Austrian Enlargement Commissioner: ‘Turkey is an important partner for us’

Former Commissioner of the Regions Johannes Hahn attended a hearing the European Parliament on Tuesday (30 September) test the Austrian on his new appointment as Commission of Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy. [EP}

Johannes Hahn [EP}

The next five years will not see any new enlargement by the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker stated in his guidelines for the next European Commission. However, during his Parliament hearing on Tuesday (30 September), Enlargement Commissioner-designate Johannes Hahn said there will be no “twiddling of thumbs” either. EURACTIV Germany reports.

On Tuesday (30 September), Johannes Hahn was tested at a hearing in the European Parliament as a part of the process of evaluating new Commissioner-designates.

Austrian Commissioner Hahn was given the portfolio for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement policy.

“You are not going through the process for the first time, after all, because you gathered some experience as Commissioner of Regional Policy,” Christian Democratic MEP Elmar Brok pionted out, opening the round of questions.

“I think Mr. Hahn has a decisive portfolio,” German MEP Brok said after the hearing.

Hahn intends to improve the EU’s profile in the fields of enlargement and neighbourhood policy, the Austrian explained during his opening statement. “The EU must become more visible and more present locally to represent our fundamental interests and act as an indispensable reform partner for our neighbouring countries.”

In his mission letter for the next Commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker was clear: “Following the extensive enlargement of the Union in the last decade, the next five years will be a period of consolidation, with no further enlargement taking place during our mandate. You will be responsible for continuing ongoing enlargement negotiations, notably with the Western Balkans.”

“But that does not mean our activities will remain stagnant”, Hahn said at the hearing on Tuesday. “The opposite is true: My role will be to help the preparation process for countries hoping to become an EU member state – thereby ensuring that all the criteria will be fully satisfied.”

Hahn said that he sees three decisive factors for future enlargement negotiations: Justice and rule of law, economy and a functioning democracy. His motto is: “Quality before speed.”

But there will be no “twiddling of thumbs”, he added. Current activities may even be accelerated in certain areas, the Commissioner-designate assured the Parliament.

European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is a useful framework for sustained involvement in the South and the East, Hahn pointed out. “But of course we must adapt to the changes”, explained Hahn.

For this reason, the Austrian nominee said Juncker has asked him to table recommendations during his first year in office. ENP policies should be more flexible and ensure that the right tools are available in key areas of action, Hahn said. That includes energy, trade and migration, the Commissioner indicated.

In addition, he said he believes strong participation by civil society is needed, including businesses in the process.

Enlargement fatigue

In the hearing’s first question, Hahn was asked whether he would be more of a neighbourhood or an enlargement Commissioner. “Both. You can proceed to the next question,” Hahn answered promptly.

MEPs confronted Hahn with the issue of enlargement fatigue among the public. “Of course we must address this issue, in our own member states as well”, Hahn indicated.

Populations in the member states must be convinced that enlargement also offers advantages for them individually, for growth and for job creation, the Commissioner-designate pointed out. “If you look at where markets in Europe are experiencing development, these are primarily located in the East,” Hahn explained.

Decentralisation beneficial for Ukraine

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine was a central issue of the hearing. “My first priority will be to facilitate the a settlement in the Ukraine crisis,” the Austrian politician said.

The Association Agreement jointly signed by the EU and Ukraine is a milestone, he pointed out, that will lead to stronger political and economic relations.

Regarding the formation of the agreement, Hahn was asked whether he could confirm that the Commission would inform MEPs by usual routes of communication to avoid the latter finding out about changes from the press.

“Nobody is happy with the way it happened,’ Hahn admitted, but all in all, it was an effective measure to bring about a relatively quick ceasefire. “Let’s just look at it as an special situation.”

Hahn was also asked how he views the proposal from President Petro Poroshenko on the decentralisation of power in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“A wonderful proposal,” Hahn said. “Decentralisation is something fundamentally good. It is about giving people the local power to sort out their own affairs and about taking ethnic interests into account. This can contribute to settling the current crisis.”

In the case of eastern Ukraine, things are quite clear, the Commissioner-designate said. “It is about protecting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.”

“As long as this is not reinstated, there can be no relenting towards Russia.” But overall, Hahn said everything is on a good path, albeit a fragile one.

He explaind that it is important to stay in contact with Russia, and continue regular exchange. “We must prove to our Russian colleagues that neighbourhood policy should not be interpreted as a means of threatening Russia.”

Turkey is “an important partner”

Turkey was another focus of Tuesday’s hearing. “It is important to regard Turkey as an important partner of Europe,” said Hahn.

“We must have an interest in further deepening our relations with Turkey and improving them.”

Here, he indicated his plans to work more intensively. The EU must be an anchor and help make sure that reforms take place in Turkey, the politician explained. In that sense, Hahn said he sees himself as a pragmatic.

“Turkey is an important partner for us and, from Turkey’s perspective, we are by far the most important partner,” Hahn explained.

“Turkey has and should have a lively interest in maintaining sensible, stable, organised and future-oriented relations with the EU,” the Commissioner-designate emphasised.

On the other hand, the EU’s negotiation framework is currently open-ended with regard to future Turkish membership, he indicated. But that is the position of the Council, which Hahn said he must adhere to.

Negotiations will only progress if Turkey’s leadership chooses to promote fundamental rights and a continuation of the reform agenda, the Commissioner-designate explained.

Asked whether he viewed Turkey’s justice system as independent, Hahn said: “It is absolutely unacceptable that a person be thrown into prison for something related to freedom of opinion. You can be certain that I will address this issue in talks with Turkey.” If answers are not satisfactory, Hahn said, “we must see how we will react”.

Western Balkans gradually “moving forward”

The Austrian Commissioner-designate often returned to the issue of the Western Balkans.

Enabling stronger dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina would be a priority, Hahn said. “States in the Western Balkans must be better connected to each other. The region cannot be allowed to become a blank spot on the map for trains, streets and energy networks.”

Hahn described Serbia’s reform process as positive. “Over the past few months, Serbia has shown considerable dedication.”

Although surprising for some, the new government has been very involved in the process, the Austrian said.

As soon as a new government takes office in Kosovo, Hahn said he hopes dialogue can be continued. Among officials, talks have “fortunately” continued.

Five countries currently do not recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state. Hahn said a dynamic has taken hold, that will not stop at these five countries. “I think it is being gradually set in motion.” But at the moment conditions are not satisfactory, the Commissioner-designate indicated.

A déjà-vu experience

Shortly afterwards, Hahn described the hearing as a positive experience of déjà-vu. Already during his first hearing, the Austrian said the process felt less like a hearing and more like an exchange.

“My wish for Europe and for the European neighbourhood is gigantic ‘brain circulation’,” Hahn said. “That people can move freely, decide freely and pursue their opportunities where they want to pursue them. If we can come a bit closer to that in the next five years, then we have contributed greatly to history.”


“The European Union needs a very determined Commissioner to face the many challenges in our neighbourhood, East and South, and in the enlargement countries. Johannes Hahn demonstrated at today’s Hearing that he has the competences and commitment to work hard in the interests of European citizens and the aspirations of our neighbours”, said Cristian Preda MEP, EPP Group Spokesman in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, reflecting on Hahn’s performance at his Hearing in his capacity as Commissioner-Designate for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. 

“In the EPP Group, we believe that Europe needs to create a ring of friends at its borders and respond to the aspirations of the people to the East and the rapidly-evolving political situation in the South. We stand firmly by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova’s European aspirations. We strongly welcome Mr Hahn’s vision for a reinforced and redesigned neighbourhood policy”, added Preda.

He also welcomed the Commissioner-Designate’s commitment to the preparation of the further enlargement of the EU: “The enlargement policy proved to be the single most effective foreign policy tool of the EU. European ideals inspire hope, prospects and solidarity among the people. At the same time, the EU must avoid overstretching and therefore strengthen its integration capacity. We need to make sure that future enlargements take place in optimal conditions, even if this implies a temporary break. Johannes Hahn has clearly shown today that we will respect our commitments. The European vocation of the Western Balkans is beyond any doubt.”

“We believe Johannes Hahn is well prepared and undoubtedly committed to his new responsibilities. We are happy to support him”, concluded Preda.

Member of the European Parliament, Marietje Schaake (ALDE/D66) wants the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement to initiate a fresh start in the relationship between Turkey and the European Union. Today, Commissioner-designate for EU Enlargement Johannes Hahn is being heard by the European Parliament. Jean-Claude Juncker, who will head the European Commission, said earlier that there will be no new enlargement in the next five years. Schaake thinks that a freeze of the accession process is an unhelpful political signal: "The trajectory towards EU membership is an important means to improve the rule of law in candidate countries such as Turkey. By stating that the EU will freeze expansion, we lose the incentive for reform, and thus credibility."

To resolve the crisis in Iraq and Syria, and for the coalition against IS, Europe is seeking cooperation with Turkey. This is understandable, but should not be used as an excuse to ignore the current state of the rule of law in Turkey. The rule of law and the separation of powers have been under increasing pressure in Turkey. Fundamental freedoms are put under pressure. It must be clear that Europe expects Turkey to democratize. Schaake: "At the same time, in order to be credible, the EU has to commit to Turkey. That is why we need an ambitious Commissioner, who will take the accession negotiations with Turkey and other candidate Member States seriously. First and foremost, the negotiations need to start with Chapter 23 and 24, which deal with fundamental freedoms and the rule of law."


Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, announced the distribution of portfolios among his new team on 10 September.

Among the new Commissioners, due to take up their posts on 1 November, are 18 former (prime) ministers. The President has announced that the new Commission will be "very political".

The new Commission must now be approved by the European Parliament, who will interview the Commissioners between 29 September and 7 October.

During these two weeks of hearings, the 27 Commissioners will be interviewed by MEPs from relevant parliamentary commissions.

The European Parliament must then accept or reject the whole team.