Newsletter 1/2010 - From Brussels angle

Interview with Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy

“The RCC, as a unique regional organisation, is well-placed to consult with the governments of the region on ways to further their European integration“

Commissioner Füle, what are the main challenges today facing the Western Balkan countries and Turkey on their road to the European Union?

The Western Balkans and Turkey have achieved great progress to-date in their path towards the EU. We see it with Croatia, which is in the final stage of its accession negotiations with the Union, with the applications for membership from Montenegro, Albania and Serbia, with the progress made by Turkey. However, we should not be complacent: the pace of reforms has to be kept up and even accelerated. The Western Balkans and Turkey have still substantial work ahead in meeting the established criteria and conditions. Challenges include the rule of law, sustainable economic development, and enhancing their administrative capacity.

What are the main benefits of eventual EU membership for those countries?

Just look at the 12 countries which recently joined the EU, including my own country: their transformation is a convincing enough argument! On one level, we are seeing the promotion of the European project – which cannot be achieved without South East Europe. Countries joining the EU know that they can rely on the solidarity of their partners. On a more practical level, the benefits for the citizens are tangible: a better standard of living, access to a common market with 500 million consumers, freedom to travel and settle throughout the Union, in one word, being part of the European family. Of course, you have to remember that the benefits are not gained overnight, and the road to accession demands a lot of hard work.

Do you think that principal ideas and benefits of membership in the EU are recognized enough among the population in the region, and what more do you think can be done by the authorities to bring those ideas closer to the people?

I believe that the people are united in their desire to join the EU, and are quite aware that benefits and challenges alike will accompany this process. But I would like to maybe clarify one thing: the reforms that countries undertake in view of their membership are very much reforms needed for the sake of their development and of higher living standards for their people. It is therefore extremely important that countries seeking accession to the EU take full ownership of the reforms needed to reach this goal.

How can regional cooperation contribute to the enlargement process, and how do you see the role of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) in this context? Do you think that the RCC activities could speed up the countries’ readiness to join the EU and at the same time increase public awareness of the benefits and challenges of EU enlargement? 

The Western Balkans region has a heavy historical baggage that needs overcoming, dealing with. Regional cooperation is the answer. It is a positive development in itself, not only as part of the European integration process. It is also a key element of this process, and this is why it is included as a separate part in our Progress Reports every year. Regional cooperation is the essence of European integration: we cannot imagine European unity without cooperating with our neighbours and partners to find common solutions to common problems. This is the same for the Western Balkans: the most efficient way to solve problems, including those relating to European integration (for example, in justice and home affairs), is to solve them jointly.

The setting-up and the first two years of operation of the Regional Cooperation Council marked a big step for the region achieving ownership in the advancement of cooperation. The RCC can play, and does play, an important role in raising awareness of the need for reforms, by its organisation of workshops, participation in conferences, etc. This is why we are working with the RCC, in order to find ways to increase its efficiency. As for speeding up reforms, the RCC, as a unique regional organisation with an overall view of regional development, is well-placed to consult with the governments of the region on ways to further their European integration process.

Is there an enlargement fatigue among the EU member states or is it overshadowed now by the current economic crisis? How does the crisis affect EU enlargement and do you expect it to cause a delay to the process?

We have repeatedly stressed that commitments undertaken by the EU will be honoured. We have also stressed that each country will progress on its own merits, and according to the pace of reforms. There are no shortcuts, but there are no further goalposts either. The better the countries of the region are prepared for their accession, the more governments and public opinion in our Member States will support enlargement. Enlargement may very well be part of the solution to fight the current economic and financial downturn. We need to build not only a larger EU but also a stronger one.

Do you have any specific message to the policy makers and the people in the Western Balkans/South East Europe?

To keep up the reform process, as this is the only way to achieve progress for the sake of their own citizens, and for the sake of their aspiration to join the EU.

A Czech national, Commissioner Füle was appointed EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy in February 2010. He previously served as Czech European Affairs Minister, First Deputy Defence Minister, Permanent Czech Representative to NATO, as well as Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Lithuania.


Štefan Füle has been the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy since February 2010. (Photo European Commission)

Štefan Füle has been the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy since February 2010. (Photo European Commission)