The European Union needs to strengthen its political dialogue with Turkey at a moment when the candidate country's foreign policy is expanding more quickly than Turkish Airlines is enlarging its global network, EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Štefan Füle is a career diplomat and previously served as Czech ambassador to NATO and Lithuania.
He was speaking to EURACTIV's senior editor, Georgi Gotev, and Christophe Leclercq, its publisher.
Mr. Commissioner, my first question comes from EURACTIV Spain: in view of the difficult economic situation in Europe, some people perceive EU enlargement as 'more mouths to feed'. How would you respond to such opinions?
A family facing a difficult situation is always stronger. And a European Union looking outward and not inward is much more able to find the solution to the economic challenges. Enlargement is a process which as been realised in a number of waves, and we have learned our lessons.
But none of those lessons suggests that enlargement is holding back the economic development of the older member states. In fact, the opposite is true: enlargement is about new opportunities, it is about using the best European approach to solving issues.
Enlargement is also about helping the countries with difficult historic backgrounds to become part of the biggest peace project on our continent. Enlargement is not about 'more mouths to feed', it's about more possibilities to tackle the challenges we face.
I'm sure that people in Spain, a country which joined the EU in 1986 after decades of dictatorship, are in a good position to understand this message. But now we have a Belgian EU Presidency, and enlargement doesn't rank very high on their agenda. The message seems to be: enlargement was a big success with the big wave of 2004, but now it's on the back-burner. Is this assessment correct?
No, I don't think so. Looking at the priorities of the Belgian Presidency I see enlargement as one of those. Indeed, we have spent a number of years looking into the new institutional and constitutional arrangements of the European Union. However, by adopting the Lisbon Treaty we have solved the bottleneck as far as future enlargement is concerned and we have created an institutional opportunity for enlargement to continue.
We have also, since 2006, a clear policy on enlargement, focusing on conditionality, making sure that each candidate can make it when it is ready at more or less 100%. But in addition to the conditionality, the political steering on enlargement is not less important. Political steering is what the Spanish Presidency has been trying to contribute, and this is also what I expect from the Belgian Presidency.
The Belgian Presidency will have the unique opportunity to face a number of important milestones, and not only with the Western Balkans. They will start the accession talks with Iceland, I presume, they will chair the discussions on the opinions on Albania and Montenegro's accession bids, they will see if there is consensus to ask the Commission to prepare the opinion on Serbia.
Hopefully they will be the ones to see if there is a consensus for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to start accession talks. There is also the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo not being left in the cold, and to be addressed specifically.
A number of relevant issues will be touched upon also as far as Turkey is concerned, so in fact I see the Belgian Presidency as rather busy with regard to enlargement. And busy not only in the sense of some general issues, but on real milestones, like the final stage of the accession negotiations for Croatia, for example.
I guess the Belgian Presidency will not only provide the necessary political steering on enlargement, but will help bring concrete results. And this is exactly what is needed to fight what some people call 'enlargement fatigue' among the member states. And what some warn can trigger in response enlargement apathy among aspiring and candidate countries.
You mentioned conditionality, but would you agree that apart from that, size matters? If Turkey were the size of Albania, would conditionality be a smaller obstacle?
The problems and the challenges of course depend on the size of the country, it's obvious. But that doesn't mean that conditionality works differently for a small country and for a big country. The clear message is that it is the same, whether it is a country of five million or of 70-80 million.
Our colleagues from EURACTIV Czech Republic would like to ask you about the Eastern Partnership, the initiative launched under the Czech EU Presidency and one of its major achievements. Don't you think that other presidencies – like the Spanish and Belgian ones – are less interested in the subject? Will it be possible to keep the momentum of the Prague Summit, which launched the initiative?
I think the momentum will be kept, because the Eastern Partnership (EaP) as an initiative is already quite active. But there are two additional elements that underpin the role of the Belgian Presidency. One is that EaP has already brought a number of good results, not only in the case of Ukraine, but also in the case of Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
While we are already at an advanced stage in talks for an association agreement and economic integration agreement with Ukraine, we have already started an association agreement with Moldova and we are about to start such agreements with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
We have moved on economic integration agreements, clarifying what kind of homework needs to be achieved by Moldova and the three countries of the South Caucasus. This is an important issue, because these are comprehensive agreements, much deeper than free-trade agreements: it's about opening the EU acquis to our Eastern neighbours, and particularly in the field of trade and the internal market. Which is in fact delivering on our promise to bring those countries as close to the Union as possible.
There is also the aspect of the financial resources. In the second half of this year and more so early next year, the 350 million euros which had been attributed by the member states to the EaP will find their way to these countries.
This will particularly be in the form of comprehensive institution building, which is to help them strengthen their capacities not only to negotiate their association agreements and economic integration agreements, but also to implement them and to implement reforms, to the benefit of their countries and citizens.
Do you see a rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia upsetting plans that the EU may have for Kiev? Is there a risk that the EU could lose Ukraine?
No, no. I think the EU is interested in a good relationship between Kiev and Moscow, and we think that improving the relationship between these two countries is in fact to the benefit of the Union.
But what matters on the Union's agenda with Ukraine is the country's reform process: it's the quality, the comprehensiveness, the strategic direction of the relations between Ukraine and the EU being pursued by the new Ukrainian administration. It's about that reform process being compatible with the European agenda.
I'm encouraged by both the political determination in Ukraine on one side, and on the insistence that the reforms be indeed compatible with the EU way. Our relations with Ukraine are not in competition with other countries: it's something that can be a win-win situation for everybody.
Russia is also changing a little bit. In some Moscow circles there is an interest in European integration. Could Ukraine be a kind of 'pilot' for Russia, allowing Moscow to learn how to work with the EU?
I hope very much that whatever good progress we can achieve with Ukraine and other EaP countries will be considered as an inspiration for other countries, and particularly Russia.
Russia is a strategic partner: we are trying to negotiate a new institutional framework for our relationship. It is obvious that there are a number of fields where we are only talking, but as a diplomat said, we are talking the talk, but we are not walking the walk.
Whatever we do with Ukraine is not to push Russia aside: on the contrary, it is to show clear interest and determination in the Union's policy towards the Eastern dimension, and Russia there is the obvious strategic partner.
If you take these three large countries, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia – which are very different from one another – a common feature is that all three are frustrated by their lack of influence on EU policy, with which they are confronted and which they may eventually adopt.
The Turks are frustrated about their lack of influence as members of the customs union, the Ukrainians absorb the acquis but they have no say at all, and Russia has no say either. It has some say on security issues, but not on economic matters, and that's one of the reasons why they refuse the Energy Charter. How can we make them feel more comfortable with the acquis communautaire, which does influence their economies?
It's a good question, but the answer is not with a common denominator, but by working specifically, based on its merits, with each of these countries. With Turkey, we have been proceeding with the accession negotiations for some time, but what is lacking there, particularly with regard to the growing importance of Turkey in the region, is the strengthened political dialogue with that country, in parallel to the accession process.
If you look at Turkish foreign policy, it is expanding even faster than Turkish Airlines is expanding its global network. I think it would be in the common benefit and in our interest to find a way of interacting in such a way, so as not to create additional questions, but to find answers to the common challenges. It is an opportunity which needs to be seized.
Turkey's policy of 'zero problems' with its neighbours should be strengthened by 'zero doubt' about the European Union's determination as far as the accession process is concerned and 'zero hesitation' in Turkey about its reform process, because this is indeed the real engine of the accession process.
The fourth element is very relevant in respect to recent events in Turkey – it is 'zero tolerance' on terrorism. And I see the possibility for more intensive cooperation between the EU and Turkey.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit Turkey later this year. We know his ideas about a 'privileged partnership' with Turkey instead of full EU membership. Do you see any chance of a breakthrough on this occasion?
I hope that there is going to be a breakthrough in the sense that we could solve the double credibility issue.
Credibility on the Turkish side, because without Turkey adopting new laws, there would hardly be progress as far as accession negations are concerned. But also credibility on our side, concerning continued commitment to the negotiating framework, adopted by consensus and which stated quite clearly that the goal of this exercise is accession, and that it's an open-ended process, in which the results cannot be guaranteed.
Through commitment to this process, I hope we can reach a certain stage in which Turkey would be indeed ready to assume membership. And I think that this very fact will change public perception a lot. And it would impact on the current debate about other forms of partnership, including the privileged partnership – which would have become an old concept by that time.
You haven't mentioned Cyprus. However, without progress on reunification talks, it appears that there will be nothing left for Turkey to negotiate this year.
I think you are right: the first step of course is the implementation of the additional protocol to the Ankara agreement and the opening of Turkish ports to ships from Cyprus. If this happens, it would widen the framework of the accession process, as it would unblock a number of negotiation chapters.
I see Turkey now supporting the negotiating process in Cyprus, to reach a comprehensive solution. But it is important that this support intensifies and that we indeed, in the months to come and not in the years to come, achieve a comprehensive solution.
The comprehensive solution would take care of that big white elephant which is in the negotiating room. Turkey can become a member of the European Union only based on its normalisation of relations with all EU member states. That's obvious from the very beginning.
I interrupted you before you could outline the framework of relations with Ukraine…
As far as Ukraine is concerned, I presume that the Association Agreement and the economic association agreement we negotiate will create this kind of institutional framework for a more active interaction with Kiev. The first reactions from the new administration we got was that there will be no more automatism for Ukraine to align with EU positions.
It's up to them of course to decide. But I hope very much that this position will open the way for us to work on these issues, so as to have at the end our positions if not the same, at least as similar as possible, instead of narrowing the scope of our foreign policy cooperation.
The economic reform agenda adopted by the Ukrainian government forms a good basis for expanding the cooperation between the country and the EU. By the way, there is a standing offer made to Ukraine for additional twinning projects to help them implement these reforms and make sure they indeed help the country get closer to the European Union.
I am interrupting you again before you have developed your views on Russia, but models of loose governance of world affairs, such as the G20, do not have a parallel in EU affairs. Would this perhaps be a direction to be followed?
Because of the financial difficulties, but also for other reasons, we are trying to reform the institutions we have in our hands, to be able to address the big issues, and the G20 is indeed a good example of cooperation.
We are trying also to create a way for the Union to play a bigger role in the global framework. The president of the European Council is in charge of the group on economic governance and he is expected, based on the input from the Commission and the member states, also to present his views on a number of issues, some of which related to your question, later this year.
Based on that, the EU will look at the contractual arrangements with the neighbours, aspirant countries and strategic partners beyond the current institutional framework, and would try to address it through a European G-whatever the number is. I think it would be in the spirit of sharing the best experience.
Could there be an informal meeting before the G20 meeting, gathering the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, Mr. Van Rompuy and a few others from Eastern and Western Europe, to form a pan-European position for the G20?
Let me not address how it could be set up, but let me address something more important: the synergies that exist, not only within the European Union, but with our partners around.
Europe 2020 is the first strategic document of the European Union with an external dimension. This is the first document which gives an opportunity not only to the enlargement countries, but also to our neighbours, to participate in our goals.
It's the first important step, it should not be the last step. Strengthening confidence in the markets, in the financial institutions, should not stop at the EU's borders, it should go far beyond, and we should be creative and innovative, based on the experience of Europe 2020, also in the institutional framework.