Prime Ministers, Secretary of State, Government Members, representatives of the business world, ladies and gentlemen - welcome to the EBRD!
It gives me great pleasure to open the third Western Balkans Investment Summit here at our headquarters.
A special thank you to Prime Minister Borissov for Bulgaria’s continuing support for its neighbouring region and, with his country currently holding the EU presidency, for agreeing to share with us its vision for the Western Balkans.
Some of you were here for the previous Summit two years ago.
Indeed, my dear friend Edi was also here with me at the historic, inaugural Western Balkans Investment Summit in February 2014.
That was the very first time that all regional Prime Ministers gathered together in this format.
But for the benefit of those elected to office more recently – and others - let me remind you that the 2014 Summit here effectively launched the “Western Balkans Six” process at the level of Prime Ministers.
Back then I promised the Prime Ministers that that first Summit would not be a one-off.
And so it has proved.
We are proud to have organised this event every year two years since then.
And it has also received the strongest possible boost in the form of the Berlin Process.
We regard these two formats as complementary.
I am very much looking forward to contributing to the next Berlin Process Summit in London in July.
I know the Secretary of State will touch on this in more detail later.
Ladies and gentlemen, regional cooperation, as symbolised by this new format, is now a tangible reality.
And that sends a very strong message to the rest of the world: the message that this region has reached new levels of maturity and stability.
After all the anxieties that accompanied the first such gathering in 2014, I was heartened to see that only last year the Western Balkan Prime Ministers met more than ten times.
Indeed, I would go further and argue that such intensifying cooperation is one of the region’s greatest achievements of recent times.
It is especially important given the memories of its turbulent past.
Such cooperation is also a testament to the vision of its leaders.
We will be listening very carefully to the Prime Ministers as they highlight their countries’ priorities for regional projects later on.
Thanks to our joint efforts, we have managed not only to promote the Western Balkans as an attractive investment destination but also to improve coordination between international donors, the European Commission and the international financial institutions.
The EBRD has been central to that improved cooperation.
I remain personally committed to contributing to it myself.
This was one of the topics I discussed last week in Brussels, among them the way we pool resources in support of regional projects under the Western Balkans Investment Framework.
As you know, the latest Strategy for the region released by the European Commission unveiled some innovative ideas in this respect.
Under the leadership of the European Commission, better coordination has allowed a number of important regional transport and energy projects to be prioritised.
You will hear much more about connectivity for the Western Balkans during today’s panel discussions.
The EBRD has played its part by delivering several new cross-border infrastructure projects that will increase the free flow of commerce, competitiveness and opportunities for export growth.
At the end of last year, we signed a project for a new section of the transport Corridor Vc in Bosnia and Herzegovina which connects the Adriatic coast with Central Europe.
Today, on the margins of this Summit, in the presence of the Chairman of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EC’s Director General NEAR, I will be signing an MoU on cooperation in the construction of Corridor Vc for the next three years. We are grateful for EU support to this important transport corridor and readiness to provide further grant funding to it.
EBRD’s own contribution will be worth more than €700 million.
And, together with our partner IFIs, we are also working on the completion of the Corridor X (north-west-south-east).
We continue our work on Corridor VIII, including – and I am pleased to say this in the presence of Prime Minister Borissov - the section connecting Bulgarian and Macedonian Railways, part of the wider west-east railways corridor.
We are also working on the rehabilitation of the Kosovo railway network for the route that runs through Kosovo and connects with the Macedonian border.
Only ten days ago, together with the EC and Kosovo, we signed the Grant Agreement for the €38.5 million EU grant for this project.
Everything is now in place for the work to start later this year.
You will hear much more about all these projects at today’s Transport Panel.
We are also working on the feasibility study for an Adriatic Highway connecting Western Balkans Adriatic countries to Greece in the south and Central Europe in the north.
And, having recently signed a major project with TANAP, we look forward to working on the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which would bring Caspian gas through Albania to Western Europe.
In the future it could also lead to a shift to gas-powered energy in several Western Balkans countries.
You will hear more about these plans from TAP Management themselves at the Energy Panel.
But, ladies and gentlemen, there is much more to regional integration than physical infrastructure alone.
I would like to use today’s Summit to promote what I call “soft connectivity” within the Western Balkans.
A key element of that is the creation of a single investment space.
That includes harmonising legislation, removing non-tariff barriers, improving both the depth and horizontal links of capital markets, digitalisation, strengthening the region’s business climate, and facilitating foreign investment.
All this would be a major contribution to the development of the Regional Economic Area, something that you and your fellow regional leaders endorsed in Trieste earlier this year.
The Regional Economic Area and soft connectivity will be the main focus of my working lunch with Prime Ministers this afternoon.
We have sought to work soft connectivity into our two Panels on transport and energy.
And the third and last Panel of our Summit will be devoted to this issue alone.
These are not theoretical discussions.
We at the EBRD have been working on practical steps to make soft connectivity a reality for years.
A good example of that is the “SEE Link,” the electronic platform bringing together South Eastern Europe stock exchanges which we launched at our last Summit in 2016 with the goal of creating regional infrastructure for the trading of securities.
Today, in this very room and in the presence of our Prime Minister guests, we will be launching a new Regional Investment Platform.
This online platform will be a one-stop shop for foreign investors interested in the Western Balkans.
It is the first product launched by the newly established regional Chamber of Commerce – the “Chamber Investment Forum”.
EBRD formed a strategic partnership with it right from the start and are funding its Secretariat.
Promoting the private sector is of course absolutely central to our mandate.
I cannot emphasise too highly the importance of the work the Chambers of Commerce are doing to support Western Balkans businesses in their efforts to further regional integration.
Ladies and gentlemen, the region’s huge potential for investment is there for all of us to see.
It enjoys a stable macroeconomic climate, a favourable tax regime as well as a very competitive labour force.
Its people are well educated, highly skilled and many of them are talented entrepreneurs.
The fact that growth in the region has been picking up in recent years is heartening.
And our economists expect growth to accelerate still more in most Western Balkans countries, albeit at rates below what it could be.
Crucially, the Western Balkans as a whole has the clear prospect of integration into the European Union, itself a key stabilising factor and a transformative force promoting reforms.
The new EU Enlargement Strategy reaffirms this.
It sets clear objectives and lays out a well-drawn roadmap for EU accession. It also defines the conditionality involved and sends a very constructive message to the people of the Western Balkans.
As many of you know, the President of the European Commission is embarking on a tour of the region.
I have reiterated to him and to Commissioner Hahn that the EBRD is uniquely placed to be the Commission’s partner in the Western Balkans, to help implement the new EU Strategy and, more broadly, to assist our recipient countries in their efforts to integrate faster into the EU.
EBRD in the region
We are one of the largest institutional investors in the region.
Thanks to our resident offices, we have a strong presence on the ground there.
And world class Balkans experts and lifelong friends of the region here at headquarters.
Our track record for investment and policy reform, as well as technical assistance, is unrivalled.
Our cumulative investment in the region stands at more than €10 billion.
And that figure is going up by another €1 billion with every year that passes.
And my colleagues and I will be signing seven new projects on the margins of this Summit.
We are proud of those results.
But we also see many ways of helping the region to do an even better job of realising its potential.
For now the biggest obstacle to doing so remains the financing gap.
We need, in the best interests of the Western Balkans, to engage with the growing number of Chinese, Indian and other non-European investors in the region, as well as with new development banks.
Critically, we also need to combine our funding with private investment sources.
We are doing everything we can to unlock more investment in the region.
But investment is not enough in itself.
We can attract much more of it – and when we do, it will be that much more effective – if, at the same time, we can also advance the cause of structural reforms.
We must also make sure that economies become more inclusive.
Growth should benefit entire societies, with no groups left behind.
This is what our new Economic Inclusion Strategy, launched at our last Annual Meeting, is about.
It focuses on access to skills and employment, on entrepreneurship and access to finance and services that create new economic opportunities for all.
It pays particular attention to women, young labour market entrants and those living in disadvantaged regions.
All this is very relevant to the Western Balkans.
As is our Knowledge Economy Initiative, which promotes innovation, including reforms in the telecommunications sector and finance for small innovative enterprises through the Western Balkans Enterprise Development and Innovation Facility.
We are stepping up our efforts on policy engagement as a way of reenergising growth and transition throughout the EBRD regions.
In the Western Balkans we closely coordinate this work with the EU.
We offer country-specific policy support to our Western Balkans partners.
We have currently Memorandums of Understanding on cooperation in governance and the business environment with the Governments of three Western Balkans countries.
Today, on the margins of this Summit, we will be signing two new such agreements with the leaders of Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I believe most strongly that some of our policy reform initiatives will only succeed if pursued across the region as a whole.
So we are working to enhance efficiency and transparency by expanding the Western Balkans Regional Business Registry Portal.
We are also supporting a new Western Balkans Centre of Procurement based in Belgrade designed to improve governance and fight corruption by investing in the skills of a new generation of professionals that will strengthen public and private institutions across the region as a whole.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Western Balkans countries have been part of the EBRD’s success story almost since our birth at the beginning of the 1990s.
We have led the way on investment in the Western Balkans and on regional integration.
We are determined to do still more - to help create the climate and conditions whereby we and others can invest still larger sums in the region’s future.
Today’s forum is another opportunity for us, together, to showcase the region’s many strengths – and to invite investors the world over to join us in fulfilling its potential.
Thank you very much.