I need hardly say that it is a great delight to be back in this region, and back in Belgrade. During the past four days in Croatia and Serbia I have been struck time and again by how closely our histories are tied together. I know that it is the same in Montenegro and Kosovo.
This history has often been played out by ordinary men and women. Names like Flora Sandes who fought with the Serbian Army in the First World War – and Fitzroy MacLean, who fought with such distinction with the Yugoslav Partisans during the Second World War and who came with me to Belgrade thirty-eight years ago -are well known here. In this room, for example, are the pictures of members of the British Medical Mission that came to Serbia during the First World War, many of whom died during the typhoid epidemic that raged in 1916 because they refused to abandon their patients. 1916 is also the centenary of St. Nicolai Velimirović's visit to England where he became the first Orthodox Christian to preach at St. Paul's Cathedral and was given a doctorate by Cambridge University.
Of course, the exchange is not just one way. Today, people from the Balkans are well known in Britain in so many fields: in contemporary music, Rita Ora (whom I had the great pleasure to hear sing for the first time in London last week); then there is the classical guitarist, Milos Karadaglic, and the violinist at the London Symphony Orchestra, Roman Simovic. There is also, of course, a certain tennis player who stubbornly refuses to yield the Wimbledon Championship! Novak Djokovic's virtuosity on the court, and his humanity off it, are an inspiration to young people the world over.
In short, the relationship between the countries of this region and the United Kingdom is thriving at every level, and it is defined by people.
Ladies and gentlemen, every society and country is moulded by its past, but there can be few places on Earth where one feels the weight of history more than in the Balkans. Of course, no-one should forget or ignore that history but, even more importantly, it is vital not to become prisoners of it.
Just over a decade ago I joined celebrations in Mostar of the restoration of the famous bridge. Its destruction was the symbol of pain, suffering and loss. Its resurrection was an example of extraordinary skill, craftsmanship and hope. A page has now been turned in the region. After the horrific conflicts of the 1990s peace and stability have returned. I fully recognise the challenges that face your countries and I can only salute the extraordinary progress that has been made.
The painful strands of history need to be – and are being – acknowledged. But more challenges inevitably remain to be overcome - dialogue at every level; support and justice for victims of sexual violence and for the families of missing persons; help for displaced persons to return to their homes; school curricula that deal with history honestly; and more opportunities for young people from different communities to come together.
If I may say so, ladies and gentlemen, the importance of maintaining this momentum cannot be overstated. Back in 1979, my dearly-loved great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, died in a horrific bomb attack in Ireland, along with his grandson (my godson), and others who were with him in his boat. I feel, therefore, that I have at least some understanding, through my own experience, of the heart-rending anguish that so many families in this region, of whatever nationality, race or religion, have experienced through the loss of loved ones. But after many years of reflection and, indeed, despair at the pointless cruelty and destruction we witness around the world, my own conclusion is this - that only reconciliation offers the assurance that our children and grandchildren will not suffer the same agonies as our generation. In Ireland, the lives of people in both parts of the island and of both communities have been changed immeasurably for the better by the Peace Agreement signed in 1998. It is my profound hope that the countries of the Western Balkans will be similarly changed by your quest for enduring peace. It requires courage; a courage I believe we must all try to summon from the depth of our souls, however great the pain.
There is, after all, so much to build on here. You have the most wonderful traditions of hospitality and religious tolerance. Your young people are outward-looking and this region’s linguistic and cultural diversity has the potential to be your great strength, as unity can so often best be built through recognizing and celebrating diversity.
You have so many iconic heroes from this region. Mother Theresa was, of course, an ethnic Albanian, born in Macedonia, of Roman Catholic faith. Something she said offers a message of importance to all of us, whatever our belief or nationality: she said “we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop”.
Reconciliation requires the commitment of everyone, from the leaders of states and faiths to the ordinary people in their towns and villages. It requires the support of friends from near and far. Ivo Andric wrote "Of everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone". I spoke earlier about the skillful restoration of the bridge at Mostar. A restored bridge, of course, is of little use if people do not cross it. Today, therefore, I want to salute all those in this region who have had the courage to cross the divide between the different communities, the different faiths and within faiths. Such heroic examples are a badly needed inspiration to others in this region and to the rest of the world at this time.
I can only assure you that Britain is with you as you build your common future. Peace and stability in this region will mean that all of us, whether in the Balkans, in the United Kingdom, or elsewhere, can enjoy a safer and more prosperous future. Together, we can build this future.