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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
EU integration and perspective of membership
‘Next generation Europe’, Students Convention, Tirana, Albania
11 November 2013
Prime Minister, ladies and gentlemen, dear students,
In less than one year I will leave this position and I was wondering who might be my successor. Looking at these bright students I have no worries.
Let me start with three remarks about the enlargement of the European Union:
First, enlargement is widely acknowledged to be our most successful policy. Successive accessions have seen the number of Member States gradually increase from the original 6 to 28.
Second, since its inception, it has responded to the legitimate aspiration of the peoples of our continent to be united in a common European endeavour.
Third, at a time when the European Union faces major challenges and significant global uncertainty, enlargement policy continues to contribute to peace, security and prosperity on our continent.
This was recognised by the Nobel Committee last year when they announced the award of the 2012 peace prize to the European Union for its contribution to peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
I know that the majority of the citizens in the Western Balkans see their future in the European Union – for at least one of you, this is already a reality as Croatia became the 28th Member State this July.
And the prospects for moving forward in the rest of the region are real. Let me give you several reasons:
- accession negotiations with Montenegro have been underway since last year;
- in June of this year the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Serbia, marking the start of a significant new phase in our relations;
- negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo started at the end of last month; and
- candidate status for Albania is within reach following last month's recommendation of the Commission to the Council.
And the fact that I am not mentioning Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia does not mean that I do not care about these two countries.
The prospect of European Union membership provides clear incentives for countries to carry out deep and extensive reforms that turn this prospect into reality. Becoming a member state requires that the conditions for membership known as the Copenhagen criteria are fulfilled. They include the need for prospective member states to have:
- institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human – and here in Albania I would add – strong democratic institutions;
- rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
- a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressures and market forces within the Union; and
- the ability to take on the obligations of membership ("aquis communautaire”).
The way we apply the criteria has evolved based on what we have learnt from past enlargements. We have increased the focus on good governance and the rule of law, including judicial reform, public administration reform and the fight against corruption and organised crime.
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. These areas are tackled early in the negotiations. That means not only ticking the boxes of tasks and adopting legislation, but focusing on implementation of the reforms and new laws. This ensures that the benefits and transformative power of enlargement are felt by the citizens during the process and not just at the end.
For example, a more efficient, independent and accountable judiciary and public administration will impact positively on the everyday life of citizens. It will also contribute to economic development by helping to create a more favourable environment for business.
Only last month we set out concrete proposals that will help the countries of the Western Balkan to strengthen their economic governance. Over the last three years, the European Union has radically changed and strengthened its economic governance so it is important to help the candidates to adapt their own governance to the changing European model. We want to make sure that structural reforms help improve competiveness and domestic economies, creating the conditions for growth and jobs.
The enlargement countries already benefit from on-going macro-economic and fiscal programmes and we have started rolling out special reform programmes for labour markets. In addition, this year we are introducing new tools to guide the enlargement countries on:
- structural reforms in key areas like infrastructure, research, transport and education; and
- plans for public financial management which will help the countries to meet the Copenhagen economic criteria, fight corruption and allow budget support under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance.
And the benefits don't stop there. Full application of European Union standards will deliver major improvements in areas such food safety and the environment. And for you, the many students in the audience today, there will be many new opportunities to travel, study and work in the European Union. I am sure your Croatian colleagues will be able to share their experiences in this regard.
We live in a changing world where new major players challenge Europe and the countries of the North Atlantic. A world where globalisation does not respect borders and ideological divides, a world where globalisation is testing us, testing our banks, testing our markets and our environment.
That is why deepening European Union enlargement is so important. It guarantees Europe's relevance in the world, a globalised world where size matters. Together, in a European Union of more than half a billion, we count for more. Together we can better face the challenges of globalisation, financial crises and climate change to name but a few. Alone we count for less.
As you head out into this new world following your graduation, let me push you to contribute to democratic consolidation in your region by continuing to take an interest in politics and current affairs at local, regional, national and European Union levels.
Be a part of the transformation of your countries.
Be active citizens.
Make your voices heard!
We need to ensure the European project continues, expanding the area of peace, stability and prosperity. For this to happen we need citizens, leaders, businesspersons, academics and civil servants who are forward-looking and who understand the issues at stake but also who feel part of the process of European integration of their countries and of the region as a whole.
We need you to make this project work even better, the project of the EU is not in my hands, it is in your hands. Make it closer to you!
Thank you for your attention.