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Summary: 2 September 2009, Brussels – Speech by Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, "EU Enlargement 2009: A Balance Sheet and Way Forward" at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament
Chairman, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
As a Commissioner, and as a former Member of the European Parliament, I am delighted to be back to address your distinguished Committee.
I would like to congratulate all of you on your election or re-election, and the Honourable Chairman, Mr. Gabriele Albertini, and the Vice-Presidents of the Committee, on your appointment.
I look forward to working with you. The coming 5 years will be a crucial period in the EU's foreign affairs. You will carry important responsibilities.
The European Parliament has always played an active role in shaping our enlargement policy – through your engagement in South East Europe, through your reports and debates, and through your many questions and letters addressed to me and my colleagues. I want to thank you for excellent co-operation over the past years and look forward to continuing it in the future.
You set an example of democratic accountability that I cite frequently in my contacts with Turkey and the Western Balkans. I couldn't wish for a better partner than this Committee to tackle the challenges ahead.
But let's recall the background. Almost exactly 20 years ago, on September 10th, Hungary first opened its borders with Austria and allowed thousands of East Germans to leave to the West. Those images touched us all.
It took two more months till the Berlin Wall came down. But Hungary's boldness and the courage of the many East Germans who voted with their feet – and Trabants – for a better future marked the triumph of freedom and of the human will over the shackles of totalitarian rule.
It was the beginning of the end of the cold war, and the start of a peaceful and democratic transformation of our continent. It gives pause for reflection.
And now? Today, twenty years later, we are a Union of 27 members.
In choosing to join the Union, the newest Member States responded to the magnetic pull of a particular European way of life. A Union that offered freedom and prosperity, security and solidarity – a shared set of values.
From the EU side, we viewed enlargement through much the same prism of enlightened self-interest. With each new enlargement, the EU took a step forward towards realising the vision of our founding fathers of ending the division of the European continent and advancing European integration.
Today, the EU is a community of 500 million people – the world's largest economy, a global heavyweight in trade, and a regulatory superpower. Size matters. Enlargement has increased the EU's weight in the world.
Next, our challenge is to make the most of it. The foreign policy provisions of the Lisbon Treaty are designed to reinforce our capacity to act and deliver results. We must make the best of them, in order to punch our weight and better pursue European values and interests in the world.
It is perfectly clear to me that the economy and jobs are the first and foremost concerns of our citizens today. It is right that they should top the EU's agenda. The elections to this Parliament showed this clearly.
That is why we launched the European economic recovery plan and why so much energy is going into preparing for the forthcoming G20 Summit.
Yet, while combating the economic crisis, we cannot take a sabbatical from our invaluable work for stabilisation of South East Europe. It is much better to export stability to the Balkans than import instability from there.
Compared to many other regions in the world, South East Europe benefits from relative political stability at the moment – not least thanks to its European perspective.
But, if the 20th century taught us anything, it is the folly of complacency when it comes to the Western Balkans and to our eastern neighbourhood. There is no end of history in sight, nor irreversible stability, not quite yet.
But there is another, equally important reason, to stay on course. The EU’s reputation and credibility as a global actor stands or falls, to a great extent, by our ability to shape our own neighbourhood. The EU's soft power is driving reform in the Western Balkans. We are drawing from our "enlargement toolbox" for the Eastern Partnership as well, because it works. For the countries of South East Europe, the European perspective continues to hold enormous promise and an incentive to continue their democratic and market reforms. We must not let them down.
This is one of the reasons why we have pushed so hard to move forward on visa liberalisation. We know how much visa-free travel means to the people of the Western Balkans. We want everyone to benefit – once their governments have met the conditions.
Each country was presented with a "road map" last year setting out these conditions, ranging from secure biometric passports and better border controls to a reinforced fight against corruption and organised crime. Each country's progress has since been evaluated on its own merits.
In July, we were able to propose granting visa free travel to the citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia as of January 2010 – provided that the latter two countries meet a few open benchmarks in time. I trust our proposal will be approved by the EU Member States, after you have been consulted. I count on your support.
It is our common goal that Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina should follow their neighbours soon. If they keep up the pace of reforms and thus meet the conditions, the Commission could envisage making a new proposal by mid-2010. The speed of these countries' progress towards visa-free travel is in the hands of their own leaders.
Once our proposal will enter into force, the brand new biometric passport will be enough to travel to the 'Schengen countries.' For the citizens of the Western Balkans this means no more queuing at embassies, no more visa fees, and no more collecting of supporting documents such as invitation letters and tickets. They will be able to visit family and friends in the EU without having to undergo lengthy visa procedures. It will be easier for young people to study in the EU.
In a nutshell, this will mean a further Europeanisation of civil society in the Western Balkans. It shows that European integration is not only a matter of integrating nations, but also peoples and citizens.
Chairman, Honourable Members,
Let me next outline for you where do we stand at the moment with the enlargement countries.
If Croatia meets the outstanding benchmarks in time, and the border issue with Slovenia is solved soon, we may be able to conclude the accession negotiations in the first half of 2010. I hope this will be the case.
I also hope to see a re-launch of key reforms in Turkey in the coming period, as the progress in its accession negotiations depends on the progress made in the legislative reforms, especially those that advance fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. We welcome the recent consultations on a serious Kurdish initiative. I hope that they will result in concrete actions to reinforce the cultural and linguistic rights of all Turks as well as the social and economic development of the Southeast. We expect that Turkey will also play a constructive role as well in the ongoing settlement talks in Cyprus and contribute to a favourable political atmosphere.
If the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia meets its remaining benchmarks, then the Commission could be able to recommend the opening of its accession negotiations this year as well. The name issue is not a condition of the accession process, but it is clear that a solution would create a much more positive environment for continued EU integration.
Montenegro continues to deliver good news. It is a case in point of what can be achieved when a genuine national consensus on EU integration is reached and put to work. We may be able to start preparing the Commission's Opinion on Montenegro's EU application in a few months.
Albania's recent elections were better than in previous years, though there were still shortcomings. We are waiting for OSCE/ODIHR to provide its final assessment on the conduct of the elections. Let's see what happens. The Commission is ready to prepare its Opinion on Albania's membership application once the Council requests it. Meanwhile, Albania continues to implement its Stabilisation and Association Agreement.
I have said to the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina on several occasions that 2009 could be a crucial year. They can still meet the requirements for visa free travel to the EU in 2010. They should also meet the conditions for a transition from Dayton stabilisation to European integration, which would mean the closure of the OHR and the reinforcement of the European presence. This would open the door to an application for EU membership and present an enormous opportunity. Unfortunately, I see few signs of leadership in BiH today to lead us there. It is evident that BiH will continue to require plenty of attention and strategic foresight from the EU and from our international partners.
In Serbia, the government continues to work hard on the EU-related reforms. Serbia is implementing the Interim Agreement unilaterally despite its difficult economic situation, thereby demonstrating its strong EU credentials. Serbia is also bringing forward its National Programme for EU credentials National Programme for EU Integration effectively. In my view, the Council should soon recognise Serbia's progress and unblock the Interim Agreement.
Kosovo is stable but fragile. The legal framework is developing well, implementation less so. I am concerned about the functioning of the rule of law and of the judiciary. We will present a study on Kosovo in October, assessing what Kosovo needs to do to deliver on its EU perspective. Key areas of the study are mobility, trade and regional cooperation.
On Cyprus, the settlement talks led by Mr Christofias and Mr Talat are entering a decisive phase, where real give-and-take negotiations should take place. I hope 2009-2010 will bring about the reunification for Cyprus. President Barroso and the Commission will do everything we can to help.
Finally, a word on Iceland. Iceland is a European country with long and deep democratic traditions, and it is also already deeply integrated with the EU through the EEA as well as participating in the Schengen area.
This accounts roughly 2/3s of the EU acquis. There is, however, no fast-track procedure for Iceland, and no shortcut to EU membership. The criteria that need to be fulfilled are the same for all applicant countries based on the "own merits" principle. The Commission will prepare a rigorous and objective opinion using the same methodology as for other applicants.
Chairman, Honourable Members,
In the context of my Parliamentary hearings in 2004, I was asked what my programme as the Enlargement Commissioner for the next five years would be. I said I wanted to do my part to deliver on six goals to be achieved during the present five-year term by the end of 2009. These were:
In 2009, there would be a European Union of 27 Member States.
The accession process with Croatia would reach its final stage.
The other Western Balkan countries would be firmly anchored into European orientation through Association Agreements.
Turkey would be firmly on the European track.
Kosovo's status would be settled.
And Cyprus would be reunified.
Five out of these six goals have been met so far, though challenges remain, including from bilateral issues which have become European problems.
Today, Europe is reunited and free. Let's keep it that way. And let us complete our work in South East Europe, as well as in Northern Europe.
This is a tough but a meaningful mission. You will pay a key role to make it happen. I wish you the best of success in your task. Let's work together.