Commissioner Johannes Hahn on the Prospects of EU Integration

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On April 20 the German Marshall Fund in Washington hosted Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for EU Enlargements Negotiations and EU Neighbourhood, for a discussion focused on the EU’s relations with its neighbors in the Western Balkans, Turkey, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus and on the process of reforms and the prospects of greater EU integration. The Commissioner highlighted Western Balkan countries and Turkey in the aftermath of the release of the annual EU Commission's progress reports on April 17. The EU Commission announced a new Western Balkans Strategy on February 6, 2018, opening up the possibility of countries in the region joining the EU starting in 2025.

The European Commission released two reports on April 17 on Turkey and Western Balkans countries. Based on those reports what is the current assessment of the EU Commission regarding progress in Western Balkan countries as these countries look prospectively at EU membership? What are the priority areas for Western Balkans in order to meet EU criteria?  What steps is the EU taking to roll out its new Western Balkans strategy

For the Western Balkans, there is overall good progress, even if the individual countries are at different places. Two countries, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania, have made particularly good progress with regard to priority reforms. That is why the Commission recommended opening accession negotiations with both countries. This recommendation needs to be endorsed by member states with unanimity. While acknowledging the progress made, we point to the big challenges that still need to be tackled by all Western Balkans countries, especially in the areas of rule of law, fight against corruption and organized crime, competitiveness of their economies, and good neighborly relations.

Our Western Balkans Strategy, adopted in February, confirms the EU perspective of the whole region and provides good guidance on the next steps. As for the latter, our strategy lists six flagship initiatives by means of which the European Commission will support the reform efforts of the Western Balkans on their EU path. Not to mention the considerable financial support provided by the EU via the pre-accession assistance (IPA). But to be crystal clear, the enlargement process is based on the merits of each individual country and progress is measured on the basis of clearly defined criteria. Thus, the pace of progress is in the countries' own hands. It is important that all political actors and the civil society take ownership of this. EU accession is a transformation process which comprises all parts of society. It is not enough to adopt EU legislation; the reforms based on this new legislation must be implemented, reflected in a credible track-record. This is also what citizens expect and deserve. To believe in the positive impact of enlargement they have to see and feel concrete benefits already during the accession process. 

The renewed confirmation of the EU perspective of the Western Balkans is a driver of reforms in the region and as such also in the genuine interest of the European Union. Our pro-active Enlargement Policy is an investment in our own security and stability: It is better to export stability than to risk importing instability. Enlargement will only happen if it is a win-win situation for both sides. The EU will accept new member states only if they have demonstrated that they implement and actually live EU values, that their economies can cope with the requirements of the EU's internal market and that all border conflicts in the region are settled. That is why the European Commission applies the principle of quality before speed. On the other hand, the member states themselves must adapt to being able to integrate new members. This is exactly what President Macron referred to in his key note speech in the European Parliament: The EU must reform before accepting new members. And this internal reform process is already on its way. We are working on proposals to make the EU’s decision-making process more efficient.

The Commission’s recent report on Turkey is less focused on progress or an EU perspective for Ankara but on the current internal state of affairs in Turkey that has raised serious concerns in EU member states about Turkey’s democracy.  Is there a new course being charted for EU–Turkey relations and cooperation, including a greater focus on trade and security? Has the last year altered your thinking and the Commission’s about Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership and the backsliding of democracy in Turkey

Our country report on Turkey presents a comprehensive and factual analysis about the state of play of reforms in Turkey. The result is sober: Turkey has unfortunately moved even farther away from the EU over the reporting period, the last one and a half years. There has been further backsliding in the crucial area of rule of law, with thousands of journalists, academics, lawyers and judges, teachers, and state officials arrested or detained, without access to free trial which is a fundamental right as well as the presumption of innocence. We acknowledge in the report the difficult situation Turkey is facing since the attempted coup, but the reaction has been anything else than proportionate. 

If Turkey wishes to maintain its status as a candidate country as it claims, it must accept that it is assessed according the EU standards. This is a process which applies to all candidate countries; the criteria are clearly defined and known to Turkey. It is therefore up to Turkey to decide in which direction it wants to move and implement the necessary actions. The EU member states have reacted to this extremely worrying state of play by taking the decision not to open any further negotiation chapter with Turkey. Our country report with its very critical assessment will not lead to changes of this position. This means that there can only be progress if there is a substantial change of policies in Turkey, establishing the checks and balances which are essential for any democratic development and for the respect of rule of law.

Apart from the critical assessment of Turkey’s serious backsliding in the rule of law and fundamental rights areas, our report acknowledges Turkey’s continued commitment to hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. This is why the Commission has proposed that the EU delivers the second tranche of our financial assistance, which amounts to 3 billion euros in addition to the first 3 billion euros already paid and contracted. 

It is also clear that Turkey is and will remain an important neighbor for the EU and we are ready to intensify our cooperation in areas of common interest such as migration, energy, trade, and security. Having said this, we will have to monitor closely the further developments in Turkey, with the state of emergency just prolonged again and with early elections called, with a view to implement the constitutional amendments about which we, as well as the Council of Europe, have already expressed our concerns. 

How have you and the EU Commission adapted to respond to these challenges and are there success stories or lessons learned that will help strengthen the EU’s present and future response to these issues — particularly in a neighborhood that remains unstable? 

With regard to the European Neighbourhood Policy, I have initiated already in the first year of my mandate a comprehensive review to adapt this policy better to the increasing challenges in a very fragile region. This reform allows us to apply a differentiated and tailor-made approach in the cooperation with our partner countries. It respects the level of closeness they wish to have and, of course, the different state of preparedness of each country. In the Eastern Partnership region we have efficient instruments of cooperation with the Association and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA). They allow a very close cooperation in crucial political and economic areas. Ukraine and Georgia as frontrunners are using this partnership proactively by participating in many EU programs such as Erasmus+ and Horizon and by using the opportunities the potential of the free trade agreements.

In the South, we are working with tailor-made partnerships due to the very heterogeneous nature of the region, with Association Agreements and Priority Partnerships in place. Tunisia is the country with which we have the closest relationship. It is a privileged partnership honoring the impressive progress the country has made also in terms of democratic development. It is important now to support Tunisia with its reform agenda in order to stabilize its economy, to foster social cohesion, and to support the business environment in order to push investments. We will have the opportunity to take a step further in our partnership on May 15 on the occasion of the Association Council with Tunisia.

The Syria conference that recently took place in Brussels is dedicated to support the UN-led efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria, as well to provide more efficient financial and humanitarian support to Syria and the countries which are most heavily burdened by hosting Syrian refugees: Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. 

As is the case with enlargement, our main objective in the neighborhood is to stabilize the region by means of close cooperation in areas where we face common challenges such as security, migration, and by providing support for socioeconomic reforms. All progress our partner countries achieve will benefit the EU as well by reducing security risks and the pressure of migration.

The annual spring meetings in Washington are a good opportunity to raise the attention of the international community to the EU’s work in both areas of my competence, Enlargement and European Neighborhood, and to coordinate our important support work with the international financial institutions. It is evident that global challenges such as migration, climate change, demographic developments, and the threats of terrorism and organized crime can only be tackled through cooperation at the broadest level.