Commissioner Rehn: ‘I am just the factory manager’

Iceland could well compete with Croatia to become the 28th EU member state if it decided to join the bloc, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview, taking stock of negotiations with prospective members and his role in the process, the importance of the Lisbon Treaty and his personal future.

Olli Rehn has been EU enlargement commissioner since 2004. Since then, Bulgaria and Romania have joined the EU. 

To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here

There is now an interesting widening of perspectives from the South Eastern Europe to North Western Europe in terms of EU enlargement, with Iceland making noises about joining the EU. But does a country need to be impoverished to decide if it wants to join the Union, as Iceland may feel today after the collapse of its banks? 

No, and I don’t see Iceland as an impoverished country. It has serious difficulties, but it has plenty of national wealth, and it is without any doubt a democratic European country, with very strong democratic roots. If Iceland were to apply for EU membership, I would expect that the accession negotiations would not take terribly long. Iceland is already a member of the European Economic Area, which covers roughly two thirds of the ‘acquis communitaire’. I usually say to my friends in South Eastern Europe that there is no shortcut to EU membership, and it is true. But in the case of Iceland, this EEA agreement serves as a shortcut in the negotiations. 

But Norway, which once even concluded accession negotiations, decided to stay out, maybe due its wealth from oil revenues. 

That is the choice of the Norwegian people and we respect that choice. We work with Norway on the basis of the EEA agreement, which works well. 

If Iceland applies now, could it still join before Croatia? 

We apply the principle of own merits, which means that each candidate country can join the Union once it applies all conditions, after technical negotiations have been completed. Thus the timeline of Croatia or eventually Iceland depends on the negotiations and the implementation of EU legislation. 

It also depends on the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, as the current Nice Treaty provides a framework for only 27 member countries, no? 

It is important that the Lisbon Treaty will be ratified and will enter into force soon. Europe will have needed the treaty yesterday, if not even the day before yesterday. Because it will make the EU function better, it will make it more effective and democratic and it will reinforce our capacity to act in foreign policy and in the global economy. 

However, even the slowest envisaged scenario for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is still faster than the best scenario for Croatia joining the EU. Hence there is no contradiction and these processes can move ahead in parallel. 

Do you foresee any objections from member states saying that Iceland has only applied because it has financial needs? 

The EU does not take such cyclical political view on Iceland or its development. I feel sympathy for the Icelandic people and I feel solidarity with them. I would expect that after this problems, related to banking deposit guarantees is settled, no member state will be opposed to Iceland moving towards the EU. Of course, only if Iceland applies and fulfills all conditions. 

Accession to the EU from a country from a different region will give enlargement new momentum. Following the last enlargement, and particularly when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, we heard some opinions and read articles claiming that Bulgaria had become a ‘cautionary tale’: a warning that further enlargement is not welcome. How would you comment? 

There are so many articles that it’s not possible for me to comment on them. Bulgaria and Romania have been very committed and constructive EU member states. Both have experienced economic success over the last couple of years, which has brought very useful economic dynamism to the EU. 

However, in both countries there have been problems, even after progress was achieved in the last years of the accession negotiations. Even if there was progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime and in implementing the judiciary reforms, there are still certain shortcomings. And that’s why we have created the cooperation and verification mechanism, which is still being applied for Bulgaria and Romania. We have certain problems with regard to the management of EU pre-accession funds and other funds in Bulgaria. 

But you are not responsible for this monitoring? 

No, in the Commission, the work is steered by the Secretariat General, which is under the responsibility of Commission President José Manuel Barroso. We have not deemed it appropriate that the Enlargement Commissioner would deal with a member state. A big bulk of the work falls on the shoulders of my colleague Jacques Barrot, responsible for justice, liberty and security in the Commission. 

A lobbyist from a Belgian law firm, working for the Bulgarian government, recently said that Bulgaria received worse treatment than Romania, although it was at the same level in the field of justice and home affairs, if not even better. He did not say so, but he seemed to be indicating that there was some political bias from the Commission. Is the Commission biased? 


Let’s turn to the Western Balkans. From the last Commission reports, it seems that only Croatia has a really positive outlook. 

Over the last couple of years, the countries from the Western Balkans have made steady, albeit uneven progress towards meeting the conditions of taking further steps on the European road. Overall there has been steady progress, but yes, there have also been setbacks and I would say that concerning Croatia, accession negotiations are progressing well and many of the reforms are moving forward. I just visited Croatia and I could see that the government is doing his best to tackle the challenges in the field of the fight against organized crime and in the reform of the shipbuilding sector. 

Both Albania and Montenegro are implementing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) smoothly and both countries are capable of carrying the obligations of these agreements. Many reforms are advancing in these two countries, but there are still challenges, especially as regards administrative capacity and fighting corruption in Montenegro, and in the case of Albania, which just adopted its new electoral code, the country will need to show that it can hold free and fair elections, in line with international standards, next year. For Albania, the fight against organised crime and corruption is also still a challenge. 

So there are plenty of examples of substantive progress. Meanwhile, it’s fair to say that Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a setback and disappointment over the past half year. However, we are revising our strategy and expect that, while reinforcing local ownership and responsibility, and by reinforced EU engagement and presence, we will help Bosnia and Herzegovina to be more firmly on a European track. 

In view of the recent high-profile murder of a famous journalist in Croatia, would it be possible for the accession process to be reversed or put on hold? 

What I think is essential is that the legal and economic reforms be made irreversible. This means, in the case of Croatia, that the country, the government and the law enforcement agencies will be able to achieve concrete results in the fight against organised crime and corruption. This means both investigations and also convictions, because investigations without convictions are not providing a very credible picture. Croatia will have to prove that it will be able to seriously implement its judicial reform and get concrete results in the fight against organised crime and corruption. 

A number of players in the region have recently taken their differences to the International Court of Justice. Serbia took Kosovo to the UN court over its unilateral declaration of independence, Croatia took Serbia to court for genocide, and Serbia said it will reciprocate over war crimes. Macedonia took Greece to court over the name dispute. 

You said recently in the European Parliament that you would like the bilateral disputes to be solved in a bilateral framework and accession negotiations not to be taken as hostage. Do you welcome this development? 

Countries have the right to resort to the International Court of Justice. You could have mentioned an earlier case, of Bosnia and Herzegovina against Serbia. There are indeed quite a number of cases going on between the countries of the Western Balkans for the moment. 

However, a process of reconciliation is needed in the societies and between the societies in the region, and that requires more thorough reflection and turning the pages of the past. I would say that not only court cases, but also political cooperation is needed, between leaders and peoples of the countries, toward genuine reconciliation. 

As a Nordic, and Nordics don’t understand the Balkans by definition, I have sometimes difficulty in seeing that this kind of historical dispute should be in the first place settled in courts, instead by political means. 

One does not have to come from the North to wonder how it can be possible that these countries, which made war with one another, are now willing to return to a common space without borders and a common currency, which previously was called the dinar. 

Our view in the Commission is that bilateral issues should be settled bilaterally, such as the border issue between Slovenia and Croatia. I have appealed to the leaders of both countries that they would settle this 17-year old problem and not let it become another internally unresolved issue. This kind of bilateral issue should not burden the EU accession negotiations, because they should be settled on the merits of the case, by the way of negotiations, in the spirit of good neighbourly relations. And the EU should not be drawn into each and every bilateral dispute in the region. 

Speaking about unsolved bilateral issues, the Cyprus problem looms as a major one. Of course the UN is engaged, but isn’t the essence much the same? 

A comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue and the reunification of the island is essential for the Cypriots themselves, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. In addition, it is important for the EU accession process for Turkey. Now we have a genuine opportunity, as the leaders of the two communities are holding negotiations on a comprehensive settlement. The Commission and the EU support these negotiations and are ready to provide legal and technical advice, if the two leaders ask for such advice. 

However, it is essentially a Cyprus-driven process by the two leaders and the two communities and it is conducted under the auspices of the UN. Of course, the EU has a big stake there because Cyprus should become a member state like any other, that is in peace and united. That’s why we want to invest in it and that’s why we expect Turkey to contribute to a favourable atmosphere, not only as a passive bystander, but as a proactive stimulator in the negotiations toward a comprehensive settlement. 

The Turkish dossier is politically completely different from that of the Western Balkans, one can imagine. There must be more political pressure, from major EU countries, but also from the USA. It is assumed that Washington is pressing Brussels to speed up the Turkish dossier, while France for one is pushing in the opposite direction. Can you comment on this? 

I wouldn’t call this a US pressure. I’m of course fully aware of the US position concerning Turkey, which is favourable to Turkey’s EU accession, if it meets the conditions. I’ve done my studies and research in the field of international relations and I think it’s just evident from the realistic interests of the US, that it is in favour of Turkey’s EU accession. If the US ambassador later this afternoon makes a point to me concerning Turkey’s bid, it’s not a surprise to me. But while we have good relations with the US, we decide for the EU. I work for the EU and EU member states together decide for the EU. The pressure or position of the US doesn’t matter so much. 

How do you judge the current treatment of Turkey under the French President Nicolas Sarkozy? You have been criticised personally by an influential German MEP for being too forthcoming towards Turkey.

In fact, as regards France and Turkey, there is a better political climate than for a long time between these two countries, and the same goes for the EU-Turkey relations. I’m not saying that this regards public opinion, but this regards the views in the governments of member states. The strategic role played by Turkey both in the Caucasus and in the Middle East has been very much appreciated by the EU member states. This does not mean that there will be any discount on accession criteria. 

On the contrary, it’s clear that Turkey will have to meet all conditions in order to make progress and accede to the EU. But there is a better political climate for the moment. France has practised fair play and has handled its Presidency very professionally, also in EU-Turkey relations. I expect we can open at least two chapters in the accession negotiations in December. 

Concerning my friend Elmar Brok, I’ve taken note of his statement. It’s important that we have a healthy and democratic debate on EU enlargement. 

But you don’t think you’ve exceeded your competence by making the talks irreversible? 

My view is that the reforms that enhance fundamental freedom and the rule of law in Turkey should be made irreversible. The EU accession process is the driver of this reforms. So the reforms should be made irreversible and I would expect that this would lead to the EU accession of Turkey, in line of the negotiating framework, which says that the accession of Turkey is a shared objective of the EU member states and Turkey. But this is an open-ended process and there is no built-in automaticism. 

We mentioned France, but on the other extreme we have Italy. Its Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is in favour of speeding up negotiations with Turkey. He is apparently also very open to Russia joining the EU, maybe at a later stage. How would you comment on this enthusiasm for enlargement? 

I’m grateful that Prime Minister Berlusconi is a supporter of enlargement. We work very well with Italy and I enjoy working with foreign minister Franco Frattini, who is my good friend and old colleague. We share the same views on EU enlargement, maybe with the exception of Russia’s EU perspective. Concerning Turkey, perhaps there is a different perspective, if you are a chairman of the board, like Prime Minister Berlusconi, or if you are a factory manager, like I am, as the enlargement commissioner. 

I have to make sure that the conditions and criteria are met in the process and that the process is kept on track and moving forward. And while we share the same objective of Turkish EU accession, in line with the Negotiating framework, we have a little bit different view because of a different respective institutional positions, in him being the prime minister of a large member state, and me being a factory manager, as the enlargement commissioner. 

So you share the objectives of Prime Minister Berlusconi but not his enthusiasm that under more Turkey-friendly Czech and Swedish EU Presidencies, up to four chapters could be opened instead of just two, as is likely to be the case for the current presidency? 

Certainly for the Commission there is no ceiling of two chapters. We have made proposals – called draft common positions – to the Council to open several chapters on the merits of these policy areas themselves. For instance, in our view the energy chapter could well be opened still before the end of the year and I would expect that the chapters on capital and information society will be certainly opened. 

Of course, I realized that the opening of every chapter requires unanimity and for the moment there does not seem to be unanimity on the Council on opening the energy chapter. This is actually very important for the EU and our energy cooperation with Turkey and the southern corridor. 

But should Turkey not state beforehand its conditions for the transit of gas? It seems it does not want to state its position because it wants to keep it as a bargaining chip. Won’t you tell the Turks that if they want to advance with this chapter they should make their requirements better known?

I am aware of the domestic debate in Turkey related to the Nabucco project. From my point view Nabucco is attractive for Turkey both because of its European aspirations and because of its energy security. In fact, by joining forces, the EU and Turkey could facilitate better access to important gas sources and by such means both could diversity our energy supply. For Turkey, Nabucco would be both a source of gas and a transfer route towards the EU. I see us as partners. 

The opening of the energy chapter is important as it would help the EU and Turkey to harmonise their laws and rules, which would make energy cooperation easier and more mature. We are actually investing quiet a lot of political energy with my colleague Andris Piebalgs [the Energy Commissioner], Commission President José Manuel Barroso and, of course, the member states to seriously break the ice and bring the Nabucco project closer to being realised. 

You are known as a friend of Turkey, but this is certainly not the view of various member states. What do you think are the main fears among those opposing Turkish EU membership? 

There are various reasons. Let me just list them. One view that is quit strong in France and Germany is there should be no further widening without deepening. I have held many discussions in France both in the National Assembly and with the civil society, likewise in Germany, and the view there is that we do not rule out a Turkish accession but first the EU should be deepened. 

I feel a certain sympathy for the view that widening and deepening should go hand in hand and I understand the logic but I don’t think those two approaches are contradictory. In fact, widening and deepening are rather parallel and mutually-reinforcing processes. Both of them have made the EU what it is today – much stronger and more effective than let’s say 20 years ago. 

A second main concern is cultural and religious resistance, which is more difficult and for which I do not feel so much sympathy because the EU is not a Christian Club. Rather it is a community of common values, democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms. If a country meets those conditions, it should be able to join the EU – if it is a European country and it has a European vocation. 

Thirdly, there are concerns related to employment and the labour market, which are often linked to immigration. For instance in France, the Turkish EU accession is seen through the lens of certain problems related to the integration of the Muslim minority – if you can call 5 or 6 million people a minority, out of whom only a small portion are actually Turks. 

So we have different national debates, and here, concerning the labour market, concerning immigration, this is precisely why in the Commission’s opinion in October 2004 and in the Negotiating Framework of 2005, we say that concerning the free movement of workers, we may consider transitional periods and even permanent derogations. This is in order to alleviate fears among our citizens about problems related to the labour market and immigration. 

My personal view is that the EU will actually benefit from the youthful and rather well-educated Turkish labour force. But at the same time, I think it is useful to have such safeguard instruments concerning the labour market at our disposal that would alleviate the fears of our citizens. 

It is maybe an empirical question once Turkey joins the EU: whether there is a need for a young, dynamic and rather well-educated work force from Turkey or that our labour markets are so over-crowded, that this would cause problems of adjustment. 

To summarise: There are three main concerns. First, deepening is important. That’s why we need the Lisbon Treaty. Secondly, concerning the labour market, we have policy instruments to avoid problems in this area. Concerning the cultural and religious resistance, although I can somehow understand it, I have less sympathy for it because for me the EU is not a Christian club but a community of values related to liberty and freedom. 

Can you please clarify these permanent derogations? Has this existed before? 

Not in this area. 

A somewhat more political question: Do you think the decision-making process has become more difficult within an enlarged EU, specifically when it comes to the possible accession of such a big country as Turkey? 

The empirical evidence shows that the EU has been able to take even quiet difficult decisions after the latest enlargement in 2004. For example, we managed to decide on the new financial perspectives and in 2005 and we opened accession negotiations with Turkey. The member states have been able to agree both on the constitutional and the Lisbon Treaty, which have not been blocked by new member states, but other more established member states. 

We have also been able to reinforce our common foreign and security policy quiet substantially. In the global governance of the world economy size matters and a community of 27 member states of about 500 million people has much more weight than an entity of 6 member states with less than 200 million people. 

So is this the price to pay for a more difficult decision-making process? 

It is not so clear that it is more difficult, especially as soon as the Lisbon Treaty will be ratified and will enter into force. But even the current decision-making system in areas where we don’t apply unanimity. The treaties are actually quiet useful for the number of member states in the sense you always have to have a certain proportion of member states in the Council for a qualified majority, which is usually around 70%. 

It doesn’t necessarily make decision-making more difficult to reach 70% among 27 member states than among 15 member states. And sometimes it is even easier because if there are one or two member states opposed they have a smaller relative blocking weight. Turkey would certainly have the influence and the weight that it would deserve in terms of its standing and according to the EU Treaty. 

Turkey would certainly be one of the big member states but it would certainly not dominate alone EU decision-making. 

Given Turkey’s fast-growing population, the country is likely to be the biggest member state at the point when it is ready to join and hence would have the strongest voting rights in the Council and send the largest number of MEPs to the European Parliament. Germany and France in particular fear that they could lose their dominant position. Do you think these fears are also a reason for those countries’ opposition to Turkish membership? 

Turkey would have an influence of its natural size in the EU and moreover the Turkey that could join the EU would be quiet a different country and society as it is today in terms of respect for fundamental freedoms and principles of the EU. We will see in the coming years whether Turkey is able to undertake such a democratic transformation that is required for such a country willing to join the EU. 

Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen more stagnation than progression. And we have made this very clear to the Turkish government and parliament that it is time to resume the reform if Turkey wants to make serious progress on its EU accession process. 

So the ball is entirely in Turkey’s court or is there something the EU could do to encourage more reforms there? 

The EU plays it fair and firm. We must be firm in keeping our word and giving Turkey a chance to show it will be able to meet the conditions for joining the EU. At the same time we must be fair in the rigorous application of conditions regarding legal and democratic reforms in Turkey. 

By this way, we can break the vicious circle of negative developments in Europe in a reduction of its commitment and in Turkey a reduction of its reform strive. 

Of course, if we receive less reforms as feedback to the EU, there is less credibility in Turkey’s accession process and this may reduce commitment on the EU side, which may then weaken the reforms in Turkey. Therefore, it is much better that we are and stay fair towards Turkey. In this sense, the ball is in Turkey’s court because – as I said previously during the previous Slovenian and the current French Presidency – again a steady flow negotiating chapters could be opened. 

What is now needed is serious reforms. Reforms, reforms and reforms. And no further excuses be it elections or the constitutional crisis. 

The Commission has been very successful in asking Eastern European countries to modify their constitutions. I am thinking especially of the case of Bulgaria. Do you think it will be as easy in Turkey as it was in Bulgaria? 

It hasn’t been so easy in Bulgaria and it will not be easy in Turkey. What matters for us is that the country will have to be able to reform its constitution in line with the European procedures and standards. Otherwise there is no accession to the EU. Its rather simple in the end of the day. 

Looking beyond the end of the current Commission’s term: President Barroso has already made clear that he would like to stay for a second term. What about yourself? 

I have not practised secrecy either but rather Scandinavian openness. I find that quite a tough job but a beautiful mission. But of course it depends if there is enough confidence in me in Helsinki and Brussels and across Europe. 

Would you be interested in any other portfolio? 

No comment. 

Final question: Given that Croatia most likely will become the 28th EU member state, maybe followed by Iceland, which country will be the lucky member number 30? Serbia, Macedonia? 

I certainly hope that the countries of the Western Balkans make that serious progress that they could join the EU in due course. But conditionality applies depending on the ability of those countries to meet the conditions.