Even in times of crisis, nine European countries strive to join the EU. It would be an “enormous mistake” if the Union would lose interest in expansion, Štefan Füle told EurActiv Czech Republic in an exclusive interview.
Štefan Füle is the European commissioner in charge of enlargement and neighbourhood policy. He was interviewed by EurActiv Czech Republic editors Lucie Bednárová, Adéla Denková and Anna Kuznická. The original text in Czech can be found here.
The EU is currently experiencing a difficult economic situation and is focusing mainly on the economic and financial crisis solution. Does it still have enough energy for enlargement?
At first sight it seems that this question has a certain logic. However there are still nine countries which want to become EU members. This is what I personally view as the most important proof of their trust in the Union. It is also important to notice where some of the states in the accession process are. Serbia, which was recently granted candidate status, and Montenegro, with which we have launched accession negotiations at the start of summer, are the best examples of that.
The explanation is very simple. We are talking about an organisation which essentially has enlargement as a part of its DNA. Let's recall the beginnings of the EU – it started with a certain number of member states [and] has gradually grown. The core of its history lies not only in a deepening integration but also in enlargement. Basically, the EU is only continuing its natural development. On the other hand, we also have to say that the process of enlargement has slowed down somewhat and it requires more effort and creativity.
I also think that we will not help the situation if we do not care about the enlargement and our neighbours, and look only to the inside of our own organisation and focus solely on our troubles, although they are serious and no one should play them down. That would be an enormous mistake and the EU would pay for that. Enlargement has always brought positive news.
The aspiration of certain states for EU membership is indisputable, as you say, but these states are also fighting the economic crisis. For example, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia suffer from the highest unemployment rates in Europe. Do these states have the resource also to concentrate on the tasks assigned by Brussels?
No, it is not like that. If you look at the developments in the enlargement area during the last year, there are many more examples than just those that I just mentioned. The “homework” which you alluded to – and there is a lot of it – also has something to do with the impact of the crisis that the countries have to deal with.
The EU adopted the EU 2020 strategy, which affects many European policies, and its aim is it to strengthen the Union’s competitiveness. Is this strategy also reflected in the enlargement process and in the dialogue with the candidate or states aspiring to candidacy?
Yes, you have touched one of the most topical questions that I am dealing with very intensively these days. The current crisis and its consequences in the EU have changed the way we try to look at enlargement. We are considering how to best adjust the enlargement process so that it does not only look into the past, when the candidate states had to adopt the acquis …
Quite to the contrary, we want to try to bring this process as close as possible to the current problems and challenges. Essentially, the candidate countries should not only learn what was topical a few years ago, but as they gradually take over the acquis they should also be gradually involved in European Union decision-shaping.
To put it more simply: the candidate countries should not learn about the latest developments and decisions of the EU from the Financial Times but there should be a dialogue about current economic and financial problems with them in parallel to the accession talks.
Have you already discussed this idea with any candidate states' leaders?
Yes, I talked about this topic, for example, with the prime minister of Iceland and the discussion was already fairly specific.
The EU also adopted the so-called European Semester which is an annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination, and it serves as a tool for the monitoring of progress in the EU 2020 aims. Are there any plans to use a similar system for the candidate states as well?
Yes, there are. The EU member states have already passed through the second European Semester and we managed to involve the candidate and aspiring candidate countries in it as well. We call it “European Semester Light.” It is practically based on conditions that are less strict than those which are there for the member states.
We opened this topic during the Danish presidency for the first time. Now I am thinking, together with [Commission Vice President] Olli Rehn, who is responsible for the affairs connected to the Economic and Monetary Union, about how to design the European Semester for the candidate states before they enter the EU. The aim is to give them an opportunity to pass through the semester and to start to work on the synchronisation of their own governance.
Should the recommendations be binding for the candidate states as well?
If a member state does not comply with the recommendations it receives during the European Semester, there are certain tools to push the country to fulfil the targets. However, there is nothing like this for the candidate states. Therefore they can be given only non-binding recommendations.
Does the plan already have any particular features?
We're not at that stage yet but what I can say however quite clearly is that no one will want to treat the candidate country in the same strict way as the member states. The difference between a candidate and a member must be preserved and respected. As the recommendations will be non-binding, nobody can expect they would go too deeply.
Have you already got any reactions from the candidates or aspiring candidate countries?
At this stage we have discussed our ideas only with the candidate countries and their reactions were positive. I expect they will be more and more interested in the particular shape of our plans and how the Commission could involve them in this process.
Let us get back to the current economic situation in the EU for a while. The enlargement process requires a lot of effort from both sides. The candidate state is obliged to fulfil many conditions and accept many difficult reforms. You already mentioned that there are still enough countries willing to join the Union. However, is their motivation still the same?
The motivation is still the same but one has to bear in mind that in times of economic crisis it is much more difficult to carry out reforms than in the times when the economy is doing well.
What I think is really significant is that among the candidate states there is no reform fatigue just as there is no enlargement fatigue among the member states, as it is mistakenly reported in the media. The example of Montenegro is valid in this context.
On the other hand, it is true that behind the whole process there is a great effort being made by the Commission. We have to be as creative as possible and we have to compensate for the more complicated economic conditions in the EU to some extent. Of course it is also our aim to support these countries in their reform endeavours as much as we can.
Could you mention any example of how the Commission realises this policy?
There is, for example, the Structured Dialogue on Justice with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Structured Dialogue on the Rule of Law with Kosovo, or the High Level on Accession with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The crucial point, however, is the change in our approach to the Chapters 23 and 24 which cover judiciary, justice and home affairs, and therefore are a fundamental instrument of the transformation of the society from a totalitarian system to full democracy - since they touch upon the basic principles on which the EU is founded.
What is the content of this change?
The main point is that these chapters will be opened at a very early stage in the accession talks and closed at the very end. This enables us to participate in the transition to full democracy during the whole negotiation process. After all, the goal for the EU is not to tick the box of negotiated chapters, but also for the Commission to make sure that the changes in these areas work and bring benefits to the citizens. Montenegro is now waiting to be the first to experience this new approach.
So this procedure has not been applied to Croatia, which signed an Accession Treaty last winter and which becomes the 28th member state in mid-2013?
No, Montenegro is really the first. For comparison: we had Chapter 23 with Croatia open just for one year and it was opened only 12 months before the end of talks. In this connection I would like to recall that in the case of Turkey, it has not yet been possible to open this chapter which is, I think, detrimental to the entire negotiation process.
What particular developments in the area of enlargement and what steps in relations with candidate countries and potential candidates can we expect during this semester?
In the case of Serbia, I assume that the new government can make progress on the fundamental issue which stands in the way to the opening of accession negotiations … the improvement of relations with Kosovo.
Last December the EU heads of state and government approved a number of specific measures which Serbia should implement. The new government is now in place and I have no doubts that the fixing of the date for opening accession negotiations will be one of its first priorities. I appreciate the ambitious approach which counts on a decision still this year. The Commission will help and assist Serbia to fulfil all the required steps by the end of this year.
In the case of Montenegro, it can be assumed that we will start the screening process in September and we can open some chapters already next year.
Let us focus on Montenegro for a while because, as you have already mentioned, it has opened the accession talks recently. How important is such progress in terms of motivating other candidate states for the enlargement process?
Personally, I view it as an important signal that only a short period has passed since we closed the accession talks with Croatia and we have already opened talks with another candidate state. This is especially significant for the Balkans. The successful completion of accession talks with Croatia gave credibility to the whole process because it showed that the country underwent substantial changes during the 10 years of negotiations. It was also important for the member states because they were able to see that a particular candidate state successfully fulfilled its obligations. And this is also how the EU is doing its homework.
To get back to the original question again – what development can we expect in relations with other Balkan states?
With the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, we are gearing up for the third round of the High Level Accession Dialogue. If the positive trend of successful fulfilment of the designated tasks continues, the Commission will certainly recommend that this progress is reflected also in the European approach towards this country. I think it does not do any good either to the candidate country or to the EU to prolong the time between granting the candidate status and the start of the negotiations.
Bosnia and Herzegovina could apply for EU membership still this year. If the government manages to implement the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the Sejdic-Finci case and it changes the constitution accordingly, the member states will perceive its application as credible one. The European Commission has proposed a road map that should help the country to implement the decision of the ECHR and how to proceed further.
Albania received a list of 12 key priorities to work on last year. This spring we defined, together with the Albanian government, a list of specific measures that are important to be taken. After they are delivered on, the Commission will be able to recommend granting candidate status to the country. Then, it would be enough to define the remaining tasks and the road towards opening of the accession talks should become considerably shorter.
What is new in the development of EU-Kosovo relations?
The Enlargement Strategy and Progress Reports which should be approved by the European Commission in October should contain a Feasibility Study for the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. In the Western Balkans, it is only Kosovo that does not have such an agreement with the EU. That will be one of the major issues for the current Cypriot presidency.
A rather different example is Iceland, which is located at the opposite end of Europe than the other EU candidates. What about its accession negotiations?
In principle everything is on track in negotiations with Iceland. During the Cypriot presidency the maximum number of chapters should be opened. Even if this should not be the case, at least all the cards will be on the table. That should provide clarity in everything, including in such sensitive issues as Chapter 13 (fisheries) before the spring elections in Iceland.
Cyprus, the country holding the EU presidency, has a long-standing issue with Turkey, which announced that it will not cooperate with the presidency [during its six-month term]. How will the Turkey-EU relationship be developing in following months?
The EU has expressed its opinion on the Turkish position not to cooperate with the presiding country quite clearly and it has also repeatedly called on Turkey not to boycott one of its fundamental institutional features.
Still, relations between Turkey and the European institutions continue. I assume that the so-called positive agenda (a broader framework of EU relations with that country) will continue. It is essentially a newly formulated philosophy in our relations. Its aim is not to create parallel systems or to bypass the accession negotiations, but rather to find some kind of bridge that will return us sooner or later to the standard pace of enlargement. The fact that we have not opened any new chapter with Turkey for two years has of course a negative impact on the entire process. The positive agenda as well as a very important agreement on visa-free regime could however have a beneficial effect.
Another interesting issue is the development of the countries with which the EU works through the European Neighbourhood Policy. For example, the relations with Ukraine are strained mainly due to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Is the European Commission preparing some initiative on this issue?
There is not a lot of space left for further initiatives in relation to Ukraine at the moment. The EU has quite clearly expressed the conditions which are considered essential in connection with the signing of the Association Agreement. The mission of the former European Parliament President Pat Cox and former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski in Ukraine is focusing not only on the case of the former prime minister but also of her former colleagues. The country is also preparing for the October parliamentary elections which will be very important not only for Ukraine itself, but also for formulating the next steps in mutual relations with the EU.
Many European politicians and EU leaders also decided to boycott the European football championship co-hosted by Ukraine because of the case of Yulia Tymoshenko. Do you think that this approach was correct?
I have never understood using the word “boycott" in connection to this case. I have never used it myself nor have I ever heard it from anyone else. It is rather an image created by the media.
However, I understood the decision of my colleagues from the Commission not to participate in some sporting events in Ukraine. I think it was meant to send a message to the Ukrainian side but this did not deplete the importance of the championship as such and its intention was not to affect the enthusiasm of the fans. That signal should, however, clearly show that things such as abuse of justice for political purposes are unacceptable for a country seeking to deepen its relations with the EU.