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Towards a more credible and secure European Union and neighbourhood

Met dank overgenomen van Sloveens voorzitterschap Europese Unie 2e helft 2021, gepubliceerd op woensdag 22 december 2021, 8:01.

Towards a more credible and secure European Union and neighbourhood

During the Slovenian Presidency, the Council has played an important role in ensuring security in the EU in relation to the situation in Afghanistan and at the Belarus border. Significant progress has also been made on the common EU migration and asylum policy, on Croatia joining the Schengen area, and on reaffirming the European perspective for the Western Balkans partners.

Joint response to the situation in Afghanistan and at the Belarus border

The EU promptly gave a united response to developments in Afghanistan. The Slovenian Presidency organised an extraordinary meeting of home affairs ministers, who unanimously adopted a joint statement on the EU’s common response to the situation in Afghanistan and on potential impact on the security and migration situation in the EU. The ministers advocated the stabilisation of the situation in the region, provision of humanitarian aid to the vulnerable, and support to third countries hosting large numbers of migrants and refugees. This was the first time in a long time that the Council could issue a united position on migration. This firm, united European voice is one of the reasons we are not currently experiencing the increased migratory pressure from Afghanistan that seemed imminent before the meeting. Following the joint statement, a counter-terrorism action plan was adopted and a common approach for enhanced security checks at the EU’s external borders was endorsed.

Many ministers have discussed solutions to the humanitarian crisis and it was also the topic of an informal meeting of defence and foreign affairs ministers in Slovenia. The ministers agreed that dialogue with Afghan representatives after the Taliban seizure of power would be conditioned on compliance with five benchmarks. The ministers of culture discussed the impact of the Taliban regime on the Afghan cultural sector and called for the humane treatment of the most at-risk groups of Afghan artists.

The home affairs ministers also held an extraordinary meeting within the framework of the Council’s crisis response mechanism, where they strongly condemned Belarus’ attempts to instrumentalise people for political purposes and expressed solidarity with the affected countries at the EU’s external border with Belarus. They supported additional funding, human resources and technical assistance and an increase in reception capacities. The Slovenian Presidency, together with the European Commission and EU agencies, has closely and continuously monitored the situation. The EU responded to hybrid threats with sanctions in the area of visa policy. The Council adopted a decision partially suspending the application of the EU‑Belarus visa facilitation agreement.

Croatia ready to join the Schengen area

During the Slovenian Presidency, the Council unanimously concluded that Croatia has fulfilled all the conditions for entry into the Schengen area. The decision is the first formal step towards the Council’s final decision on the enlargement of the Schengen Area.

Strengthening EU’s migration, asylum and internal security policies

At an informal meeting in Slovenia, ministers demonstrated the political will for gradual progress in developing a common EU migration and asylum policy, especially on politically less sensitive legislative acts, such as the Eurodac regulation on the registration of persons entering the EU. Although the EU member state positions on the pact differed on the issues of responsibility and solidarity, work on all legislative acts at the expert level has continued intensively. At the December meeting, ministers expressed their wish for gradual progress in the negotiations on the Pact on Migration and Asylum. Ministers agreed that the calculations and simulations of EASO and the European Commission, which were discussed in the various working bodies of the Council, have contributed to a proper understanding of the burden migration creates for EU member states. Conclusions on the need to recognise secondary movement and return as burdens will be submitted to the incoming French Presidency for further work.

The rise in terrorist threats and the changed security situation call for greater protection of the EU’s critical infrastructure, which is essential for the functioning of the EU and its economy. The Council thus adopted a general approach on the directive on the resilience of critical entities. These entities will need to be able to resist and recover from natural or other disasters, terrorist attacks or public health emergencies.

In order to strengthen security in the EU, we need to strengthen the cooperation of EU member states and EU agencies (Europol, Eurojust, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and Frontex) with Interpol. In July, the Council therefore authorised the European Commission to negotiate on cooperation with Interpol in the areas of law enforcement and access to Interpol databases on stolen or lost documents.

European perspective of the Western Balkans reaffirmed

A credible continuation of the EU enlargement process was a foreign policy priority of the Slovenian Presidency. At the December meeting of the General Affairs Council, conclusions on enlargement and stabilisation and association process, proposed by the Slovenian Presidency, were adopted. Adopting these conclusions is the main foreign policy achievement of the Slovenian Presidency. The text adopted is balanced and ambitious and reaffirms the Council's commitment to enlargement, focusing on the continued implementation of reforms by the Western Balkans partners. Intergovernmental Conferences were held with Montenegro and Serbia in the margins of the General Affairs Council. In both cases this is the second Intergovernmental Conference since the Council approved the revised enlargement methodology. For Serbia, it resulted in the opening of Cluster Four - Green agenda and sustainable connectivity - of its accession negotiations. Further progress in accession negotiations will depend in particular on the commitment of Montenegro and Serbia to implement the necessary reforms. Slovenia will continue its efforts to accelerate the EU enlargement process and to find a solution that would allow the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.

One of the key priorities of the Slovenian Presidency was the cooperation with Western Balkans partners. To this end, Slovenia hosted the EU‑Western Balkans summit in October, the largest event of the presidency. At the Summit, the EU leaders adopted the Brdo Declaration, with which they reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and reconfirmed their commitment to the enlargement process, with which the Western Balkans partners have aligned themselves. The declaration also includes a commitment to holding regular EU‑Western Balkans summits. By organising the Summit, Slovenia sent a clear message to the region about a shared future, which was affirmed by involving the Western Balkans partners in the discussions within the Conference on the Future of Europe, another important achievement of the Slovenian Presidency.

The Brdo Declaration also highlights the deepening of sectoral cooperation and the reducing of the development gap between the EU and the region. Strengthening the connectivity of the EU and the region in transport, energy and digitalisation, as well as sustainable development, environmental sustainability and green technologies, is of particular importance for the economic development of the countries of the region. The Council adopted a seven-year Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III), with a total budget of almost 14.2 billion euro to be received by beneficiary countries (the Western Balkans and Turkey).

The Slovenian Presidency has, among other things, decisively contributed to the adoption of the Western Balkans Declaration on ensuring sustainable labour market integration of young people. Western Balkans partners will receive EU funding to implement Youth Guarantee schemes, which will help around 31 million young people in the region to further their education, find traineeships, internships and first employment.

During the Slovenian Presidency, the Western Balkans partners participated in numerous events and areas such as strengthening police cooperation and strengthening resilience to hybrid threats, supporting the accession to the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, and the preparation of Slovenia's project for regional cooperation in forestry and hunting in the Western Balkans. EU home affairs ministers, the Western Balkans partners and the United States adopted joint statement on the prevention, detection and investigation of child sexual abuse and exploitation and Council conclusions on stepping up cross-border police cooperation in the area of missing persons, one of the more challenging areas of police work.

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