The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union in January has sparked a backlash, questioning the EU’s capacity to integrate new member states.
Should any other countries be admitted to the EU in the near future? And should Brussels even think of beginning talks with Serbia and other states in the western Balkans?
Meanwhile the EU’s relationship with Turkey is becoming increasingly strained, with rising tension over Cyprus and growing EU concerns about the pace of reform. Can negotiations for Turkey to join the EU be brought back from the brink?
Olli Rehn, EU commissioner for enlargement, answers your questions.
I’m Macedonian and I’m tired of Greek policy about the constitutional name of our Republic. My question for you Mr. Rehn is: I’m very scared of Greek power vetoing to our membership? Is that possible?
Filip, Skopje, Macedonia
Olli Rehn: Filip, I know this is a very sensitive question. This is a bilateral matter between the two countries. I welcome the UN efforts to facilitate an agreement. I hope a solution will be found soon. My best advice to your country, as a candidate for EU membership, is to concentrate on the implementation of the necessary reforms - judiciary, public administration etc - to make progress on your European road.
What is your overall comment on Hrant Dinks atrocious murder and the subsequent strong condemnation of the Turkish public? Is this incident another apparatus for entities that oppose Turkeys entry, or does the aftermath of the murder indicate further evidence that Turkeys democracy is prospering to European Union standards?
Ali Dicleli, Manchester, UK
Olli Rehn: I was shocked and saddened by this brutal act of violence. Hrant Dink was a respected journalist and intellectual who stood up for his convictions and championed free speech in Turkey. I appreciate that the Turkish people have recognised this and condemned the crime. The best way to honour Hrant Dink’s memory is to continue the pursuit of freedom of expression that he lived and so tragically died for.
Commissioner Rehn, you have been asked repeatedly by representatives of the 1.5m Hungarian minority in Romania to put pressure on the Bucharest authorities during the enlargement process concerning the unresolved minority issues. Although more than 5,000 people sent messages to you - at a given moment a Finnish newspaper reported that they completely blocked your account - you kept clear of this severe problem and decided not to deal with it. Do you think your decision was ethically correct?
Moldovn rpd Zsolt, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Olli Rehn: I followed with interest the information I received from the Hungarians living in Romania. Throughout the accession process we paid attention to the situation of minorities in all candidate countries, also in Romania. Our analysis is that the situation improved a lot over the years.
I know that it is not satisfactory to all and complaints remain. The standards in minority policy are very different in each country of the European Union and therefore the Commission can not ask for more. I also discussed this matter with Bela Marko when we met.
I long to see Turkey democratising and becoming a true European country the as soon as possible in order to facilitate also a real peace plan for my country, Cyprus. Will the EU facilitate Turkey’s EU bid while maintaining occupational forces in Cyprus against all EU and UN resolutions? Is the EU prepared to keep this line of facilitation or should it balance Turkey’s EU road with EU foundation?
Savvas T. Andreas, Cyprus
Olli Rehn: Like you I long to see Turkey democratising and becoming a true European country. I read your arguments with great interest. I often hear the same concerns as you expressed when I meet with representatives of your government or my other Cypriot friends. This only underlines the necessity and urgency of a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem. This I discussed on Wednesday with the UN secretary-general Mr. Ban-Ki Moon. The EU fully supports the UN efforts of reunification.
According to IMF reports Turkey has the 20th biggest economy in the world and supposed to pass Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium in the short term. Isn’t it more beneficial for EU to have a member like Turkey rather than having members (Bulgaria and Romania) which haven’t developed good enough? Also strategical importance is another case.
Best Regards, Emrah OK, Turkey
Olli Rehn: Bulgaria and Romania have had rapid economic growth and have done bold political and economic reforms in the last couple of years. There is no need to underestimate them. They met the conditions of EU membership and thus have earned it. Turkey has experienced rapid economic growth and done bold reforms, but there is still some way to go. I hope, for instance, that Turkey would without delay ensure freedom of expression by amending or rather repealing the notorious article 301.
Does the EU stick to its commitments like direct trade with nothing related to the Cyprus issue? I see several gestures from the north side of the island toward a viable solution. There are many who think slowness of the EU leadership to urge the Greek side has led to slowness of Greeks toward any solution.
Mike Veroni , Switzerland
Olli Rehn: Let me start with some good news - we need them! On Monday this week, the EU foreign ministers decided to resume work to adopt the Commission’s proposal for a regulation creating special conditions for trade between the Turkish Cypriot community and the rest of the EU.
The German presidency is committed to get this done. I met the new UN secretary-general Ban-Ki Moon on Wednesday. I re-iterated to him that the EU would want to see the talks on a comprehensive settlement on Cyprus be resumed soon. The current division of the island is not acceptable in the EU which is founded on the principles of peace, reconciliation and human rights.
Time and time again, both the political and business elite are leading the way, while the European public are being left out of the discussion. Why are the European elites pushing for Turkish accession, against the will of the European people? Moreover, the closest thing Europe has to a soul and identity is it Christian tradition. Will the accession of Turkey not confuse our identity even more?
Stewart Ford, Warsaw, Poland
Olli Rehn: Enlargement is about extending the zone of these European values. The values I refer to are, in particular, liberty and democracy, the rule of law and human rights, tolerance and solidarity. Freedom of religion is one of Europe’s core values. While Judeo-Christian heritage is an essential element of European history and identity - like the Enlightenment and Greco-Roman tradition - but the EU is not a Christian Club, but a community of values, as I said before.
Why don’t you want to assist Ukraine in her European aspirations? Any European country has a right to become a member of the EU. Why does the EU always turn Ukraine away?
Olli Rehn: The treaty on European Union indeed states that any European state which respects the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law may apply to become a member of the Union. This does not mean that all European countries must apply, or that the EU must accept all applications. But it means that we should not draw thick “fault lines” according to old notions of historical borders, and thus construct a kind of “Silver Curtain” only a few years after we got rid of “the Iron Curtain”. We work with Ukraine on the basis of the European Neighbourhood Policy.
ENP aims to enhance prosperity, stability and good governance in the countries neighbouring the EU through deeper political relations and economic integration. We have just made new proposals to strengthen this important policy. We want the EU’s borders to connect people, instead of separating them. ENP is distinct from enlargement, but it does not prejudge how the ENP countries’ relationship with the EU develops in the future. T
he Commission is ready to further deepen and enhance cooperation with the ENP partners once the main political priorities have been properly addressed. The Ukraine is clearly in the pole position. If I ever had doubted the Ukraine being a European country, any such doubts would have been erased when I read Andy Dougan’s book “Dynamo”. It tells the story of a bakery that recruited a team full of Dynamo footballers, who then defended the honour of Kiev under the Nazi occupation in the football pitch. For me these players’ fight for freedom underlines the Ukrainian commitment to European values.
I wonder whether Mr. Rehn sees an eventual geographic limit to the expansion of the EU - that is, limited to those countries now in Europe, according to some geographic definition, but not in the EU, and an understanding that expansion would not go beyond those countries. Or does he think it conceivable that the EU might eventually expand to include, for example, Morocco, Libya, or Egypt?
Richard Jenkins, London SW3
Olli Rehn: It seems that precise measurements place the geographical centre of the European continent in ‘Tállya’ – small Hungarian village only 120 km from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. But Europe’s borders are not defined by geography alone.
Let me quote Eric Hobsbawm here. He said: “Geographically, as everyone knows, Europe has no eastern borders, and the continent therefore exists exclusively as an intellectual construct.” Here, in the European Commission, we use the term ‘European’ in a sense that combines geographical, historical and cultural elements, which all contribute to the European identity. Values define Europe’s borders at least as much as sheer geography. However, the clear legal rule (in the EU Treaty) for a country to apply is to be ‘European’.
I think this is an issue to discuss with our Eastern neighbours, since Europe’s geographical borders are not clear there, but based on this rule countries like Morocco, Libya or Egypt are not part of the EU’s accession agenda.
The term EU absorption capacity strikes me as a very political term, which lacks a clear - or partial - definition. As of today it seems to have been introduced as another Copenhagen Criterion, but one from which a candidate country is left out of influence. Where at one point the EU voiced its welcome to any country (within geo. Europe) that can live up to the Acquis and the Copenhagen Criteria, this new unclear term represents an obstacle, which in some way is internal rather than external in nature. Does the Commission/Council have any plans for a clarification of this term?
Esben Svendsen, Denmark
Olli Rehn: Indeed, we have been working on that question last year. At the end of the year, EU leaders decided to use the term ‘integration capacity’ which to my view describes much better what we are talking about. It is a two-way street, where on the one hand candidate countries must be prepared and must fulfil all the criteria, but on the other hand the EU has to make sure that it can continue to function while gradually integrating new members.
In my view the EU has just achieved a renewed consensus on enlargement, which reconciles the strategic importance of enlargement with the internal reform of the Union. The EU’s integration capacity will be reviewed at all key stages of the accession process. We will also examine the budgetary impact on key policies, in particular on agricultural and cohesion policies.
The EU must maintain and deepen its own development while pursuing its enlargement agenda. Institutional reform is needed to improve the effectiveness of the decision-making of an enlarged Union. A new institutional settlement should have been reached by the time the next new member is likely to be ready to join the Union.
Mr Rehn, I am interested in your analysis of elections in Serbia, in terms of what you see as the biggest positives and negatives. Also, could you comment on your expectations of the new government as to what the biggest economic/sociopolitical priorities for Serbia should be in order to restart the EU accession negotiations? My final question is, where do you see Serbia in terms of economy? What I am getting at here, is what is it, in your opinion, that Serbia has to offer to the EU?
Mirko Milojevic, London
Olli Rehn: I welcome that the reformist forces that share European values, achieved a clear parliamentary majority, which should enable them to form a pro-European and reform-oriented government. Serbia has a tremendous economic and intellectual potential that is just waiting to be released in pursuit of the country’s European future. Thanks to its institutional capacity, once concluded, Serbia should be able to implement the Stabilisation and Association Agreement effectively and quickly, and then take the next steps on its European journey.
I expect from the new government to realise this perspective and take the necessary steps for fulfilling the condition to resume the negotiations on the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which is clearly the gateway for applying for EU membership.
With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, is it more likely for a state like the Ukraine to enter the EU next or are Turkey’s chances greater, even with the issues surrounding Cyprus?
Brittney Galloway and Lacey Stewart, Brussels, Belgium
Olli Rehn: The accession of Bulgaria and Romania is part of the EU’s fifth enlargement that reunited peacefully Western and Eastern Europe after the decades-long divisions of the cold war. The current agenda for the EU’s enlargement focuses on South-East Europe: ie. the Western Balkans and Turkey.
Croatia and Turkey are already conducting accession negotiations, thus these countries are firmly anchored in the accession process. However quality is more important than speed: how long time they need to meet the criteria fully, depends on their ability to pursue reforms on the ground that reinforce the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, as well as help the countries meet other criteria of accession. As for the Ukraine, she is part of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy.
ENP is distinct from enlargement, but it does not prejudge how the ENP countries’ relationship with the EU develops in the future. The Commission is ready to further deepen cooperation with the ENP partners once the main priorities have been properly addressed. In my view, Ukraine’s key challenge is now to create a win-win situation with the EU and Russia. Work for ever-closer political and economic ties with the EU, while maintaining strong economic and trade relations with Russia.
In order for the EU to survive and compete in the global economy in the long term, European integration is imperative. Can the EU get past the petty policy disputes and intrusive laws to achieve stability? Europeans must remember the EU’s founding mission.
Timo Makkonen, Connecticut, US
Olli Rehn: I agree. The EU has to take its responsibilities to become an ever stronger player on the global scene, both politically and economically. That’s why we need to both deepen and widen the EU: that is, to work for the economic and political revival of Europe, and in parallel to that continue our gradual and carefully managed accession process. Both together makes the EU stronger.
What are the lessons learned with Romania, especially regarding high level corruption and the rule of law? Will the next countries have harsher criteria in these areas?
Valentina Pop, Bucharest
Olli Rehn: Are you the Valentina Pop from the newspaper Romania Libera? Good to hear from you, I remember you have been reporting a lot about Romania’s way to the EU. I
ndeed I think there are a few lessons to learn from the accession of Bulgaria and Romania for the current and future candidate countries. The most important is to start tackling crucial issues for the life of the whole society, such as the reform of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime, early on in the process. We can’t leave such fundamental problems to the last moment.
At the same time I must say that I was quite impressed by the determination and energy in Romania and Bulgaria in the past two years to do what they gotta do to get ready to carry the obligations of EU membership. Clearly it paid off: both countries are ready to carry the obligations of membership now and are proud members of the EU today. Congratulations!
What do you understand a “privileged partnership” involving in any relationship between a candidate country and the EU to mean?
John Black, Istanbul, Turkey
Olli Rehn: Let me first be very clear on the situation concerning Turkey. Turkey is a candidate country that is negotiating its accession to the EU. Our shared objective is Turkey’s accession, and this is what we are working for. But there is no automatism: Whether this goal will be attained depends on if Turkey is able to meet all the criteria of accession in the end of the process.
I am aware of discussions time to time about the idea of establishing a privileged partnership with Turkey or some other countries. This debate will accompany the whole accession process of Turkey, and we shouldn’t be afraid of the debate. By the way, look at the UK which has now been member of the EU for more than 30 years – it has not ended the existential debate on Britain’s role in Europe!
I don’t frankly know what a ‘privileged partnership’ would mean. Besides, Turkey already has such deep arrangements that amount to a privileged partnership with the EU. Turkey has a customs union with the EU, which is a very far-reaching economic and trade arrangement and has greatly expanded our mutual trade since 1995. Turkey participates in many if not most EU programmes in e.g. research and education. Turkey is a member of Nato and participates in EU-led peace-keeping operations in Bosnia and Lebanon.
The next logical evolutionary step is EU membership – if Turkey will be able to meet the criteria one day.
Is it a good and sustainable idea to proceed with Turkey’s accession to Europe before helping to integrate the West Balkan countries? Abdullah Young, UK
Olli Rehn: Dear Abdullah, the EU’s enlargement policy is about extending the zone of peace and prosperity, liberty and democracy by making the EU a stronger world player. It is clear that Europe needs a stable and democratic Turkey, and Turkey needs Europe both politically and economically. This is why we started accession negotiations with Turkey.
We have a clear principle in the enlargement policy: each country is progressing on its own merits. And the progress is determined by the ability of each country to meet the accession criteria. Therefore even if we take geopolitical aspects very seriously, it will be determined by the progress of each and every country when they join the EU. Croatia is already progressing well with the accession negotiations.
As for the other countries on the Western Balkans we will have to see how they progress.