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European Commission

Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy

Enlargement in perspective: how do candidate and potential candidate countries perceive accession in the light of the current crisis?

Conference: ''Enlargement in perspective: how do candidate and potential candidate countries perceive accession in the light of the current crisis?'' in the European Parliament, Brussels

6 March 2013

Madam Chairman, Honourable Members, distinguished guests,

I'm delighted to have the opportunity to address your conference today. Last November, in Strasbourg, I participated in the plenary debate on Ms Koppa's report on enlargement which was adopted almost unanimously. Today's conference is a perfect follow-up to this report and well timed, as the Commission and Council work to deliver on the ambitious programme for enlargement for the first half of 2013 set by last December's General Affairs Council.

In less than four months from now, the European Union will admit a new member. Croatia is expected to joint on 1st July and the "waiting room" is far from being empty. Croatia's entry provides fresh evidence of the transformative power of European Union's enlargement policy: torn by conflict only two decades ago, the country is now a stable democracy, capable of taking on the obligations of European Union membership and of adhering to European Union standards.

This transformation is also a powerful signal to all of the Western Balkans whose European Perspective has been consistently proclaimed by the European Council.

We also hope for progress in getting the accession negotiations with Turkey back on track and regaining momentum in the talks with Iceland after the April parliamentary elections.

Of course, enlargement of the European Union does not take place in a vacuum. With the global economic crisis at centre stage and continuing uncertainty about the Eurozone, people in the European Union and aspirant countries are increasingly concerned about the economic and social impact accession may have on their lives, concerns that are reflected in the theme of today's conference. Let me make three remarks about this:

First, enlargement is not at the root of Europe's current difficulties. It is rather part of the solution with the primary goal of strengthening the European Union. Enlargement is promoting economic and financial stability and supporting increased trade and business opportunities in the aspiring countries, between them and between them and us. Through our inter-connected economies, this translates into a shared interest in more growth and jobs.

Second, the enlargement process is based on strict conditionality. Enlargement is not a free ride. It is a carefully structured process with each step forward based on real progress achieved on the ground, and agreed by all the actors.

Third, the enlargement process is also based on lessons learnt. We focus on the credibility of the process, putting rule of law at its centre. For countries in transformation, enlargement is not just about ticking boxes but about implementation and creating a track record in areas such as fundamental rights and freedoms, rule of law, good governance and the fight against corruption and organised crime.

As regards concerns about the social impacts of enlargement, if you look at last year's strategy paper you will see that the Commission announced an initiative for a dialogue on employment and social reform programmes with the enlargement countries. It supports policies for inclusive growth in those countries, in line with the Europe 2020 objectives.

The dialogue aims at establishing Employment and Social Reform Programmes that focus on a limited set of core employment and social challenges. The programmes should be practical and include concrete measures for delivery of policies on the ground.

In practical terms, this process will constitute a sort of 'Europe 2020 light' work cycle with individual countries for the years to come. It will be rolled out gradually, starting in 2013 with Turkey and Montenegro, to be followed by Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – depending of course also on the interest of the countries. On the basis of first experience gained in the coming months, the Commission will see how the process could be extended to potential candidate countries.

In our 2012 Enlargement Strategy paper we also underlined the importance of further associating enlargement countries to the strengthening of the European Union's economic governance, as well as implementing measures to support economic recovery.

The economic crisis has had a strong impact across the Western Balkans, with the region overall in recession.

Unemployment across the region is high and rising; the young are particularly affected. Poverty is increasing and the business environment remains hampered by the weak rule of law and the large informal sector. Returning to a sustainable growth path will remain challenging for many countries in the region.

The Commission is committed to assisting the governments in their measures for recovery. What does this mean concretely in the short term?

1) The Commission will gradually adapt the pre-accession economic surveillance to the enhanced economic governance in the EU. To this end, the countries will be required to progressively strengthen their medium-term economic programmes.

2) The Commission will continue using the Western Balkans Investment Framework as an important platform for cooperation with the International Financial Institutions. Through the platform, we will ensure that loans support investments in key areas such as transport, energy, climate change, the social sector and SMEs.

3) Regional economic cooperation is a cornerstone of recovery. The benefits of trading in CEFTA are clear to all economic operators. The already large trade flows can be further deepened and expanded through the planned liberalisation of services and improving of conditions for foreign investors through improving the infrastructure and logistics of the region.

4) As I mentioned already – the Commission will start a new dialogue on employment and social programmes. The process will oblige participating countries to identify jointly with the Commission priority reforms, take a strong commitment to implement them and then regularly monitor progress. We would hope that these priorities would then be addressed through more national and IPA funds to finance the weak social situation.

Concluding remarks

It was not easy to create the new momentum for enlargement. It took a lot of creativity not only on the side of our partners but also on the side of the Commission and on the side of European Parliament, and I have always relied on the support of the Parliament and also of the Member States. Now, the task is going to be to make that momentum sustainable. I consider 2013 as a year when the results of this creativity should be seen.

I already talked about the far reaching Council Conclusions from December last year with new language on some candidate and aspirant countries where the Member States said very clearly: 'the ball is on your side'. And this is where my concern is. While on the one hand we were able to create this momentum in enlargement at the same time I hear as much about enlargement fatigue. And what is interesting is that I hear about it not from the Member States but from aspirant countries and candidate countries. What is even more interesting is that if you look closer it is actually not enlargement fatigue that is the problem but it is reform fatigue in the countries that is the problem – the ball on the side of the aspirant and candidate countries. And for them to play that ball they need to realise that another phenomenon is actually not compatible with their goal to move forward in the enlargement agenda and I am talking about an increasing number of countries putting their domestic agenda above the EU agenda and while there is nothing wrong about the domestic agenda, absolutely not and I will never say that the EU agenda should substitute the domestic one, but it is for the first time that I see politicians in a number of countries pushing forward the domestic agenda at the expense of playing ball. And playing the ball in 2013 is important because I don't know what the rules of the game will be in 2014. We have worked very hard to establish the playing field for 2013 – use that playing field!

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