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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Enlargement and Western Balkans what's next?
Western Balkans Conference Vienna 2014
Vienna, 3 June 2014
Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Let me thank the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the invitation to speak to you today and for hosting this important event. 100 years ago, one of the greatest catastrophes Europe has ever seen was unleashed. Following the events in Sarajevo, the First World War took the lives of 17 million people.
Tragically, it took another World War before the European nations turned the page on history and began laying the foundation for a common future. Starting from a community for coal and steel and then an economic community encompassing six countries, successive enlargements made the European Union the world's most successful peace project with now 28 member states and more than 500 million citizens.
This journey has not come to an end. The Thessaloniki Declaration of 2003 reiterated the European Union's unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Again, this was the answer to the bloodshed that had occurred following the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. There was no ambiguity. The Declaration clearly stated that the future of the Balkans is within the European Union, a perspective that has been consistently proclaimed by the European Council ever since.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Our enlargement policy continues to be successful in extending further the zone of peace, prosperity and stability in Europe:
• with the entry into the European Union of a well prepared Croatia, the first country to successfully graduate from the Stabilisation and Association Process;
• with the start of accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia; and
• with the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on normalisation of their relations, which opened the way for accession talks with Belgrade and negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Pristina.
These are historic achievements for which the European Union can be rightly proud and it is no surprise that the role enlargement plays in keeping Europe stable and peaceful was reflected also in the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the European Union in 2012.
In this context, I am very pleased and proud that the European Union, despite the challenges we have also seen reflected in the results of the recent European elections, still continues to inspire peoples outside of the Union. This is not only because of the promise of better and richer life, but it is primarily because of the values the Union stands for and fights for.
Ladies and gentlemen,
While enlargement has extended the area of peace and stability in Europe, at the same time, many doubts have arisen on the level of preparedness of the new Member States. That's why I have made it the priority of my mandate to further strengthen the credibility of the enlargement process. While keeping the process strict but fair, we have put fundamentals first, focusing on values and principles, including respect for fundamental rights and freedom of expression.
Two years ago we concentrated on the first of the three pillars of this story - Rule of Law, which is at the heart of the enlargement policy. Our "new approach" means deficiencies in each country are tackled early and consistently throughout the accession process and progress in this area determines the overall speed of the accession process.
Last year, we added the second pillar, economic governance and competitiveness and growth, which needs to underpin the reform agenda in all countries to make it sustainable. The ultimate objective is to address what really matters – creating an environment more conducive to investment, growth and jobs.
This year our focus is on the third and last pillar of the new enlargement story which is on strengthening of democratic institutions and public administration, with a greater emphasis on the needs of citizens and business. We will not accept a process which is just about ticking boxes, what needs to be done is the establishment of solid track records and concrete results on the ground. That is the only way to ensure that candidate countries enter the European Union fully prepared.
Looking forward, I see three priorities for enlargement:
1. continuing the process which we started four years ago to strengthen the credibility and political side of enlargement and to bring the benefits of enlargement closer to the citizens;
2. making sure that the two policies which accompanied the European Union from the very beginning – enlargement on one hand and deepening of EU integration on the other, interact also in the future in a reinforcing way to the benefit of the Union as a whole; and
3. through enlargement, becoming bigger and stronger, to be better equipped to face the consequences and use the opportunities of globalisation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The European door remains open for the Western Balkan countries. We all agree that this is the only way to ensure stability and peace in this region of Europe plagued by conflict for far too long. The conditions for getting over the threshold are clear. It is now up to the political leaders to live up to the expectation their peoples have and implement the necessary reforms – not for Europe's benefit, but for the benefit of all citizens.
The Balkans delivered the spark to ignite the First World War. Now, 100 years later, we should firmly stick to our commitment to integrate all Western Balkan countries into the family of the European Union, to anchor them firmly and sustainably in peace and stability.
And let us not forget, on this occasion, that there are other countries in our neighbourhood that are struggling with conflict and violence. We need to find ways to apply the lessons learnt from Europe's war-stricken history also to them.