Speech delivered by Alexandr Vondra, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs of the Czech Republic on United Europe - New Challenges Conference ‘Poland and the European Union: Five Years After the Enlargement’ - Warsaw, 30 April 2009.
Ladies and gentlemen, a very good afternoon to you all,
It will not come as a surprise to anybody if I say, that for me it is the continuation of the enlargement process itself that ranks among the most important challenges for the Union in the years to come.
• The EU has not yet quite digested the big-bang enlargement in 2004. We struggle with fears that the institutional balance of the EU has been upset.
• The delays in the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by some Member States, including the Czech Republic, nourish apprehensions that newcomers might cause the integration process to stall.
• The populations in countries who were previously the fiercest proponents of enlargement have widely turned against further EU expansion – a result of a fear that the EU is not quite the same as it used to be.
• In brief, to enlarge the EU will be more difficult in the future than ever before.
At the same time, the importance of enlargement as an instrument for spreading stability and the most efficient foreign policy tool of the EU has grown.
• The Georgian conflict and the gas crisis highlighted the fact that stability in our neighbourhood is far from granted and that the EU cannot avoid bearing the painful consequences of events that take place close to its borders.
• At times of a global economic crisis, which has hit the EU neighbours particularly hard, it is our vital interest to increase the prosperity of countries which receive numerous EU investments.
• In a globalising world in which pooling political and economic resources is a precondition for success, offering a European perspective to our neighbours is a way of ensuring that the EU stays at the table where the main issues in international politics will be decided.
There are two viable responses to this situation:
1) to find alternatives to enlargement that would bring our neighbours closer to the EU
2) to keep the pace of the accession negotiations already in the pipeline.
As for the first option, the EU has not failed to act under the Czech Presidency. Next Friday, the Eastern Partnership will be solemnly launched, as a part of the ENP, at a Summit of the EU27 with the six partner countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The day after, another concept for bringing the EU and its partners closer to each other – without enlarging the EU - will hit the ground running with the Southern Corridor Summit. The Troika Summit with Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan plus Egypt, Iraq and Uzbekistan, taking place in Prague on May 8, should mark the launch of the Southern Corridor as a basis for closer energy cooperation. Energy cooperation should not only result in the diversification of resources and increase the EU’s energy security. It should also spread to other areas of cooperation: building energy infrastructure should bring about a need for transport infrastructure, which in turn will facilitate better people-to-people contact.
As concerns my second point - keeping the enlargement pace. First of all, we need to stay on track with the Western Balkans. It is above all a rigorous test of our ability to push forward with the long-term idea of the re-unification of our continent.
• The current priority number one is to achieve progress in the accession negotiations with Croatia. In this respect, the Czech Presidency together with the other members of the Trio works hard on decoupling the Slovenia-Croatia border dispute from the accession negotiations. We are now eagerly expecting the responses from both countries to the last compromise proposal by the Enlargement Commissioner, Mr. Olli Rehn, concerning an Arbitral Tribunal. It is essential that both countries come to realise their responsibility for the European perspective of the whole of the Western Balkans, which is so crucial for the reconciliation of this profoundly wounded part of our continent.
• Secondly, with EU membership as an ultimate goal, the remaining potential candidates in the Western Balkans should achieve candidate status based on their own merits, depending on making solid progress with their economic and political reforms and fulfilling the necessary conditions and requirements. --- This week Albania has filed its EU membership application with the Czech Presidency. --- Stabilisation and Association Agreements and Interim Agreements have already been signed with six Western Balkan countries, out of which 3 are already in force. One of the important tasks to achieve here is a speedy implementation of the Interim Agreement and the ratification of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia.
• Last but not least, we have to approach the enlargement agenda in the region of the Western Balkans in a broader perspective and beyond the strict definition of accession negotiations. The EU must promote people-to-people contacts by way of visa facilitation and liberalisation or student exchange programmes. Here we are eagerly expecting the evaluation reports from the Commission on the fulfilling of benchmarks set in the visa liberalisation roadmaps. As for student exchange programmes, we are now completing the preparations for the EU Conference on Scholarships for Western Balkan Students to be held in Brussels on May 12.
Besides the Western Balkans, we cannot leave aside our strategic ally on the Bosphorus. The recent conflict in Georgia and the energy crises have once again made it clear that we need Turkey to help us stabilise our neighbourhood and to increase our energy security.
Just as Romano Prodi compared European integration to a bicycle ride – in order to go on, one has to keep a minimum speed, otherwise you fall over - the same applies to the enlargement process and to Turkey in particular. We need to maintain some level of progress. Two chapters per Presidency seem to be the minimum speed.
• For this to succeed, first of all, Turkey must do its homework. I visited Turkey last week and while there is optimism as regards passing the necessary legislation for meeting the benchmarks for the Taxation chapter by the end of the Presidency, the outlook for the Employment and Social Affairs chapter is much more bleak.
• At the same time, within the EU, we should make more of an effort to find a way forward in other chapters, rather than hinder progress. The chapter on Culture/Education, where no formal benchmarks are set, or the Energy chapter, which is hostage to a bilateral dispute, are good examples.
Although the accession negotiation process with Turkey is a long-term goal, we cannot afford to waste any time.
Ladies and gentlemen, as I said at the beginning, the project of further enlargement of the Union is one of the greatest challenges in the upcoming years. On the other hand, it is also an excellent opportunity to shape our common future. We must therefore seize this opportunity, so that the future of Europe remains firmly in our hands.