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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
EU Enlargement should help the EU become stronger
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Committee of the Regions
Brussels, 14 April 2010
President, Honourable Members, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you very much for this opportunity to address the Committee's Plenary to discuss the European future of our candidate countries Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey. I would like to thank Mr Papastergiou in particular who drafted this comprehensive opinion, laying a thorough basis for your discussion today.
I am delighted to see that the Committee shares our assessment of the candidate countries, both in terms of their own preparation and concerning the strategic importance of enlargement for the Union as a whole.
This shows once again that the EU firmly backs the European perspective of the Western Balkans, Turkey, and more recently, also Iceland. The Western Balkans are a priority of the Commissions enlargement policy but also for European Union's foreign and security policy. I believe the EU's approach to the Western Balkans provides an excellent example of the Union speaking with one voice under the Lisbon arrangements. With this as a starting point, we apply all available foreign and security policy as well as community instruments to fulfil our joint goal: To bring stability and prosperity to the region and to pave the way for full integration in the European Union.
As you know though, the bulk of hard work, thorough preparations, and sometimes difficult decisions lie with the countries concerned. As Commissioner responsible for enlargement, it is my objective to make sure that these countries are fully prepared for membership at the moment they join.
I appreciate the ambitious goals the countries of the region have set themselves and rest assured that the Commission spares no effort to support their preparations. But let me be clear: we are first and foremost interested in the quality of the accession process. There will be no free-riders nor any short-cuts. Countries will join when they are ready, each based on its own merits.
Concerning these preparations, I count on the continued support of the Committee of the Regions. I am fully aware of and very grateful for the role your Committee plays in fostering the role of regional and local authorities both in the Member States and in the enlargement countries. Your Committee also supports twinning and cross-border cooperation with the countries covered by the enlargement policy.
Establishing subsidiarity and high quality public administration at all levels is a key pre-requisite for EU membership. Local and regional authorities often have a role in implementing the acquis. These authorities must be well prepared to fulfil the obligations arising from EU accession. This is the only way a new member state can fully benefit from the opportunities EU membership offers.
As a consequence, the Opinion we are discussing here today rightly concentrates on issues concerning regional and local governance, providing your much appreciated expertise. The Opinion covers the enlargement strategy the Commission presented in October 2009.
I will now briefly present to you where we currently stand with the candidate countries and what has been achieved since. I am glad to say that we are already moving in the direction the Committee suggests on many accounts.
Croatia has achieved continuous progress towards meeting the membership criteria. This was greatly facilitated by the constructive approach established as regards the border dispute with Slovenia where I believe a mutually acceptable solution has been found. I share the Committee's view that this positive outcome should serve as an example for all countries involved in bilateral disputes that currently hinder the enlargement agenda.
Croatia aims to conclude technical accession negotiations this year which will be a challenge for the authorities. For our part, the Commission is working very hard to get there as soon as possible. As ever, the pace of progress depends on Croatia delivering on the outstanding requirements. Full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) remains essential for progress in the accession negotiations.
Concerning the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in 2009 the country sufficiently met the political criteria and the Commission, on this basis, recommended launching accession negotiations with the country. Building on this progress, the country needs to remain fully focussed on continuing its reforms and on keeping the multi-ethnic society united behind the vision.
The Commission looks forward to the Council endorsing its recommendation. In December 2009, Member States decided to revert to the matter during the Spanish Presidency. A decision to go ahead with negotiations would reaffirm the own merits principle and sustain the reform process in the country. More broadly, it would strengthen the credibility of the enlargement process in the Western Balkans region.
I visited Skopje in February and I remain in close contact with the authorities. I expressed the need to find a solution to the name issue, for which there is a window of opportunity.
Most of your recommendations correspond to our own assessment. As you rightly underline, one of our biggest steps forward was achieving visa-free travel for the citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, together with citizens of Serbia and Montenegro.
Accession negotiations with Turkey are ongoing, albeit slowly. The country needs to take decisions and adopt legislation on ever more sensitive issues. A comprehensive settlement on Cyprus would be an historic breakthrough in the interest of both sides in Cyprus, of Turkey, and of the EU. All parties, including Turkey, must continue to give their full support to negotiations on the island. A solution would have obvious positive effects on the accession negotiations with Turkey.
Concerning the Committee's activities, I welcome the establishment of the special working group that your Committee launched with Turkey, as well as your invitation to the Turkish Prime Minister to strengthen your cooperation.
The Opinion refers to the reform efforts undertaken by the Turkish government. Let me underline in this context that given the crucial importance of these reforms for the future of the country, it is equally important that the broadest possible consultation takes place. All political parties – in government and in opposition – need to act in the spirit of dialogue and compromise.
On freedom of religion, I agree that further progress is needed. The Commission is closely following the implementation of the 2008 Law on Foundations, which is a step in the right direction. We expect it will address in practice property issues faced by non-Muslim communities. We hope that the ongoing debate on the possible re-opening of the Halki seminary will translate soon into a positive concrete decision.
On migration, substantial progress was reached during the recent round of negotiations on a readmission agreement, which took place on 19 March. Turkey demonstrated readiness to finalise the talks within the coming weeks, provided solutions are found for all outstanding issues. Obviously, such open points require further discussion with Turkey.
Successful conclusion of the readmission agreement would open the way for further discussions with Turkey on visa including in particular promoting people-to-people contacts.
You also rightly mention the special report of the Court of Auditors on the management of the pre-accession assistance. It deals with the assistance given in the years 2002-2007 and points out – amongst others - some weaknesses, which the Commission has taken very seriously. Since then, measures have been taken in the direction proposed by the Court of Auditors for the management of our financial assistance instrument IPA. A general audit of the assistance given to Turkey should take place in 2011.
Finally, as regards good neighbourly relations, I very much welcome the series of measures to intensify bilateral contacts announced last week between Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu and Greece's Alternate Foreign Minister Droutsas. I hope this will further improve cooperation.
I hope that this brief tour d'horizon of where we stand with the candidate countries has further highlighted how deeply the agreement between the Committee of the Regions and the Commission is rooted.
The timing and quality of the European future of Turkey and all of the Western Balkans countries also depends on the quality of local and regional administration and governance. This is where the countries concerned, as well as I personally depend on your continued and excellent work with your partners in Turkey and the Western Balkans.