Check against delivery!
As every year, I am happy to be here with you and with Commissioner [for the European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes] Hahn to present this year’s Enlargement Package, which is, as you know, the regular assessment we do of the work that has been done during the past year, in the region and with our partners, to see where we are with the European Union integration of the Western Balkans as well as in our relations with Turkey as a candidate country.
It is a very important moment both for us and for our partners.
You will see very clearly in the package that we confirm a credible enlargement policy being a geostrategic investment, for the European Union itself, in peace, stability, security and prosperity for the whole of Europe. It is – we believe – in our own interest to have a successful enlargement policy. The European perspective remains the driver for change, especially in the Balkans, and this should not be underestimated nor taken for granted.
What you will read in this report, be it the deep and unprecedented judicial reform in Albania or the changes in North Macedonia, is the direct result of peoples' strong desire for changes in these countries.
We have always stressed in our work with our partners that they have made a fundamental choice, that is based on values, in setting the European Union accession as their national goal that unites the people, the institutions and the region – maybe one of the few things that unites the region, also with the remarkable phenomenom of the region supporting the process for all the neighbours.
By making this choice, both political leaders and citizens chose to engage in serious, comprehensive and convincing reforms in very important, crucial areas for the society, first of all on the rule of law, including the fight against corruption and organised crime, and also on economic reforms, competitiveness, as well as on regional cooperation and reconciliation.
I often say that the enlargment policy in a region like the Balkans brings us back to the DNA of the European Union integration process at its very first steps, overcoming the wounds of war that is still recent, and using integration in the European Union as a fondamental tool after a confict.
A tremendous work was done to assess objectively the progress made. I want to thank all the teams, both in Brussels and in the region, that have worked impressively to produce these reports. The preparation of these reports is an inclusive process and they not only take into account contributions from the authorities, but also from civil society and a number of other partners. I will let Commissioner Hahn debrief you of the details obviously, but I would like to underline a few points.
First, over the last years and in particular in the past year, the European Union has invested enormouly across the Western Balkans, including through the adoption of the Western Balkans Strategy, the [EU-Western Balkans] Sofia Summit as well as with, not only our usual visits in the region but also a number of other high-level engagements.
We have witnessed a number of achievements and successes which are impressive. North Macedonia and Albania, in particular, have embraced the opportunity and delivered on the reforms. The historic Prespa agreement ending the name dispute with Greece and strengthening good neighbourly relations, as has also been done with Bulgaria, is something we all value, recognise and acknowledge as an historic game-changer, not only for the country but for the region. In Albania, in particular, let me stress that the impressive implementation of the deep and ambitious justice reform has continued steadily and the re evaluation of all judges and prosecutors is delivering tangible results. I was recently visiting Tirana for the Leaders' Summit and was impressed by the in Europe highest level of support for the European Union among the public opinion in the country.
On the basis of a strict and fair assessment, this year for the second time, the Commission recommends opening of negotiations with Albania and with North Macedonia. This is a recommendation based on a solid assessment as you will be able to see from the report. North Macedonia and Albania have done their part of the work; now it is the European Union's turn to fulfil its part. Now obviously, after our recommendation, the ball is in the Council's court.
We also issue today the Commission's Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for membership of the European Union. In this context, the Commission specifies a number of detailed priorities in the field of democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights and public administration reform that are needed for the country to move forward towards the candidate status and then opening of negotiations. It is also clear, as I have had the opportunity together with Commissioner Hahn to discuss with the leadership of the country, that the formation of the government remains key.
Finally, I will say a word on Turkey, and then pass the floor to Commissioner Hahn, which remains a candidate country, a key partner and a strategically important neighbour for the European Union, also given its proximity to a very volatile Middle East, whose stability is a key priority for both of us. The Turkish government states its commitment to European Union accession but we see the country continues to move further away from the European Union. We believe it would be beneficial for all and in particular for the Turkish citizens if this trend is reversed urgently, which we will obviously always welcome.
We also emphasize the importance of good neighbourly relations and avoiding tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and you have seen my recent statements in particular on this issue.
To conclude, let me stress that this package passes a number of important messages, not only to our partners but also to ourselves. It underlines the need for the Union to live up to its commitments and give credit where credit is due. We are at a crossroads, we always say that it is a merit-based process so when merit is assessed, as positive it needs to be acknowledged.
Failure to recognise and respond to objective progress, I believe, we believe, would damage the European Union’s credibility throughout the region and beyond. Not rewarding historic achievements in particular and also substantial reforms would undermine stability and seriously discourage further reforms. In particular, it would introduce an element of disillusion, especially in the young population that is so supportive of the European Union perspective of their countries and of the European Union as such.
Over the past almost five years we have seen results in the Western Balkans that seemed completely impossible to achieve when our mandate started. It has been the result of a collective work we have done together here in Brussels and in the Balkans, thanks also to a new generation of leaders across the party line in the region. Our collective responsibility today is to make these changes irreversible, to the benefit of the region but also of the European Union.
Link to the opening remarks: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-173348
Q: I hear your message to the Member States that reformist countries need to be rewarded, North Macedonia and Albania were mentioned in particular. I wonder of course if the same message would be heard by the Member States. Rewarding countries has indeed worked in the past, I have followed closely the accession of Bulgaria and Romania and they were rewarded not exactly for reform, they were rewarded for having given their airspace to NATO for the 1999 war and it was the UK that was the advocate for Bulgaria and Romania's enlargement. Now that the UK is on its way out, who is going to push for enlargement? Who are the friends of the EU enlargement among the Member States?
FM: What I have seen in these last five years is a remarkable unity in the region, remarkable because of the nature and the history of the region, and I see that the best sponsors for the different countries’ European Union integration process – whether they are already negotiating or not yet – are the neighbours. I see that the Balkan countries, already members of the European Union or not, are the ones that are supporting the process the most. They are advising, pushing for, creating an environment of mutual support that I think is in itself a proof of the fact that the process is convenient for the European Union and for Europe as a continent. I tend not to use the category of ‘rewarding’ because negotiating and finally entering the European Union is a process of joining a family, of joining an institution, a community. It is not a prize you win; it is a process you engage in. Some inside the European Union - you mentioned the UK - might argue the opposite - that the process is a rewarding one. But it is a choice to belong to a community, to a family, to stick to certain standards in all different fields.
What strikes me the most are two things in the region, in the Balkans. First, I have seen in these five years the region shifting from a logic of competition, of confrontation, to a logic of mutual support, understanding that the better the one does, the better it is also for the others. So moving from the logic of competing among neighbours to the logic of pushing together to create a better environment regionally, being together under the same roof, creating also the space for reconciliation and economic prosperity, which is the secret of the success of the European Union over decades. And the second thing is the very large and deep popular support for this process. In almost all the countries in the Western Balkans you see high percentages of popular support for the European Union and to the European Union integration process and perspective, including on fulfilling the conditions for the different steps - percentages as high as 70%, 80%, 90% in the population - numbers that in almost any of the European Union Member States are long gone.
The European Union needs this energy, this determination, this push for a certain quality of standards, this desire to come together in a community and then in an integration process, as much as the Balkans need it.
Q: About Kosovo, the situation in the north of Kosovo with regard to organised crime continues to pose challenges for law enforcement agencies. Yesterday the Kosovo police led an operation which Kosovo claims is an operation against organised crime. The reaction from the President of Serbia Vučić was threatening with a military intervention in Kosovo. This is a confrontation rhetoric, not a cooperation rhetoric. Do you think it is possible to have a successful fight against organised crime in north Kosovo if there is such a political confrontation and such statements coming from Belgrade?
FM: I think that what happened yesterday in north Kosovo shows us that the status quo is not sustainable, and both Pristina and Belgrade need to come back to the dialogue table and move forward with a comprehensive legally binding agreement that would make the full normalisation of relations happen.
I believe that what happened yesterday is a stark reminder for all of us of this need that they, we, the entire region, all have – as commissioner Hahn has mentioned – which is the full normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina through a legally binding comprehensive agreement. This would be also the best way to guarantee that the entire region benefits from reconciliation, which means from regional integration and economic development in the region.
It is true that I spoke about cooperative attitudes in the region which is something I see today much more than it was the case five years ago, in general terms. But we also know, and every second day we are reminded of the fact that tendencies of the past, tendencies to confrontation or to rhetoric that are not cooperative or even confrontation and tough confrontation, can re-emerge at any moment and do re-emerge from time to time, at any moment.
And this is why I am saying we are at a crossroads. If the leverage we have – which is that of a credible perspective for the European Union perspective of the region - is used in a smart manner today, we can encourage this cooperative trends and consolidate them and make this change irreversible. If we miss this opportunity, I see the risk of dark forces of the past coming back in terms of confrontation, even of conflict and we might lose a historic opportunity. As I was saying, to use the perspective of the European Union integration as an agent of reconciliation and unity in the region, and also economic prosperity. This is why, I think, the people of the region are smart enough to understand that this is convenient for them, as the European Union funding Member States were smart enough to understand that it was more convenient to make business together rather than war after the Second World War.
I think the region has made its choice and this includes Kosovo and Serbia. I think both the leaderships and the populations are determined and willing to move forward towards an agreement that is fully normalising relations, but obviously conditions need to be put in place for that. First and foremost, I would refer to the need to revoke or suspend the 100% tariffs that were imposed by the government of Kosovo on the goods coming from Serbia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina that clearly are in breach of agreements and are not creating an environment conducive for negotiations.
I am and remain confident and hopeful that wisdom will prevail and talks can be resumed soon. I am, as usual, not only in contact constantly with the two sides but also always ready to call them here or anywhere else tomorrow morning to restart talks at the highest possible level, and I am convinced that an agreement is possible but some decisions need to be taken first.
Q: On the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, do you hope and expect a breakthrough to still happen within your term? Is that something achievable or would that be a job for the next High Representative?
FM: I am still convinced that an agreement is possible if the right conditions are put in place for talks to restart at the highest level. I discussed this as recently as a couple of weeks ago in Tirana with both sides, with both President [of Kosovo, Hashim] Thaçi and President [of Serbia, Aleksandar] Vučić. I remain convinced, as a facilitator of this dialogue, that the two sides are aware of the interests they respectively have in advancing consistently on this. I am also convinced that they would do their utmost to engage whatever the time that can be used is there.
I would not divide the time into my term – there are five months we have ahead of us – and my successor’s, also because there is a sort of continuity in the institutional role that the High Representative has as a facilitator. I took this file from my predecessor with a very competent team. The team is there, the team will continue. I would not put a break, a wall, a dividing line between the end of my mandate and the beginning of the next High Representative's mandate.
But I would say, the sooner the better, because incidents happen and can happen any time and time is not playing in favour of neither of the two sides. If an agreement is possible, and I repeatedly said, I am convinced it is possible and it is in the best interest of both sides, the sooner they manage to get it, the better it is.
On our side, we do not dictate or put on the table any outside external proposal. We are there to facilitate the ownership of an agreement that I am sure they can find, if the proper conditions are in place. I stress here again, it is not a surprise, there is first and foremost the need to revoke this 100% tariffs, and obviously - I have also recently referred to this publicly - the need, in the moment where we will re-engage with the two sides in high level talks that can happen tomorrow morning from my side, to create a protected environment with a sort of suspension of different kind of campaigns from all sides to create a protected environment for the two sides to negotiate and solve all issues on the table.
I am convinced it is possible and I am convinced it is convenient for both, for the rest of the region, for the European Union and for the rest of the world. This is why I think there is, in this moment, a certain alignment of stars, even if it is not too visible, on the international possible support that this agreement could get. This is why I would urge the sides to move as fast as possible.
Q: Une question d’ordre politique pour Madame la Haute Représentante, vous soulignez à de très nombreuses reprises combien toute cette politique d’élargissement est stratégique pour la région des Balkans occidentaux et pour la Turquie mais également pour l’Union Européenne, est-ce que vous considérez qu’il était judicieux de reporter sciemment la publication de ce paquet élargissement au-delà des élections européennes, puisqu’après tout cela n’a pas empêché des candidats à ce scrutin de mener campagne clairement contre l’élargissement, voire même de se targuer d’avoir bloqué l’adhésion de l’Albanie et de la Macédoine du Nord?
FM: Je serai très brève parce que je pense que du point de vue politique, la date à laquelle nous avons pris cette décision et présenté ces recommandations, cette opinion, ne change pas énormément de choses. L’important maintenant c’est la façon selon laquelle les Etats Membres vont faire le suivi. L’important ce n’est pas tellement quand – et il aurait été difficile pour le Conseil de prendre une décision avant aujourd’hui. L’important c’est que le Conseil prenne maintenant ses responsabilités et prenne une décision le plus vite possible.
Nous de notre côté, du côté de la Commission, nous avons fait un travail approfondi comme je l’ai déjà dit, qui a pris en considération non seulement le travail fait avec les autorités des pays concernés mais aussi les sociétés civiles et certains autres acteurs fondamentaux pour ce processus, cela nous a permis de faire un travail plus approfondi et plus scrupuleux sur la base détaillée des données que nous avons récolté. Donc de notre côté, du côté de la Commission cela nous permet de donner une recommandation claire et nette. Maintenant l’important ce n’est pas tellement de savoir si cela aurait été mieux de présenter ces documents aujourd’hui, il y a deux semaines ou dans deux semaines, l’important maintenant c’est que le Conseil puisse prendre une décision cohérente, qui puisse donner de la crédibilité au processus dans le plus court délai possible.
Q: Even though there are recommendations for both North Macedonia and Albania, there are differences in the wording of the conclusions. There seems to be some additional remarks or conditions if I can call them that, when it comes to Albania, whereas for North Macedonia the recommendations seems quite crystal clear. Do you think this could impact the decision making process in the General Affairs Council in June? Could the Member States then separate both countries? If the decision is delayed, especially for North Macedonia, do you foresee any risk for the political stability in the country?
FM: Our message is very clear. We stated clearly in the reports, publicly and I think this press conference is a good opportunity to do so again, that the recommendation the Commission gives to the Council is to open the accession negotiations with both Albania and North Macedonia as soon as possible. They are ready. This is our assessment. Then, as Commissioner Hahn was saying, the discussion now is on our Member States’ side, if the Member States are ready. But North Macedonia and Albania are both ready and we state this for the second time after last year’s recommendation. They are ready to start negotiations, which means starting a process of negotiations for accession, so it is not entering the Union tomorrow morning. It is a complicated process but they are ready to start negotiations. The wording is different because the countries are different and the situations are different. But the recommendation is clearly to open accession negotiations with both Albania and North Macedonia, as it was last year.
Q: We read the report on Turkey and the precise statement on the Exclusive Economic Zone. What do you have in mind for a follow-up? We are approaching the June summit and if I remember correctly, the June Summit was set for a re-evaluation of the situation on the ground and further potential measures or response, which I think, in your statement, was called an appropriate response. What is an an appropriate response at this stage? Could it be sanctions, measures?
FM: We will discuss this further, first of all at my level with the Foreign Ministers and for sure at the Presidents’ level in the coming weeks. Appropriately, as you mentioned we have a Foreign Affairs Council in a couple of weeks from now.
As I mentioned several times, we will continue monitoring and following the situation very closely and I am constantly in contact with the Cypriot Foreign Minister to assess the situation as we move forward. It is not for me – especially in this press room – to prejudge any move, any decision or any discussion that the European Council might take at the end of June. It is one month from now by the way, so there is still quite some time to go and most importantly from an institutional point of view, this would be inappropriate from my side. But we will consider things as they develop, first with the Foreign Ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council on 17 June.
Q: Will the political crisis in Albania affect the decision of the European Council in June? Could the decision be postponed to September?
FM: As I said the assessment and the recommendation from the European Commission is clear, Albania is ready to start negotiations for accession. You refer to a political crisis, first of all which country is not going or has not gone through a political crisis? Secondly, in Albania every time we visit there was some political turmoil or crisis and similarly, it happens in other countries in the region. Our assessment is never political, it is always technical. We have seen that Albania has done its part, in particular when it comes to the work on the vetting system and the judicial system reform, and also on all the different other tracks of work that were identified. The recommendation is clear to the Council which is to open negotiations with Albania.
Q: You reiterated the fact that Turkey is moving away from the European Union but you also mentioned its strategic importance. How long should the European Union stand on the sideline and wait for Turkey to change directions?
FM: We are not sitting and waiting, on the contrary we are engaging, and in particular Commissioner Hahn and myself at our level we are engaging constantly, with our Turkish counterparts, not only the institutional ones but at all levels and also in other contexts. For instance, we cooperate closely with the Council of Europe leadership and Turkey is a very important member of the Council of Europe. With them we are working a lot on the rule of law and judicial cases.
We are constantly engaging with Turkey. We see sometimes some openings and then some steps backwards. We see sometimes some statements reconfirming the commitments towards the European Union perspective and then some practices that bring us in a different kind of scenarios.
On the foreign policy angle, I can tell you that our engagement is not only constant but also constructive and positive because on some issues in the region we work closely with them - we do not always we agree, but we constantly work together. There is definitely not a passive attitude from our side on the Turkish developments, there is a respectful but also very firm attitude on which are the principles, which are the rules, which are the standards.
It is a free choice to come closer to the European Union and finally, eventually to become a member of the European Union or not. You choose it, you know what comes with it and it is your choice, it is your people's choice in principle to define whether you want to go that way or rather not. It is a constant dialogue. As I said, sometimes we see some openings, sometimes we see some setbacks. We try to encourage the openings. We try to engage also with civil society as much as we can and try to encourage positive developments.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-173349