Political leaders in the Western Balkans must avoid the “temptation of identity politics that seeks to divide” in order to realise a better future for citizens who have chosen to “free themselves from the legacy of the past,” EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, said in a video conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Bosnia’s peace agreement on Tuesday.
Borrell was among numerous speakers at the conference, organised by Croatia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts to mark 25 years since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed.
Borrell said his message was on reconciliation, calling it “central for a peaceful and prosperous Western Balkans and to the region’s future in the European Union.”
He said that he visited Sarajevo three weeks ago to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war, and to meet with Bosnia’s political leaders and citizens.
He called the visit “an opportunity to remember one of the darkest moments of Europe’s modern history.”
“We need to overcome the legacies of the past, to never let such atrocities happen again. But also to share our vision for a country where political leaders work together to build a better future for their country,” he said.
“Two world wars taught us that mutual respect and compromise take us further than blood and soil. We must reject narrow-minded definitions of national interest, as well as the use of ethnic or religious identities to separate instead of reuniting,” Borrell said.
“Identity can kill. Every one of us has an identity. Maybe several identities at the same time. We have to overcome the battle of identities, we have to continue fighting for human rights and fundamental freedoms as the cornerstones of the European Union,” he explained, adding that the clear European perspective is “the central pillar of our work with the Western Balkans.”
Borrell argued that the citizens in the region have chosen the EU path and that the Union remains at their side, “providing guidance, on the way forward, but also massive financial and technical support to cope with challenging times and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Advancing on the EU path requires “the partners in the region to show their determination to undertake difficult reforms,” he said, noting that reforms are difficult, but needed.
“We must face the challenge, we must embrace an agenda of freedom and respect. EU progress must be underpinned by genuine reconciliation. Political leaders must contribute to creating an environment that facilitates cooperation and reconciliation and does not undermine this vital work.”
Learning from the past to build a better future is not only a precondition for joining the EU, but is “central to the nature of our Union” and to “look to the future – a future where reason has a place,” he said, adding that key values, such as human rights, justice, rule of law, and cooperation are fundamental on the path toward the EU.
“Empowering societies, cooperating across borders, and promoting pluralism are the best way to enrich democracy and disarm toxic nationalism,” he said.
Building societies based on these values is not easy and BiH faces deep and tough reforms in order to move forward on its EU path, he noted, explaining that “leaders across the region face the daily challenge of keeping in mind the big picture, of avoiding the temptation of identity politics that seeks to divide.”
However, “this must be done,” he stressed, as it means a better future for citizens who are “determined to free themselves from the legacy of the past.”
“I count on the commitment of all the region’s political leaders to work together in fostering reconciliation. To learn from the past, to open the way to a better future. Because we know, we are all stronger together,” Borrell concluded.