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SPEECH/ 09/292

Olli Rehn

EU Commissioner for Enlargement

EU Enlargement five years on – a balance sheet and what next

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European Economic and Social Committee, plenary debate on Enlargement 5 years

Brussels, 10 June 2009

President, Honourable members of the European Economic and Social Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me first thank you for your kind invitation to this thematic plenary debate of the European Economic and Social Committee. I very much appreciate the support of your Committee for the gradual and carefully managed accession process of the European Union.

The subject of today's debate, the historic double anniversary of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the 5th anniversary of the 2004 enlargement, is indeed worth celebrating.

These historic events are shining examples of the importance and the power civil society can and must have in a functioning democracy.

The civic courage of the people on the streets of Gdansk, Berlin, and Prague overcame the oppression of their crumbling political systems. They came from whole spectrum of civil society backgrounds, ranging from parishioners to environmentalists, from artists to trade unionists.

Today is the right time to make a balance sheet on EU enlargement. A fair and factual debate on the political and economic impact of the 2004 enlargement will also help us reflect the future of the EU.

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 the protection of human rights. It has extended the area of freedom and prosperity to almost 500 million people. For the citizens of the new Member States, 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 talks or when addressing other issues of global nature, such as climate change or development. It has 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 than ten years. Even more illustrative is the fivefold growth of the trade among the new members. These are 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 Eastern enlargement was not only a historic mission for Europe, but also a matter of the EU's enlightened self-interest – to enhance our own security and stability, freedom and prosperity.

In the context of today's economic crisis which is threatening European jobs and welfare, some say that EU enlargement should take a back seat and argue that it is 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. And it is only right that employment and economic issues do dominate the EU agenda today.

That is why we are implementing the European Economic Recovery Plan. We have taken policy initiatives to reinforce financial regulation and supervision, which led to bold decisions at G20 level.

The current crisis has in fact underlined the crucial role of social partners and dialogue in tackling the recession and mitigating unemployment, and in preparing for a renewed post-crisis economy.

However, while combating the economic recession, we must not make EU enlargement a scapegoat for a problem it did not create. Questioning our commitments concerning the present enlargement agenda will not help us at all to tackle the economic downturn.

Europe's economic troubles were not created by Czech auto workers or Serbian civil servants. They stem from system errors of 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.

To achieve this we must continue our own 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,

Communicating the successes and challenges of enlargement is a common challenge for us all. As civil society representatives, you are the bridge between the EU institutions, national authorities and citizens. You can raise awareness of these issues, and you can strengthen confidence between citizens in the EU and the candidate countries. You can support the reforms in South East Europe.

Civil society organisations are essential for building much needed "social capital". As documented in many of our progress reports about the countries of the region, we are witnessing that non-governmental organisations help transform societies for the better.

Western Balkan and Turkish civil society organisations have spread the European spirit by promoting democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law. Together with independent media, they have resisted nationalism and fundamentalisms, and helped building bridges of inter-ethnic confidence.

Obviously, civil society in Southeast Europe still has its challenges. Further efforts are required to deepen freedom of association and facilitate the development of civil society organisations. Local NGOs require training and need to strengthen their capacities in order to play an effective role in the process of European integration.

For instance, your 2008 Opinion on Civil Society in Serbia rightly identified a deplorably large gap between well-developed CSOs in urban areas against relative inactivity in rural areas. We are working hard to target our assistance programming in order to address this kind of practical and most helpful remarks.

Informed communication and debate within the EU and within the enlargement countries is one of the main areas where we are reliant on the role of Civil Society and, by extension, of the European Economic and Social Committee.

Developing structures of social dialogue at European and national levels calls for our full commitment if we want to reach the main goal to reinforce democratic governance and enable social partners to be involved in decision-making processes, at all levels.

The joint consultative committees, working with Croatia and Turkey, constitute necessary bridges to exchange experiences and best practices particularly concerning social dialogue within the countries. It is indeed essential that the practice of social dialogue developed by the Committee is transmitted to countries where this has not always been the case. I hope that the joint consultative committee with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will start its work soon.

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.

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.

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.

Dear Friends,

Today's Europe is free and reunited. Let's keep it that way. And let us complete our work also in South East Europe, for the sake of our common principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In that task, the civil society continues to play a key role.

Thank you for your attention.


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