire to be part of the European family. It is Ukraine’s sovereign decision – and the clearly expressed will of its people – to embrace our Union’s values. And in doing so, they are also fighting for our freedom and our values; democracy and the rule of law, free speech and the freedom to determine your own destiny. That is what Ukraine is fighting for, and that is what President Putin is trying to extinguish. President Putin is trying to destroy the work of peace that we have built together since the end of the Second World War and later the fall of the Iron Curtain. And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the origin of this war. Here at GLOBSEC, I understand you have been discussing the causes of this war.

So let me be clear, Russia started this unprovoked and unjustified war. Without cause, it invaded Ukraine to wipe the country off the map. And Russia refuses to accept Ukraine as an independent country. But Ukraine’s will to fight and to be free has amazed the world. They know with ironclad certainty where they belong. The Ukrainian people have for years been the architect of Ukraine’s move towards the European Union and they have proven their courage and determination time and again. Never can we match the sacrifice and the bravery of the Ukrainian people. But we can and must stand firmly by their side.

The immediate need – you know it – is the military assistance to sustain the efforts of the Ukrainian armed forces. This is why we have just proposed an ammunition production act – we call it ASAP. We want to push our defence industry to ramp up production of badly needed 155-millimetre and 152-millimetre artillery shells. And those who can, should provide long-range artillery and weapons systems that can help Ukraine level the battlefield gap in range to the invading forces. Our support is also needed for military training of Ukrainian forces. The Member States are doing a lot and we, at the European level, are doing our fair share, too. By the end of the year, we will have trained 30,000 servicemen and servicewomen.

Second, there is much discussion of peace plans and ceasefires. Above all, there must be the principle: nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. Together with Ukraine, we want a just peace, one that does not reward the aggressor, but one that upholds the principles of the UN Charter and the Ukrainian people’s right to be masters of their own future. President Zelenskyy is very clear on that. A ceasefire resulting in a frozen conflict will not bring lasting peace. After all, a ceasefire was in place after 2014 and we know what happened to that agreement last February when Russia invaded. A ceasefire would be inherently unstable and would destabilise the region along the contact line. Nobody would invest or rebuild, and the conflict could flare up again at any time. No, a just peace must result in the withdrawal of Russian forces and their equipment from the territory of Ukraine. President Zelenskyy has come forward with a Peace Formula that we wholeheartedly support. Every one of his ten points is based on the UN Charter or UN resolutions. And he has invited countries around the world to join in and build on the Peace Formula. So that our starting point for peace is the rules-based order.

A just peace for Ukraine must also be a lasting one. And to be a lasting peace for Ukraine, it must be strengthened in two vital ways. The first is: ensuring the long-term security of Ukraine. I welcome ongoing discussions on how Ukraine’s security can be guaranteed. There are different models and historical examples that can be used. A collection of such guarantees by like-minded states can offer what some have called ‘deterrence by denial’. In other words, providing Ukraine with the military equipment to fortify itself against Russian attacks in the future. 

What is important is that, at the end, there is clarity. Clarity that Ukraine’s friends will be there for the long haul for Ukraine’s security. Such an arrangement with security guarantees will need to be accompanied by a broader framework of Ukraine’s democratic reforms. And here, Ukraine’s path towards joining our Union will play a fundamental role. Although everyone knew that we were embarking on a challenging journey, we have given Ukraine candidate status – rightly so. Now we must be by their side every step of the way. Fact is that even as they fight for their survival, Ukrainians are passing crucial reforms to strengthen their democracy. Ukraine keeps advancing towards our Union against all odds. And we will keep doing our part to bring Ukraine much closer and much faster towards a just and lasting peace.

Today, there is a new awareness inside the European Union. We finally realise that it is not enough to just wait for our friends outside the Union to move closer to us. It is not enough to say that the door is open. We must also take responsibility to bring the aspiring members of our Union much closer to us. The shock waves sent by Putin’s war of aggression have also reached our six Western Balkan partners. But this has only brought us closer together. We extended to the Western Balkans the very same solidarity measures that we have taken inside our Union. We have supported vulnerable households against high energy costs. We are building new infrastructure to reduce the Western Balkans’ dependency on Russian fossil fuels. And this practical cooperation has run in parallel with progress on the EU path. Recent tensions are of course concerning. I echo calls on all sides to step away from confrontation and to take measures to restore calm.

Today, I want to present a new initiative to seize this important moment in the region. It is a new growth plan for the Western Balkans. We want to build on the progress achieved in recent months. But we also want to bring some of the benefits of EU membership to the people of the Western Balkans already today. The growth plan we are proposing today is built on four pillars: First, to bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU Single Market. Second, to deepen regional economic integration. Third, to accelerate fundamental reforms. And fourth, to increase pre-accession funds. To a certain extent, this is a new approach for the European Union: We do not only ask our partners to take new steps towards us. We also take a big step towards them. Our shared goal is to speed up their journey towards the EU. And for this, we bring our Union closer to the Western Balkans. Let me introduce these four points briefly.

For all countries that joined the EU in the last two decades, access to the Single Market has been the main driver of economic growth. But countries that are already on a promising EU path should also benefit from our Single Market. For example, the Western Balkans could join our Digital Single Market in areas such as e-commerce or cybersecurity. We could facilitate our trade in goods and payments. I want our Single Market to be a driver of change, not only for countries that have already joined the family but also for those that are still on their way.

This closer association with our Single Market should go hand in hand with a common regional market. A common regional market is crucial to unlock the economic potential of the region. It is crucial to make the Western Balkans a more attractive place for European investors. And, if based on EU rules and standards, this common regional market can also help accelerate accession to our Union. We want to offer the Western Balkans some of the advantages to membership in advance. But this means that certain requirements of membership also have to be met in advance. Some of the reforms that are part of the accession process are key for investors’ confidence. Think about building an independent and efficient judiciary, ensuring sound public procurement and stepping up the fight against corruption. Or think about the energy market. The Western Balkan region has a huge potential to diversify away from Russian fossil fuels. But it needs to increase energy efficiency, step up diversification and accelerate the deployment of more renewables. The Western Balkans can achieve both: energy independence from Russia and closer alignment with the European Union to speed up accession.

My final point is straightforward. We stand ready to support the Western Balkans with increased pre-accession funding. There is a dire need of investment in the Western Balkans. These investments will make people’s lives better. And they will also smooth the way into our Union. For this reason, we should increase the resources dedicated to the Western Balkans. In these turbulent times, this four-point plan is the right offer for the Western Balkans.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

History is on the move. Putin wanted to grab Ukraine for Russia. He calculated that the European Union would just accept it. Instead, Ukraine resisted bravely and is beating him back. And we in Europe, rightly and steadfastly, stand with Ukraine. We are meeting this pivotal moment in history. And we must stay the course. Ukraine will emerge stronger from this war. Huge crowds are waving European flags in Moldova and Georgia, where the yearning for a place in the European Union burns resolutely. The Western Balkans and the Union are getting closer and closer. This is the moment to seize, to forge a more united Europe.

Thank you and long live Europe.