On 25th March the European Union marks 60 years since the signature of the Rome Treaties, the first step towards a united Europe. Since the birth of the European Communities in 1957, the citizens of the Member States have enjoyed six decades of unprecedented peace, prosperity and security. The contrast to the first half of the 20th Century could not be greater. Two catastrophic wars in Europe between 1914 and 1945 left millions dead, and a continent devastated, divided and prostrate. For countries that had long been at war, European integration has been the most successful peace project in history.
From an economic agreement between six countries, the European Union has become a vital power to preserve and strengthen the global order. The EU is the leading foreign investor in most parts of the globe. We invest more in development cooperation and humanitarian aid than the rest of the world combined. The European Union is and will continue to be a strong, cooperative and reliable power. Our partners around the world, and here in Albania, know what we stand for.
Over 60 years, the European project has not only brought prosperity and peace to the continent, but has changed the everyday life of Europeans. The Treaty of Rome established a common market where people, goods, services and capital could move freely. It has improved the living and working conditions of citizens and reduced economic differences between regions. Europeans have formed life-long bonds with each other and can travel, study and work across national borders. 6.5 million Europeans are currently working in another EU Member State. 1.7 million Europeans cross a border every day to work in another Member State. The Erasmus programme, which also celebrates its 30th anniversary of success this year, has benefited more than 9 million young Europeans.
The health and environment of European citizens has also massively improved. Today, European cities have among the lowest air pollution levels worldwide, largely thanks to early bans on pollutants such as lead in petrol. It is thanks to EU legislation that the use of plastic bags has been dramatically reduced, with a direct and long-term impact on pollution in our seas. 96% of European beaches are now clean enough to swim at.
From inside the EU, it is often too easy to take those achievements for granted. But here in Albania, where so many people are aspiring to, and deserve, the same rights, safeguards and opportunities as other citizens of this continent, the success and ambition of the European project strike as remarkable.
The history of the European Union is also that of its relationships with partner countries and especially its European neighbours. As the European Union was progressing, the Western Balkans were radically changing their history. The EU has helped their transition from day one and has constantly affirmed its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.
In Albania, progress has been extraordinary. Ties between Albania and the European Union have never been stronger and the country has never been that close to joining the EU family and. As the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini recently said to the students of the University of Tirana: the European Union will not be complete until all the Western Balkans join the community. EU leaders have unanimously confirmed this earlier this month. The door to the EU is open. Last November, the Commission has recommended opening accession negotiations, in view of the progress in meeting the five key priorities and subject to credible and tangible progress in the implementation of the justice reform, and in particular vetting. Now is the time for the Albanian leadership to take their responsibility in implementing EU-oriented reforms.
In Albania, and all over the world, European intervention stands for human rights, sustainable development, inclusive societies, and fight against all inequalities. We stand for better global rules. Rules that protect people against abuse. Rules that expand rights and raise standards. Whatever events may the future bring, one thing is certain: the EU will continue to put international peace and security, development cooperation, human rights and responding to humanitarian crises at the heart of its enlargement, foreign and security policies.
* Head of the European Union Delegation to Albania