EXCLUSIVE / Johannes Hahn, the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner, has urged member states to engage fully in refugee policy. After all the tragedies, there is no longer time for hesitation, insisted the Austrian in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.
Johannes Hahn is the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy in the new Juncker Commission. Previously, he was the Commissioner for Regional Policy in the Barroso II Commission and between 2007 and 2010 he served as Austria’s Federal Minister of Science and Research. Hahn is a member of the conservative Austrian’s People Party (Österreichische Volkspartei [ÖVP]).
euractiv.de: Migration was the dominant theme of the recent Western Balkans Summit in Vienna – particularly because of the refugee tragedy in Austria. There are continuously new ideas and suggestions as to how the refugee crisis in Europe can be finally brought under control. There are increasingly vocal calls for a common EU strategy to be implemented.
Hahn: From the outset, the issue of migration was on the agenda of the foreign ministers’ meeting. This shows that for some time – well, to be precise, for years – the Commission has been dealing with this issue. In May, we submitted a comprehensive proposal for a European migrant agenda, as well as a fair distribution of refugees. Nine years ago we submitted a proposal for an EU-wide, mandatory list of ‘safe countries’ and in September we will push this back to the forefront.
These proposals are all well and good. But waiting for a solution to present itself surely only exacerbates the situation. Why hasn’t something been firmly agreed upon?
It is up to the member states to make the final decisions. After all the tragedies, there is no longer time for hesitation and waiting around. Nobody should be shirking away from this! This crisis has a global dimension, so no country is going to be able to tackle it alone. We need a pan-European approach. Regarding the Western Balkans, they are not the source of the problem, but are victims of their own geographical location, as they are used as transit countries. To deal with this they need EU support and this has been provided.
But it’s not just about money. We need to strengthen co-operation in order to secure the external borders and to help the most affected countries with our expertise, like what has already been done with the establishment of “hot spots” in Greece and Italy.
Lately, more and more people have called for the problem to be dealt with outside of the EU’s borders. What are the key aspects?
For me, as Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner, it is especially important that the problem be addressed at its source, and by that I mean those countries afflicted by war and terrorism that have triggered these waves of refugees. This is above all a matter of strengthening foreign and security policy and, ultimately, the provision of financial resources to the countries most affected by the crisis, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which bear the brunt of the situation, as they are hosting well over a million refugees.
In this matter, I am willing to free up resources to address the issue.
For more than two decades, the Western Balkans was a latent source of unrest in the middle of Europe. Now things seem to have quietened down. What is your main takeaway of last week’s summit in Vienna?
Vienna’s Western Balkans Summit was an important milestone on the European road down which the Balkans are travelling. The door to the EU has been well and truly opened. The gradual accession of these countries to EU membership is in our own interests, there can’t be a vacuum on Europe’s borders. If we are not in the business of exporting safety and stability, then all we’ll be doing in the long run is importing instability.
Apart from the basic statements, what is the bottom line in terms of tangible outcomes for the Balkans?
The Vienna summit has in particular brought forward regional networking between the Balkan states, having given a green light to the implementation and expansion of priority projects in the energy and transport infrastructure sectors. The EU will provide €200 million in funding for these projects, with total investment coming to €600 million. This is a strong boost for the economies of these countries, which of course the general population will benefit from, as well as being advantageous for European and, not least, Austrian investors.
Long term, the integration of the Western Balkans with European standards will not be achievable through financial means alone. Are there any new developments?
It has also been decided to strengthen youth exchanges, which will significantly contribute to the reconciliation process of the Balkans. Generally speaking, a regular exchange of views and co-operating on common interest projects help overcome resentment and bilateral conflicts. Finally, the declaration signed by Western Balkans leaders should be highlighted, in which they have pledged not to impede each other’s accession efforts. This would have been nigh on unthinkable a year ago! In short, regional integration is functioning better than before, thanks to our active help. This in turn is good for Europe and its citizens.
When you came to office last year, it seemed like further enlargement was off the table. But now it appears that Serbia has been given the green light to open accession negotiations.
Serbia has made truly remarkable progress over the last year, both in terms of internal reforms and the reconciliation dialogue. The participation of Serbian Prime Minister Vu?i? at the Srebrenica commemorations in July, its constructive cooperation with Albania and, lastly, its recent agreement with Kosovo on some key points, should all be acknowledged.
I have personally committed myself, as the Commissioner responsible for enlargement, to making sure that by the end of the year the EU states open the first negotiation chapters with Serbia. This is a matter of credibility, but also of forward thinking, because Serbia is a key player in the region. The signals coming from representatives of the EU member states, in particular the reaction of Germany to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, which they saw as a major hurdle, suggest that an early start to the accession process is on the cards.
How does the agenda look in the coming weeks, what’s been prioritised in the so-called neighbourhood policy?
Very basic for now, dealing with this matter is a process, which will be resolved through strategic patience and persistence. Almost every day there are meetings with representatives of ‘enlargement’ countries, either in Brussels or on-site. In this vein, today I met with the leader of the Turkish opposition party (CHP) for talks. In mid-September, I’m going to Macedonia to personally discuss with Skopje the progress of fundamental reforms and, if necessary, press the issue.
In early October, a new progress report will be presented. This will constitute an important and vital stocktake that will be strong motivation for the Western Balkans and Turkey to press on with further reforms. In regard to neighbourhood policy, I’m no less busy, as crisis management and political reform are both on the agenda. Next week, Ukraine is next up on my list.