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Remarks by Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi at the press conference on the revised enlargement methodology

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op woensdag 5 februari 2020.

Today the college has adopted a new methodology for the accession negotiations. This is the first element in a renewed enlargement strategy this new Commission is coming forward with. The second element in our discussions is going to be about launching the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. And the third one is going to be a major economic development plan for the entire region, which we hope that the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May can endorse.

The purpose of today's proposal is to re-establish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans and to make it very clear that for the Commission and for the EU as a whole, it is a top priority to have stability, peace and prosperity in our region. In that, of course, enlargement is a key political project, which is firmly merit-based and has a full membership prospect for the entire region. This is a geo-strategic investment that we all need to make and we hope that the Member States will be partners in this. This is why we have revisited the discussions that we have seen in October that unfortunately did not result in opening accession negotiations for the two countries.

We have been reaching out to try to address the root causes of the failure, while not compromising on any of the principles that underpin the enlargement process. The proposal that you see today is a proposal for a revised accession negotiation methodology. We call it methodology, but maybe the best would be to call it process or procedure. There are four principles on which the whole methodology is based: credibility, predictability, dynamism and stronger political steer.

These are the principles for which we would want to work, these are the principles that we would like to ensure both for our member states and our public, but also for the Western Balkan countries. For the whole process to be more credible for the both of us, it has to be more predictable, more dynamic and more political. It means also that we need to improve and strengthen the process and that our goal continues to be full enlargement and to have these countries welcomed as full Member States of the European Union.

We looked at how to improve the chances of these countries becoming Member States, and we have seen that we have to improve the delivery of the reforms in the region. This is a concern that has been raised by many Member States, not only by those who were critical or who have been opposing, but a much larger number of Member States. We need reforms to last and to work in this region. That will create the freedom for the people, but also a more sustainable, more resilient economy for the entire region.

If I list one by one the principles, what I can tell you is that under the credibility principle, our endeavour is to make it very clear what we mean, what we require from these accession countries and what is it that we offer if they deliver. We want to re-establish solid trust and mutual confidence between the Western Balkans and us and our Member States, but also in our public.

We need to make it clear that if the reforms are further strengthened and mainstreamed, we will be able to deliver also on our side. It also means that we will continue with the merit-based approach and only a merit-based approach, therefore assessment of the progress is key and the reinforcement of the assessment is key.

The stronger political steer would be best served if we have, at all political levels, more constant dialogue with the region, but also if we have more political reflection on the achievements of these countries. Therefore, we would like the leaders of the European Union to have at least an annual debate about the progress that these countries are making; this could be based on the Zagreb Summit.

We would like to include them at top-level, ministerial level engagement, at all areas where these countries are participating fully. For example in the Horizon 2020 when Ministers are discussing in the Council, the future of the Horizon 2020 or the usefulness of the Horizon 2020, these countries should also be invited to be part of the discussion so that they know and see what is required when you are a Member State.

The other element in the political steer is that we have to include more the Member States when it comes to monitoring of the progress. We want to make better use of the association institutions, the association council, the association committee and the mix parliamentary committee. We will have the opportunity to have a real dialogue about the progress made but also about the tasks to be delivered.

Now, the more dynamic process is best characterised by the grouping of the accession chapters. I understand that this is very technical. But if I want to make it clear, what we are doing is that we group the themes, the issues together that belong together. We will have six groups of issues in which we will be conducting these negotiations. It means also that these negotiations will be much more overarching, much more comprehensive. That should also create an incentive on the side of the accession countries to accelerate their reforms and it should also create the possibility to move faster if they deliver faster.

The clustered chapters also bring a reinforcement of the rule of law conditionalities, which means that we will open the accession negotiations with the rule of law cluster and we will close them with the rule of law cluster. This will ensure that this issue will be continuously monitored and looked at during the whole process. Maybe for the Western Balkans a very important offer that we are making with the clustered system is that if they are ready with the reforms by the time we start the negotiations on the cluster, we are ready, as we will only have to discuss the implementation of the acquis.

We are ready on our side to do everything to conclude these chapters that belong to the cluster within one year. This is an offer from our side, but the delivery has to come from the other side. This way we can really speed up things, given that these days we see that it takes six to eight years to close one chapter of the negotiations.

Now, lastly but maybe most importantly: predictability. Predictability means that we have to have clearly defined conditions so that we both know what is required and when it is achieved. This is why we will flash out much more in detail all the criteria and conditions we put to these countries to achieve. This is why we want to involve all the Member States in the monitoring of these achievements. We need them to share their analysis with us, so that we avoid any last minute surprises that we have seen already three times before. This is why it should be more inclusive for them.

I do not hide the fact that one of the most difficult issues when we were putting together the package was that it is clear that in our public opinion and in our Member States there is a very strong call that we need to be able to also reverse the negotiations. When there is no progress or when there is backsliding, clearly we also have to apply similar measures, meaning that we have to make it clear that we can also go backwards. If countries fail to deliver or go back on reforms, on our side similar actions will be taken when it comes to the accession process.

To conclude: After the communication will come a revised set of reports on North Macedonia and Albania - hopefully still this month - and we are working now to accelerate the progress in these two countries, so that we can have a decision on opening of accession negotiations still before the Zagreb Summit.

I think that, at this stage, I stop here and I am happy to answer any of your questions.

Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-184088

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