The drive for enlargement is back and the EU is ready to act quickly, says Enlargement Commissioner
In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said Russia’s war on Ukraine had advanced the debate around the EU enlargement process and demonstrated the need to speed up the procedures which had essentially been interrupted by the previous Commission.
The comments came after EU leaders granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June as a sign of solidarity in the face of Russian aggression and after member states gave the go-ahead in July to the start of long-delayed accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
“This is perhaps the only positive impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine, as it has helped to sober up the debate on enlargement as well as on the EU’s ability to integrate[newmemberstates”[denouveauxEtatsmembres »said Mr. Várhelyi.
“We Europeans not only realize that Europe will not experience security, stability and prosperity if the Western Balkans are not fully integrated, but we are also ready to act in this direction”he continued.
Enlargement has not generated much enthusiasm within the EU in recent years, and some member states have called for EU reform before admitting new members.
“Don’t forget we took over from a European Commission that said ‘no enlargement’ — the damage was done”said Mr Varhelyi, adding that towards the second half of his mandate, the Juncker Commission “realized it was a strategic mistake. »
“What I expect now, and what will be a huge responsibility for the European Commission, is that there is now a clear political will, which has not always been obvious. »
Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a European Political Community, which would strengthen the Union’s ties with non-EU countries in its close neighbourhood, Mr Varhelyi said only that it “could add another layer”.
Hungarian commissioner says Europe lacks proper political platform to engage with candidate countries “but also with its neighborhood, where Europe is able to discuss with its allies and partners, to exchange and engage in a much more intense way”.
In the past, when Hungary or Poland were candidate countries, they were invited to the second day of EU summits, which is “also very anchored in the memory of our friends in the Western Balkans”.
“They feel involved, and involving them would also allow them to learn more about our processes, which would encourage them to engage quickly in many areas”he added.
Changes are needed in candidate countries
Following the resolution of a long-standing dispute between Skopje and neighboring EU member Bulgaria, Albania is expected to immediately start accession negotiations. North Macedonia, for its part, will first have to modify its constitution in order to include the Bulgarians among the other nations that make it up. In this matter, it does not have the necessary consensus in parliament.
This situation prompted the nationalist opposition to organize days of demonstrations in Skopje. Mr. Varhelyi believes that the latter have exceeded fundamental democratic limits.
“For North Macedonia, this should be a moment of relaxation, including for the opposition. Burning documents in the plenary hall, inciting people to violence and inciting hatred does nothing but damage. »
“There are very clear limits to the European way of doing politics, very clear limits to civilized politics, and my opinion is that a lot of those red lines have been crossed by the opposition”he added.
Asked about the possibility of further blockages, Mr Varhelyi said the aim was to “create clear, fair and transparent criteria that are also manageable and can actually change the negativism on both sides”.
At the same time, he pointed out that “Albania has shown genuine solidarity with North Macedonia and maturity in understanding that our member states want both countries to move forward”but indicated that Albania could now advance on their own.
“The whole enlargement process is merit-based, and the race is now on, whoever is first to deliver results should be able to join first”said Mr. Várhelyi.
“The important thing, if they deliver results quickly, is that we are ready to act quickly too, (…) and since we are in charge now, finally, the speed will be very, very different”, did he declare. He also added that the Commission had started the selection procedure as soon as member states gave the go-ahead last week.
An offer they can’t refuse
“We now have to work very, very hard with the candidate countries so that they can accelerate their preparations and their real integration”Mr. Varhelyi said.
The European Commission’s updated enlargement methodology from 2020 is meant to serve this purpose. Mr. Varhelyi believes that this is the solution because “the issue of the rule of law is not only central, but also additional tools that help to speed up the process. »
The candidate countries could be integrated more quickly in the sectors in which they have concluded a set of negotiations and through the economic and investment plan.
“That is why Serbs and Montenegrins immediately opted for the new methodology”Mr. Varhelyi said.
A Serbian membership “in stages”
Serbia, an EU candidate since 2009, has maintained close ties with the Kremlin during Alexander Vučić’s 10-year presidency and has been reluctant to join sanctions against Russia despite Western pressure.
Asked whether the EU would be interested in speeding up the accession processes with Belgrade, Mr Varhelyi replied that “Serbia has always had a very special relationship with Russia”.
“What we see in Serbia is that it is in a very difficult situation, due to its vulnerability in terms of energy supply and the unstable nature of its security framework”he explains.
He also points out that the country is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas and that its main energy companies are majority Russian-owned.
Mr Varhelyi, however, pointed out that, despite alignment concerns, positive signs have also been seen in recent months, including Serbia’s vote alongside the West in the United Nations General Assembly. united over Ukraine.
“We want Serbia to be our ally, we need them to stand in solidarity with us and be on our side, but we also need to understand their position when we ask them for something”said Mr Varhelyi, who has been criticized for trying to boost the campaign for Belgrade’s EU membership despite rule of law concerns.
“It’s happening in small steps, and we have to allow those steps to happen. Because if we don’t, then we are inflicting precisely the opposite of what we want to achieve.”Varhelyi said, hinting that overtly pressing Belgrade too firmly on certain positions could risk losing the country.
“Many of our member states want to see more of this solidarity. And I am hopeful that it will gradually come from Belgrade, because Belgrade is on the way to Europe; it is a candidate country”did he declare.
Beware of Russian influence
The strategic importance of the EU’s close neighborhood has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with fears over Moscow’s influence in the region.
“The temptations are very clear everywhere we look, not only in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership, but also, for example, in Libya — they are everywhere”, Mr. Varhelyi said. He added that the EU must make it very clear in its relations with the Western Balkans “that only Europe can bring long-term peace, stability and security”.
Russia proved this to us perfectly with the war in Ukraine, because the immediate reaction of the Balkans was “This is dangerous and could fall on us”he said.
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