Hahn: Enlargement stalemate will not slow accession negotiations

Johannes Hahn [European Commission]

Even without further EU enlargement over the next five years, accession prospects drive long overdue structural reforms and promote democratisation, says EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, whose personal goal is to help resolve the “conflict of language” between Greece and Macedonia. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Johannes Hahn is EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations under the Juncker Commission. He previously served as EU Commissioner for Regional Policy under the second Barroso Commission and as Austrian Minister for Science and Research from 2007 to 2010. He is a member of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

Hahn spoke to EURACTIV Germany.

Over the next five years, the EU has planned to put any further accessions on hold. In the Balkans in particular, there are several candidate and aspiring countries. Will these states – above all Serbia – not be disappointed about facing a longer waiting period?

This assessment reflects the reality that none of the countries, who are hoping to join the EU will be ready for accession by 2019. This finding has been confirmed by the progress reports submitted in October. But it does not mean we are slowing negotiations. Quite the opposite. I will do everything in my power, and the EU will continue to offer every possible form of support, to move the necessary reforms forward in these countries.

What will you, as the EU Commissioner in charge, consider most important in the reform process among candidate countries?

Concentrating on reforms in the economic sector, most of all. But at the same time I adhere to the principle of “quality over speed”. The goal should be to prepare countries so well for accession, that enlargement creates clear advantages for the EU that are noticeable for citizens. The EU’s interests must become more of a priority again. Only then, will the now skeptical opinion among many member-states change for the better.

What is your concrete assessment of accession chances for Balkan countries and what are some major obstacles still in view?

Accession prospects are a driver for long overdue structural reforms and promote the democratisation process. It is important that each country define the tempo and dynamics of the accession process for itself. The progress reports show considerable differences in developments. As a result, one cannot speak generally of obstacles, but must look at each country individually.

Serbia and Montenegro have no doubt made good progress, but there are still many areas in both countries, such as the rule of law, where greater efforts are needed.

As Commissioner of Regional Policy, you had an especially good relationship to Greece, which blocked the initiation of accession talks with Macedonia. Will you use your political weight to tip the scale in the other direction?

Yes, I did have a very close connection with Greece during my time as Commissioner of Regional Policy. That is because it was the big “trouble child” at the time, and I visited the country often to support and follow implementation of the reform programme. With personal commitment, expertise, and by building well-functioning relations, one can develop trust and achieve more than simply working from Brussels.

Of course I will use my good relations with Greece in the conflict of language. After 19 years of fruitless negotiations, concrete steps must be made to resolve the conflict, which is seriously hindering accession prospects for one of the countries.

Turkey is a particularly controversial and difficult case. Not only are negotiations at a standstill, there are also the accusations that Turkey is behind schedule on adjusting to European legal norms and that there are many violations of press freedom. What plans do you have for Ankara in the near future?

First, one must recognise that Turkey was given accession prospects a long time ago and that it now has candidate status. We must stand by this, if we hope to take our own principles seriously. I think negotiations with Turkey are in the interest of both sides – both for Turkey and for the EU.

To boost reforms in the areas you mentioned, it would be useful to take a look at chapters 23 and 24 (judiciary and fundamental rights and domestic security). Then, on the basis of a clearly defined roadmap with measurable benchmarks, targeted implementation could take place for reform efforts. But at the same time, opening these chapters requires a unanimous resolution from the member states, which we have not yet reached.

And what future prospects do you see in the relationship between the EU and Turkey?

We are dealing with an open negotiation process – as with all other candidate countries. And like all other candidate and applicant countries, it is in Turkey’s own hands to determine the dynamics of negotiations. But there is no compromise from the EU’s side over the quality. It is clear that Turkey must commit to European standards like press freedom, gender equality, providing the fundamental rights, rule of law, etc. if it hopes to move further toward the EU.

The Mediterranean is at the doorstep of southern European states. That means North African countries like Tunisia and Libya – to name two very different states – could be considered the EU’s neighbours. What should Europe’s task be here?

With regard to the EU’s southern neighbourhood countries, support for internal stability is a priority. Tunisia is currently on a good path and recently concluded presidential elections in a calm and transparent manner, according to the EU’s election observer mission. In contrast, Libya is a crisis-ridden country. Here we must focus on building basic state structures like a judicial system, police force and civil society – and of course humanitarian aid.

This week, you will travel to the first southern partner country, Morocco. Why is this country your first destination in North Africa?

Morocco presents a good example for reforms. Of course much remains to be done, but the progress is encouraging. Among its southern neighbour countries, here the EU has the most well-developed partnership from a qualitative perspective. With my trip to Morocco, which is the first visit to a southern neighbourhood country, I hope to pay tribute to these relations.

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