Enlargement matters because it reinforces peace and stability in Europe. It is in the European Union's strategic interest to take the enlargement process forward on the basis of the agreed principles and conditions and the renewed consensus on enlargement.
Our enlargement policy shows how we can turn serious challenges on our doorstep into opportunities: opportunities for a more secure and prosperous Europe.
The enlargement process helps us to better achieve our own policy objectives in a number of areas that are key to economic recovery and sustainable growth. These include dealing with the economic crisis, promoting the objectives of the 2020 reform agenda, and making the European Union a safer place. The process also lets us focus on sectors of particular interest including transport and energy which are essential for our future prosperity.
The enlargement policy it is about pulling our weight on the world stage. It enables the European Union to meet the challenges of a shifting, multi-polar world, in which we need to continue projecting our values and interests beyond our borders. A Union that builds cooperation between former rivals, while upholding the highest standards of human rights, will maintain the magnetic soft power needed to shape the world around it.
The challenges which the countries of the region face on their path towards European Union membership are clear. To undertake the necessary political economic, legal and institutional reforms to meet the Copenhagen criteria.
The challenges on the European Union side are equally clear. We need to respect the commitments we have made and be ready and prepared to accept new member states when the criteria are fulfilled.
Only if both sides are 100% credible, can we meet our own challenges and, just as importantly, help our partners meet theirs.
For Member States, credibility of the enlargement process means rigorous conditionality towards the applicants. It means that a candidate country is only recommended to join the European Union once it is fully prepared.
For the candidate and potential candidate countries, credibility is about their tangible European perspective. We must provide them with a framework in which they can achieve real change, real reforms and real results.
On both sides, public opinion will play a vital role.
Reforms in the region need the support of its citizens. This support is stronger when the European Union is credible in its own support for Accession.
Accepting new Member States needs the support of the current Member States' citizens. This will be more forthcoming if the acceding countries are credible in having met the conditions.
On the side of the European Union, the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty is a vital element which increases our credibility. By removing the institutional bottleneck, it ensures that the European Union can pursue its enlargement agenda, while maintaining the momentum of European integration.
For the countries concerned, credibility is gained not through simply ticking boxes about legislative approximation. It is built through a track record of credible reform and implementation.
Only well established track records in these areas can guarantee that the reforms undertaken will bring the expected changes and benefits to society. It will also remove the need for the European Union to consider a cooperation and verification mechanism after accession.
In this way we can credibly present to the citizens of the European Union that the country is ready.
Over the last year we have seen some notable progress towards the European Union across the enlargement countries: from visa liberalisation to constitutional reform, from implementing the SAA to the granting of candidate status and the opening accession negotiations.
This progress provides the foundations for further advances in the year ahead.
There are some issues which apply almost across the board: judicial reform and the reform of public administration, the fight against organised crime and corruption. Efforts have been made and we see the first results but more will be required in 2011. We need effective track records if we are to be credible.
Freedom of expression and of the media remains a concern in most enlargement countries.
Bilateral issues need to be solved by the parties concerned, in a good neighbourly spirit and taking overall EU interests into account.
Regional cooperation is an essential element of the Stabilisation and Association process. It should not be undermined by divergences over Kosovo.
Following the UN General Assembly Resolution, the EU will facilitate a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina to promote cooperation, to achieve progress on the path to the EU and to improve the lives of people. This is an important opportunity, not just for bilateral relations but for the region as well as the regional co-operation as a whole.
Visa liberalisation - has seen substantial progress but effective implementation of the systems in place is essential.
Co-operation with the ICTY is an essential element of the accession process for the states concerned.
In all of these areas credibility will be built on effective track records.
Now, if I may briefly turn to individual countries:
The Opinions on Albania and Montenegro took into account the progress which each of them had made, while being realistic about what else needs to be done.
In line with our approach based on credibility, we define precise priorities in the Opinions, providing each country with clear guidance of what needs to be done. We will assess progress made on the key priorities in the 2011 enlargement package.
With Croatia, The Commission considers that negotiations should be concluded once Croatia has met all outstanding closing benchmarks, in particular in the field of judiciary and fundamental rights. Credible track records of implementation and enforcement are essential. This will remove the need for the EU to consider a cooperation and verification mechanism after accession.
The quality and credibility of the results of the accession process with Croatia are essential for the whole region.
By advancing in the fulfilment of benchmarks, as well as the requirements specified in the Negotiating Framework, Turkey will be able to accelerate the pace of negotiations. It is now urgent that Turkey fulfils its obligation of full non-discriminatory implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement.
In the absence of progress on this issue, the Commission has recommended that the EU maintains its measures from 2006. This will have a continuous effect on the overall progress of the negotiations.
Yesterday we started the screening process with Iceland. First chapters could be opened before the summer break next year. Iceland will need to address existing obligations, such as those identified by the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA) under the EEA Agreement.
For the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue is essential. Once this is in place we believe that the path to open accession negotiations will be clear.
For Serbia in addition to the domestic reform agenda, a constructive attitude towards Kosovo’s participation in regional trade and cooperation is important. Cooperation needs to be strengthened with the EULEX rule of law mission with respect to the north of Kosovo. Next week I will be in Belgrade to hand-over the EC Questionnaire a step in preparing our Opinion on the country's membership application.
Bosnia and Herzegovina urgently needs to speed up reforms. Aligning the constitution with International standards is essential. Similarly progress towards meeting the objectives and conditions which have been set for the closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR).
In Kosovo, major challenges remain as regards the rule of law, including public administration and the judiciary. More needs to be done to tackle corruption, organised crime and money-laundering. Dialogue and reconciliation between communities and the protection and integration of minorities requires further attention.
A successful enlargement process brings benefits to the European Union and its citizens as a whole.
It is a process which has to date been successful. For this success to continue it needs to remain credible and even enhance its credibility.
100% credibility is about fulfilment of the conditions and commitments made. I have briefly outlines the main challenges which the aspiring countries face, and our hopes for progress in the year ahead.
For our part we, the European Commission, have proposed a strategy which will reinforce the credibility of this process, making it more effective and beneficial for us all.
We are committed to making this work. Its ultimate success however depends upon national efforts, upon national politicians, upon you.
I am certain that we will all rise to this challenge to the benefit of all our citizens.