Štefan Füle, the European Union’s commissioner-designate for enlargement, breezed through his parliamentary hearing on 12 January by strategically defining his mandate and saying he will treat Turkey’s EU entry bid fairly.
If confirmed, the experienced Czech diplomat is likely to use both sticks and carrots to help his revamped portfolio, which combines both the EU’s enlargement and neighbourhood policies, to extend Europe’s influence in the world.
In his opening speech, the Czech candidate said he sees enlargement as “much more than a policy portfolio”. He pointed to the ‘big bang’ enlargement wave in 2004, which he said had shown EU membership could unify divided or unstable regions.
Füle also stressed that his actions would significantly assist Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, declaring that they would work together for the common good of the EU.
He nonetheless underlined that he would be accountable solely to the European Parliament, whilst Ashton would answer to both Parliament and the EU’s member states.
Revealing the guiding principles behind his policy thinking, Füle said he would develop tailor-made relations with countries applying for EU membership as well as with those in its wider “neighbourhood” (EURACTIV 15/10/2009).
The would-be commissioner stated that the biggest problem with enlargement so far had been a lack of communication, not a lack of delivery.
His proposed solution is to make enlargement “more political” by encouraging EU politicians to return to their home countries and explain the benefits of enlargement.
He also anticipated possible questions by clearly affirming that his commitment to neighbourhood policy would be shared equally between the Mediterranean and Eastern regions.
Continuing negotiations with Turkey
It was clear from the outset that Turkey was going to be the major test case for the commissioner-designate.
Füle clearly stated his intention to “proceed with the negotiation process with Turkey”. The statement can be seen as an implicit refusal to explore alternative paths to membership, such as the ‘privileged partnership’ put forward by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (EURACTIV 25/11/09).
MEPs have repeatedly expressed concern about the application of the Ankara Protocol, a document signed by Turkey in 2005 which extends the customs union to the entire EU, including Cyprus (EURACTIV 24/11/2009).
Turkey still refuses to trade directly with the Republic of Cyprus, which represents a substantial stumbling block in the negotiations.
When asked how he intended to address the problem, Füle said he would maintain pressure on Turkey. He also pointed to ongoing negotiations between Northern Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and Cyprus President Demetris Christofias as a possible way out of the impasse (EURACTIV 05/01/10).
A variety of other questions were asked about Turkey with regard to human rights, the protection of minorities and freedom of speech and religion, but Füle skilfully stressed that Ankara would be judged on its progress and not from a biased viewpoint.
Western Balkans: The next enlargement wave
Pressed to comment on the Western Balkans, where the EU’s next wave of enlargement is due to take place, Füle admitted that Bosnia-Herzegovina remains the most problematic item on the EU agenda.
The last reform package put on the negotiating table by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg failed to win consensus. The situation is now deadlocked, which risks deepening ethnic divisions still further (EURACTIV 21/10/09).
Füle was cornered by MEPs on this point and admitted that the EU needed to change the pace and intensity of the negotiations. “Bosnia cannot proceed in a business-as-usual fashion,” he said.
The commissioner-designate also commented positively on Serbia’s accession bid, filed in January, claiming that “indeed Serbia has come a long way and that it appears to be now more than ever set on the right European path”.
Nonetheless, the Kosovo issue remains a significant hurdle and, as in light of previous experience, he will not push the EU to admit accession candidates with unresolved territorial disputes, he said.
The Czech diplomat underlined that he would not take Croatia’s accession for granted. “All the chapters of the acquis have to be respected, no-one excluded,” he said, referring to the EU’s 80,000 pages of existing legislation.
Taking the same tack, he touched upon Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, sending encouraging signals to all three and underlining that he would try his best to end Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece.
Russia, Eastern dimension and frozen conflicts
Subtly hinting at his communist past, MEPs tried to corner Füle over his vision of EU-Russia relations, referring specifically to the Union’s Eastern neighbours that used to be under Soviet rule.
Füle convincingly refuted the notion of ‘spheres of influence’ in which Europe and Russia compete to wield power in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. He said he rather saw a future in which those countries were in a position to be masters of their own fortunes.
The era of “zero-sum games [with Russia] is over,” he said. “We need to move to win-win situations.”
Some MEPs, however, pointed to situations where European and Russian interests cannot be easily reconciled, such as in Georgia. Füle backtracked on this point, claiming that the EU would not negotiate its principles and would press Russia to comply with its international obligations.
Füle said he kept “an open mind” about Ukraine’s possible future as an EU member but said relations were best addressed by the ‘Eastern Partnership’, an initiative launched in 2009 by the Czech EU Presidency.
On Belarus, Füle said he would continue to encourage reforms in Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’, but only in exchange for tangible advances with respect to civil liberties.
MEPs asked the Czech diplomat to outline his views on Europe’s ‘frozen conflicts’ in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. In response, Füle reiterated his stick-and-carrot approach, placing further emphasis on preventive measures.
With regard to North African countries, the commissioner-designate stressed that progress towards closer EU ties could also be halted should neighbouring countries appear to consistently breach human rights.
Answering a question on his communist past and his studies at Moscow’s MGIMO diplomatic school, Füle admitted that “everyone has a personal history”.
But he said he distanced himself from the system once he gained the maturity to understand its deficiencies.
“I hope to be judged for what I have done in the last twenty years. That is clear,” he said. This statement was followed by a round of applause, giving an indication of his chances of winning the Parliament’s approval for the portfolio.