Summary: "Enlargement - the EU keeps its doors open for South Eastern Europe" - Speech by EU Commissioner Rehn (17 January 2007: Brussels)
Speech by Mr Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, "Enlargement - the EU keeps its doors open for South Eastern Europe", European Economic and Social Committee, Brussels
Honourable Members of the European Economic and Social Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am glad to address today's plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee, and extend my warmest welcome to our new colleagues from Bulgaria and Romania.
This has been a good new year for Europe. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania was an historic achievement. It completed the EU's fifth round of enlargement, which has peacefully reunited Europe.
Enlargement has been a success story for the European Union - and for Europe as a whole. This is why, at their Summit in December, EU leaders renewed their consensus on enlargement.
The EU keeps its doors open for the countries of South Eastern Europe. We will keep our commitments to Croatia and other Western Balkan countries as well as Turkey on their European perspective. For their part, we expect these countries to comply with the conditions of membership. Their dates of entry depend solely on the results of their reforms. Each country will be judged on its own merits.
Enlargement has proved its capacity to transform applicants into functioning democracies, market economies, and true partners in meeting common challenges. It has inspired reforms and consolidated common principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. The wider internal market and economic cooperation have increased prosperity and competitiveness, enabling the enlarged Union to respond better to the challenges of globalisation. It has increased Europe's weight in the world and made us a stronger international actor.
These benefits are often overlooked or simply forgotten in the public debate. We need to better communicate the successes and challenges of enlargement. We must listen to citizens, address their concerns, and provide factual information. While "doing" enlargement, we must also remember to explain why we do it.
This is a common task for us all. You, as members of the European Economic and Social Committee, are in an important position: your role as a bridge between the institutions and civil society gives you a unique opportunity to carry our message to the people of Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear friends,
The Commission wants to help bringing the countries of the Western Balkans fully to the European mainstream. We expect that the whole region will one day join the European Union.
For ordinary citizens in the region, the simplification of visa practices is a concrete proof that the EU's doors remain open -- and that we want them in Europe.
In mid-November, the Council adopted mandates for the Commission to negotiate visa facilitation agreements with the Western Balkan countries. Visas for students and researchers will be free of charge. Frequent travellers, such as businessmen and journalists, will be granted multiple entry visas more easily.
The Commission launched the negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements in November. Our aim is that the agreements could enter into force before the end of the year.
Visa facilitation is part of a broader set of measures to promote people-to-people contacts between the Western Balkans and the EU. Others include scholarships notably through the Erasmus Mundus programme, co-operation in the areas of research, education and culture, including through participation into relevant Community programmes and agencies, and increased support for civil society dialogue.
The European Economic and Social Committee can play an important role by supporting the development of social and civil dialogue and enhancing the civil society in the Western Balkans. Through your activities, you have already contributed to preparing Candidate Countries for EU membership. Indeed, I want to congratulate you for officially approving the creation of the EU-Croatia Civil Society Follow-up Committee in your last plenary session in December. I wish the Committee much success in its work during the months and years to come.
Another important achievement at the end of last year was the signature of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) in December. The agreement consolidated the patchwork of 32 bilateral agreements into one single regional trade agreement. This will boost trade within the region and stimulate foreign investment.
The emergence of the South East Europe Energy Community is a step towards a regional energy market. The Energy Community will help to create a supply route for gas into the European Union from the Middle East and the Caspian region. This will eventually increase competition in the EU markets, and reduce our dependency on only a handful of gas suppliers. The strategic role of Turkey, which joined the Energy Community as an observer in mid-November, will grow further with the construction of the Nabucco pipeline that will allow us to import gas via Turkey.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Despite the many positive developments, we will face several important challenges this year in the Western Balkans.
For Serbia, the parliamentary elections next Sunday will present a crucial opportunity to take a step forward and look towards the European future that its citizens deserve. I expect that a new reform-oriented and pro-European government in Belgrade could make rapid progress towards the EU.
I also look to the new government to demonstrate its clear commitment to achieving full co-operation with the Hague Tribunal without delay. As the EU has reaffirmed repeatedly, full co-operation with the ICTY is an essential condition for the pace and conclusion of SAA negotiations.
After the SAA, the next logical step for Serbia would be to achieve the status of an EU candidate country. As soon as Serbia has achieved a solid track-record in implementing the SAA, the EU would be able to consider a membership application. This is the clearly stated policy of the EU.
Kosovo stands before challenging times as well. The EU wants to ensure that the status process succeeds and leads to a sustainable settlement.
The status settlement will set out a vision for Kosovo's future development. It needs to be politically and legally clear. It should lead to a sustainable, multiethnic and democratic Kosovo.
The EU fully supports the efforts of the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy President Ahtisaari.
The work continues also with the other countries of the Western Balkans. Accession negotiations with Croatia are underway. We have opened five out of 35 chapters. Most of the remaining screening reports will become available before the end of March. We hope to be able to open several more chapters in the first half of 2007.
Nevertheless, Croatia still needs to focus on creating a more open, competitive economy for the benefit of all Croatian citizens. It should tackle the reform of the judiciary and the public administration, as well as the fight against corruption and organised crime early on in the process. These issues underpin life across the whole Croatian society. Reforms in these areas are not just important to please officials in Brussels, but they are essential for good business climate and the people living, visiting and working in Croatia.
Preparations have progressed also in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The pace of the reform slowed down somewhat last year. We look to Skopje now to re-energise and reinforce their reform efforts.
Albania will have local elections in mid-February. The EU will monitor the elections closely. The way they are handled will shape the perception of international community on Albania for years to come. Albanian voters deserve free and fair elections. It is the responsibility of all Albania's political leaders to ensure that this happens.
We have finalised technical negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Before the negotiations can be formally concluded, both countries need to implement key reforms. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, progress is needed in particular on police restructuring. Montenegro needs to improve its administrative capacity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me now turn to the state of play in EU-Turkey relations.
We should not be misled by the many pessimistic headlines during the past few weeks. Despite the stalemate on issues related to Cyprus, there has been no train crash. The journey continues steadily, even if at a somewhat slower speed.
The EU is committed to keeping the negotiations on track. Our reasons are simple. We need Turkey as an anchor of stability in one of the most unstable and insecure regions in the world. We need it as a benchmark of democracy for the wider Middle East. If Turkey succeeds in its reforms and meets the criteria of accession, it will become an ever stronger bridge between civilisations.
Let us also recall that our common endeavour of the EU accession process with Turkey is not only about reforms and chapters. It is as much about communication and mutual understanding.
There is a lot of ignorance and misperceptions about one another in both the EU and Turkey. EU citizens are concerned about the impact that Turkey's membership will have on the Union. The Turkish public is uncertain about the EU's true intentions towards their country.
Evidently, we need to know each other better. This is where we come back to the role of civil society dialogue. Last year, the Commission committed some 33 million euros to various programmes for civil society dialogue between Turkey and the EU. Some programmes focused on towns and municipalities, professional organisations, universities and youth.
Others aimed to strengthen cooperation between the Turkish Chambers of Commerce and their counterparts in the EU, and bring together workers from Turkey and the EU. Some 88 million was reserved for Turkey's participation in Community programmes such as Lifelong Learning, Youth in Action and Culture 2007.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,
Many of you are, through the activities of your home organisations and your work here, in a key position to help improve understanding between the EU and its Candidate and potential Candidate Countries. You have the experience to inform your constituencies about the social structures and economic and social impact of the reforms in the Candidate Countries. My colleagues and I in the Commission will do our utmost to improve communication about enlargement issues. But we need your help.
As EU leaders underlined in December, enlargement is a success story. By extending the area of peace and stability, democracy and the rule of law, the EU has been able to achieve far more than it could ever have accomplished with a stick or a sword. This remains as valid as ever.
Therefore, I encourage the Economic and Social Committee to continue its valuable work with the Candidate and potential Candidate Countries. Please share your experience with your counterparts in those countries, as well as with the public in the EU. That is a great service for Europe.