EU Commissioner for Enlargement
Prague International Conference
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for this opportunity to celebrate a historic double anniversary here in Prague today with you. Twenty years ago we saw the Iron Curtain crumble and peaceful democratic change begun to transform Central and Eastern Europe. Today we can celebrate the 5th anniversary of the eastern enlargement of the EU as well, which brought in a total of 12 new Member States.
What better place to commemorate these historic events than here in Prague. Time and again, from the Prague spring of 1968 to the velvet revolution of 1989 and the joyous celebrations of EU membership in 2004, Prague has been a beacon of hope. In 1968, our hopes were dashed. In 1989, they triumphed, and brought us to where we are today.
President Havel, who unfortunately cannot be with us today, embodies this message of hope and civic courage. It was he who - together with the other democratic visionaries of Central and Eastern Europe – spoke to and won the hearts and minds of all Europeans and took his country into the EU in 2004.
Consider also Václav Havel's words from more than 40 years ago, as relevant today as they were back then:
"The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately..."
It is a very noble and demanding mission, maybe never perfectly reached. Nevertheless I am sincerely moved that so many people in Europe can now live in pursuit of this kind of a society of truth.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today's conference provides us with an opportunity to draw up a fair and factual balance sheet of the latest round of enlargement. So what can we say of the Eastern enlargement, five years after?
First of all, EU enlargement has served as an anchor of stability and democracy and as a driver of personal freedom and economic dynamism. It has advanced the rule of law and protection of human rights. It helped to bring about peaceful democratic change and extended the area of freedom and prosperity to almost 500 million people. For the citizens in this part of Europe, this marked a return to their historical European home.
Enlargement has also increased the EU's weight in the world – be it in international trade negotiations or when addressing other issues of global nature, such as climate change or development. It has substantially increased our crisis management capacity, especially for peace-keeping missions.
In economic terms, the eastern enlargement has been a win-win process, beneficial for the people both in new and not-so-new Member States. To give but one example, trade between the new and the not so new Member States grew almost threefold in less that ten years. Even more illustrative is the fivefold growth of the trade among the new Members themselves. This is a key factor that explains why, from 2004 until the outbreak of the current financial crisis, there was robust growth in employment in both new and older Member States.
Hence, the EU's enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe was not only a historic mission, it was also a matter of enlightened self-interest – to enhance our own security and stability, freedom and prosperity.
But, you may ask, shouldn't enlargement take a back seat now, when the economic crisis threatens European jobs and welfare? It is not time to look inward for a while?
It is perfectly clear to me that the economy and jobs are the first and foremost concerns of our citizens today. It is therefore right that employment and economic issues should dominate the EU's agenda today.
That is why we have launched the European economic recovery plan which has been endorsed by recent European Summits. This is what we are doing with our reform initiatives, which have set the agenda of the G20 Summit in early April. And this is what we want to do with the Social partners in the Jobs Summit in May to break the negative cycle that threatens to deepen the economic crisis.
However, while combating the economic recession, we must not make EU enlargement a scapegoat for a problem it did not create. Questioning our commitments in EU enlargement will not help us at all to tackle the economic downturn.
Europe's economic troubles were not created by Czech autoworkers or Serbian civil servants. They stem from system errors of international financial capitalism – and originate from Wall Street, not the main streets of Prague or Belgrade. We must tackle myths with facts, and address our citizens' concerns with smart and effective economic policies.
What about our common institutions then? Fears that a Union of the 27 members would face a deadlock of decision-making have proven unfounded. However, greater heterogeneity requires a greater effort to achieve common positions and policies.
Jacques Delors once said that to grow from 12 to 15 to 25 we would need time, family spirit and understanding of each others psychology and traditions. In other words, the contract of marriage between 27 countries has to be consolidated and further reinforced. I agree.
To achieve this we need to continue our institutional and internal reforms so that the EU can deliver the results its citizens expect. This is what the Lisbon Treaty is about and why we need it now. Reconciling further deepening of European integration and gradual widening of our Union is a tested and the best recipe for building a stronger and united Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As in Central and Eastern Europe before, the European perspective is once again exercising its magnetic pull in South East Europe today.
I recall my Parliamentary hearings in 2004 when 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 an EU of 27 Member States
The accession process with Croatia would reach its final stage
The other Western Balkan countries would be firmly anchored into a European orientation through Association Agreements
Turkey would be firmly on the European track
Kosovo's status would be settled
And Cyprus would be reunified
Looking back over the past years, we have achieved five out of these six goals set in 2004. We have done so by working together with the candidate countries and potential candidates themselves, in partnership with the European Parliament and the Council. And, I might add, there is now serious talks on reunification underway in Cyprus - which certainly is one of our key priorities this year.
Compared to many other regions in the world, South Eastern 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. There is no end of history in sight, nor irreversible stability, at least not quite yet.
All these arguments – the gains from enlargement and the risks of wavering – underline why we must maintain the European perspective in South East Europe, with the ultimate goal of EU membership once the conditions have been met by each country on its own merits.
We cannot take a sabbatical from our invaluable work for peace and progress that serves the fundamental interest of all Europeans.
We don't have to move at speed of a bullet train, but we must keep moving. The journey itself is at least as important as its destination.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today Europe is reunited and free. Let's keep it that way. And let us complete our work also in South East Europe and reach out to our neighbours and partners in the East, on the basis of the Union's founding principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.
I wish you a successful conference, and thank you for you attention.