Hahn: Carrot for Albania and Macedonia, customs union for Turkey

Western Balkan countries have to take reform steps on their way to accession in the near future, emphasises Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn. [EPA-EFE/STR]

With the Western Balkans accession talks underway, the EU’s enlargement policy is advancing. In the case of Turkey, however, there is a deadlock. In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn comments on the recent developments.

Johannes Hahn has been the Austrian Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations since November 2014.

In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, he explains why the Commission has decided to recommend opening accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia and how, with the help of an amended customs union, it would be able to accommodate the opponents and advocates of the current EU-Turkey course.

According to the latest progress report, Albania and Macedonia can hope for accession negotiations. What is the difficulty with the candidates from the Balkans?

With the country reports, we have presented a clear and comprehensive analysis of the state of preparedness of the Western Balkans. There is generally a positive trend in the Western Balkans, although the pace of reforms varies from one country to another. As pointed out in our strategy for the Western Balkans published in February, progress is needed, notably on the rule of law, fight against corruption, promotion of the investment climate and entrepreneurship as well as the improvement of neighbourly relations. The latter applies not only to Kosovo and Serbia but to all countries in the region.

Originally, it was said that there would be no more accessions to the EU in this term. Now, Serbia and Montenegro face a prospect of joining the bloc no earlier than 2025, meaning in the next legislative term. Why so late?

The date mentioned in our enlargement strategy is purely indicative. It is up to every candidate country to decide if and when the EU accession perspective will become reality. The accession process is based on conditionality: EU membership is only possible if the clearly defined criteria are met and the necessary reforms are implemented. We assess the progress of each country individually. And the principle continues: Quality before speed!

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What does closing the gap in the Balkans mean?

The enlargement of the Western Balkans can only succeed if it is perceived by both sides – the EU and the Western Balkans – as a gain. It is also in the EU’s very own interest: it is about exporting stability to prevent importing instability. It is of the utmost importance for the EU to have politically stable relations, the rule of law, good neighbourly relations and an adequate level of prosperity in our immediate neighbourhood. The multi-affirmed EU accession perspective, accompanied by considerable financial support, is our contribution to making this a reality. Now, it is up to the Western Balkan countries themselves to seize this opportunity.

You yourself have always been particularly committed to Macedonia. What is the current status of this candidate country?

At my suggestion, the Commission decided to recommend opening accession negotiations with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This decision is fully justified. The country has – with the support of the EU – overcome a severe political crisis and has made good progress in implementing important reforms. Efforts to cultivate good neighbourly relations, for example with Bulgaria and Greece, but also with other Western Balkan countries, have been rewarded with today’s recommendation.

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Is there an approximate timetable for the accession talks with the Balkan countries?

In our strategy presented in February, we outline the most important reform steps which the Western Balkan countries have to take on their way to accession in the near future. We also support this reform effort through six priority initiatives.

2018 is a special year for the Western Balkan countries, with two EU Presidencies that actively support their accession perspective. There is also a number of important, high-level meetings, such as the Western Balkans Summit in Sofia in May, which will focus on the implementation of concrete projects; and a summit in London in June, which is particularly dedicated to security cooperation. The Austrian Presidency will also contribute to affirming and realising the EU perspective of the Western Balkans. The countries of the region should use this historically unique opportunity!

The Commission’s findings on the situation in Turkey are very negative. Nevertheless, business is as usual.

An encompassing, factual analysis in our country report shows that Turkey has moved away from the EU with big steps and, unfortunately, no change in this trend is foreseeable. The EU has indeed reacted promptly to this trend: the member states decided that because of massive setbacks in the area of the rule of law, there will be no opening of next chapters at the moment. In addition, pre-accession (IPA) payments have been redeployed or cut. For example, pre-accession aid for Turkey in the 2018-2020 period will be reduced by 40%.

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Just recently, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker held talks with Turkey. Given the fact that Erdogan’s Turkey moves farther and farther away from our understanding of the rule of law, would it not be advisable to make a clear cut instead of pretending to have accession negotiations?

Turkey is still a geostrategically important neighbour, with whom we should continue our cooperation in areas of common interest. The example of the refugee agreement shows that a cooperation makes sense and works when both sides fulfil the terms and conditions made. I am still convinced, that a modernisation of the customs union between EU and Turkey would also bring big benefits for the EU.

Are there considerations for an alternative cooperation offer, and if yes, how could it look like?

It is now up to the leaders of Turkey to clarify in which direction they want to go. They always emphasise that they are still interested in full membership – but for this,  accession criteria have to be met. Here, there will not be and there cannot be any compromises from our side. The ball is now indeed in Turkey’s court. It should also be remembered that we have received the mandate from the member states to lead the accession negotiations in an open-ended way.

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