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European Commission

Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy

The future of enlargement on the background of the crisis

Conference "10 Years after Thessaloniki: An appraisal of the EU perspective and challenges in the Western Balkans"/ Dublin, Ireland

24 May 2013

Ministers, Director General, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I'm delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this afternoon's session on the future of enlargement in the Western Balkans.

I note in the conference programme that the preamble to this session poses some significant questions about the future of enlargement policy. I'll focus on two of them:

  1. The euro crisis and the consequent institutional change within the European Union.

  2. How the European Union can maintain credibility in the face of its own economic and social challenges.

Let me start by making three remarks about the European Union of today and the financial crisis.

First, it is a very different Union from the Union of 2003 and it is continuing to change and change for the better. The deepening of integration that has been spurred on by the financial crisis has meant that the majority of Member States are working to put in place:

  1. A European banking union with central European bank supervision;

  2. A European fiscal union with stricter controls over national budgets and deficits; and

  3. A European Union with more joint decision making on economic and social policies;

Second, the euro did not cause the crisis. The European country in which the financial crisis took on the greatest proportions from the outset was Iceland, which is not even a member of the European Union (although it is currently a candidate for membership). The euro has remained strong and stable and is still a reference currency globally.

The Economic crisis is a global reality but the European Union has proved that far from being the cause, it is part of the solution. It is European Union structures that are reinforcing banks to survive the crisis. It is only through the European Union that our Member States can together take the big decisions on innovation, infrastructure and business competitiveness that will lead to economic growth.

Third, this deepening of integration is not just a solution to our internal problems – it also guarantees Europe's relevance in the world, a globalised world where size matters. That is why the interaction of the two policies that have accompanied the European Union from the outset, deepening integration and enlargement, is so important. As rising powers like China and India take a greater role in the world, together in a European Union of more than half a billion people, we count for more. Together, we can face the challenges of globalisation, financial crises and climate change to name but a few. Alone we count for less.

I also want to underline the importance of addressing economic criteria early in the enlargement process. The European Union is undergoing far-reaching changes to its economic governance and enlargement countries need to be informed, involved and associated as closely as possible to the process. This will help them get sound financial rules and budgets in place before they join. And it ensures that acceding countries will not only be able to fully implement European Union obligations, but also to face future challenges. With our interdependent economies, this will benefit the European Union as a whole.

Turning to the question about credibility, it is very important to recall that the enlargement process is based on strict conditionality. Enlargement is not a free ride. It is a carefully structured process with the rule of law at its centre. Each step forward is based on real progress achieved on the ground, and agreed by all the actors.

The new approach to negotiations in the policy areas of judiciary and fundamental rights, as well as justice, freedom and security, is a case in point. Tackling these areas early in the negotiations gives maximum time to enlargement countries to establish the necessary legislation, institutions, and solid track records of implementation before the negotiations are closed. This ensures that reforms are deeply rooted and irreversible, fostering stability and reducing the risks of illegal immigration and infiltration of criminality.

To give you an example of how seriously we take this work, let me mention the peer review exercise on chapters 23 and 24 in Montenegro. There have already been nearly 100 meetings on issues such as asylum, migration, border management, judicial reform and fundamental rights and the fight against corruption. This is concrete evidence of the hard work and determination that is maintaining enlargement momentum.

Despite lower support for enlargement, member states are very credible in their approach to enlargement. If the candidate countries are credible in delivering on membership criteria, the Member States act on it. Some may talk about "enlargement fatigue" but you will not find any evidence of it in our approach to enlargement. But we should instead do something about reform fatigue by:

  1. continuing to prioritise the rule of law;

  2. supporting efforts to ensure stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy; and

  3. by not forgetting the economic criteria.

I want to conclude with a few words about the impact of the economic crisis on the Western Balkans and what can be done to help economic recovery.

Unemployment across the region is high and rising; the young are particularly affected. 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.

Let me put this in concrete terms:

  1. 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.

  2. Regional economic cooperation is a cornerstone of recovery. The benefits of trading under the Central European Free Trade Agreement are clear. 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.

  3. The Commission has started a new dialogue on employment and social programmes. The process will oblige participating countries to jointly identify priority reforms with the Commission, 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.

With the right cooperation in place, translating political will into practical solutions, the whole region can move closer to the European Union, creating at the same time a solid basis of cooperation and interaction once those countries join the European Union. They can count on our support.

Thank you for your attention.

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