Brussels, 24 March 2020
These are very challenging times and I think that Europe now shows that when it decides something it really means it. It means that we are ready to make strategic decisions even in difficult circumstances. I think that this is very important, clear and loud news that should be spread all over Europe and all over the Western Balkans. It shows our determination: we set a goal and we will implement it, even if it is difficult.
First of all, I would like to congratulate the two countries – Albania and North Macedonia - with which the Members Sates have agreed today to open the accession negotiations. When we had taken over from the previous Commission, things did not look as good as they do today. When we took over from the previous Commission, we saw a failure in October to agree and this was perceived as a failure in the two countries. But fortunately, they made a very sober and difficult choice to continue and to accelerate the reforms on all political levels for the Europe’s path. That determination has now borne fruits today.
Therefore, I am very glad that we ensured today together with the Presidency, the Members States that there is delivery for these two countries. And this is what you see, recognised and honoured by the Members States of the European Union. With today’s political decision to open the talks, we have put back on track the issue of enlargement, we have put back on track credibility.
This is one of the key principles: when we have announced the new methodology on the enlargement process, we put credibility as the first principle. And I think today credibility has been restored, not only for the Western Balkans but also for our Member States.
If I look at North Macedonia and Albania what I see is that they have accelerated the work since October and they have delivered on very many fronts.
North Macedonia with the Prespa agreement with Greece, and the bilateral agreement with Bulgaria, has shown an example to the whole region and that is an example that should pave the way for North Macedonia to quickly engage in the negotiation. We see that despite Parliamentary elections and caretaker government they have been able to still address the one outstanding issue which was the reform of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Albania has come a very long way, and we have seen in October how far Member States considered the country to be away from the accession negotiations. But today, given the accelerated and very tangible results the country has delivered on fighting organised crime, illicit asylum claims, judicial reform, the Member States have considered now the conditions to be met to open accession negotiations. This is a major development, something that was completely impossible to think about after last October.
I am very grateful, for both countries but also for the Member States. I think that on this basis we have managed a new ground to bring forward the issue of accession and I am very grateful for everyone who has contributed to this. This has been a serious amount of work on all sides - but if we really put ourselves to it, it brings results, so I am very happy to see that.
Again I congratulate the Croatian Presidency and I congratulate the two countries. And on our side, as Commission we will speed up our work and we will present very shortly the negotiating frameworks so that the actual negotiations can start very quickly with both countries.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-187206
Q. Do you consider that conditionality agreed by the Members States on the accession negotiations with Albania are a strict and fair compromise? What are the steps ahead to Albania?
My answer to the question is a very firm “yes”. These conditions are strict but fair. Strict and fair. When it comes to these conditions what you will find is that we recall the conditions that had been set already in 2018, as both countries continue to deliver. This conditions are conditions for membership. These conditions are prerequisites of accession. So these conditions will not go away. The Commission will continue to report on the compliance with all these requirements because these are requirements that are the long-term ones.
The second consideration that I would like to draw the attention to is that these are conditions that are stemming from the Copenhagen criteria, so these conditions are to be continuously met all along the way even if they have been set later on.
I think if I look at our report and our statement, you will find that on very many, I would say almost all of these conditions, Albania has already started to deliver tangible, long-term, highly important reforms and results. And therefore I hope that Albania will be able to meet these conditions mid-term and short-term.
We will certainly work very hard with Albania to make this happen. I see very promising signs already emerging after our report was published, like the election of new members of the High Court or additional members for the Constitutional Court. There is continuos progress and I think that by June, when we come with the Annual Enlargement Package, in it the negotiating framework for both countries, you will see that most of these will have already been met by Albania.
So, I am very confident that given the current pace and level of commitment, which I encourage Albania to even raise further, because we are entering now a new stage that would require even more work and effort from both countries, to accelerate further the progress and also the implementation on the ground. It is not only legislation that we are looking at, we are also looking at enforcement, track record, that is also key.
Q. Will there be a specific date for the opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia? Are both countries going to start at the same time or they are going to be treated separately?
At this stage there is no specific date, this is an on merit process, and the time of the first Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) can be different. It can be North Macedonia coming first, or Albania coming first. It is all dependent on the conditions that are being met by both countries. It is on merit. There is nothing else that matters in this. And dates were not set for that reason.
Q. How long do you expect accession negotiations with North Macedonia to take, given that North Macedonian authorities claim that 50% of the national legislation is already in line with the EU legislation?
My assessment is that 50% is not enough for membership. It means that half of the legislative work has been done – if this is the right figure, I am not sure it is, but I do not want to enter into a guessing game on this one.
What I can tell you is that the new methodology will provide the possibility to go fast, but it means that work on the other side and reforms on the other side will also have to be really fast.
But it is not enough just to do the legislative work. The legislation put in place has to provide the results that we expect from an EU Member State. The faster the legislation, the faster the negotiations could be, but it is not enough just to have some sort of legislation in place. It has to be the right legislation in place and it has to be implemented and enforced the right way. That can shorten the negotiations.
Q. What are the know steps to be taken from the following written procedures so that the actual negotiations can start?
What I can tell you on our side is that we will prepare now very quickly the negotiating frameworks together with both countries. We have to sit down with these countries and prepare it.
We plan to put this on the table of the Council as fast as we can, meaning it can go together with the enlargement package, and I hope to start the negotiations quickly on the negotiating frameworks. Once they are agreed, the first IGCs can be convened by the rotating Presidency.
Q. How do you see the EU support in the Western Balkans in the context of COVID-19 crisis so far? Can the EU include accession countries in the common European response or at least exclude them for authorisation scheme on export of medical supplies?
We are working on this very hard. We have mobilised already €30 million for the Western Balkan partners so that they can quickly get the necessary medical equipment needed to fight the crisis.
We are coordinating very closely with these countries. We’d like to include them in our joint procurement initiative so that they have better access to the equipment and we are also looking into possibilities how to rearrange the funds on the EU side to help them also on the economic side of the crisis.
We are looking into all possibilities to help them. Of course it is not easy to get all the machinery moving while we are being restricted in our working facilities. But we do our outmost to help and I am personally in contact with all the countries.
We have received their first needs assessments and today we are reaching out to them to see the economic implications of the crisis and how to provide some assurances that they would be able to continue with an economy that would work for their countries. So we are looking into not only medical equipment but also mid-term, longer-term solutions to fight the repercussions of this crisis.
Q. What can EU do to avoid political crisis in Kosovo? We have a decision from the Government to limit the movement of people and hold by the President to citizens and police not to implement this.
I am not familiar with the latest developments but I will certainly get in touch with the Kosovo Government. I had a telephone conference last week with the Prime Minister and he assured me that the crisis management is properly coordinated within the country and that they are basically taking similar measures compared to what our Members States are doing when it comes to limitations.
Q. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban wants to introduce new legislation giving him wide ranging powers. Was this discussed today? If so, how do the other Member States view the situation in Hungary? When will it be discussed again in the General Affairs Council?
I can only confirm what the Minister has just said, that this was not discussed by the Ministers. I would plea to everyone that at this time of the crisis we should concentrate on facilitating the work of all governments so that they can take all the necessary measures to fight the crisis. Maybe we should avoid creating additional and unnecessary crisis by claiming things without proper assessment. I would call on everyone to concentrate on how we can fight the crisis effectively. Thank you.