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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations
News article12 October 2022Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations

Opening remarks by Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi at the press conference on the 2022 Enlargement package

Opening remarks by Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi at the press conference on the 2022 Enlargement package

"Check against delivery"

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to our College read-out.

As you have probably seen, I just returned from the European Parliament where I have presented to the members of the house this year's Enlargement Package which we have adopted this morning.

Besides that, the College also adopted the proposal to make 2023 the European Year of Skills. This is the first follow-up to the announcement made by President [of the European Commission, Ursula] von der Leyen in her State of the Union address last month. This proposal will put the focus on how we can prepare our workforce so that they benefit from the new opportunities arising from the green and digital transitions. The press release with more details is being published by the Spokesperson's Service and it is going to be available right now.

The College also discussed today a Communication on enforcing EU law, setting out its work to ensure that citizens and businesses can benefit from the same rights across the EU. Because EU law has a real impact on the everyday life of Europeans. This is why, [the] enforcement of EU law is a top priority for the Commission. This file is expected to be adopted tomorrow through written procedure.

Finally, the College also made a series of Human Resources appointments.

We decided to appoint Ms Magda Kopczynska as Deputy Director-General in the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI). Ms Kopczynska is a Polish national and she currently serves as Director in the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE).

Likewise, Ms Renate Nikolay as Deputy Director-General in the Directorate-General for Communications Network, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT). Ms Nikolay is a German national who has been Head of Cabinet of Vice-President [of the European Commission] Věra Jourová since 2014.

Furthermore, Nils Behrndt has been appointed Deputy Director-General in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers (DG JUST). Mr Behrndt is also a German national and is currently the Acting Deputy Director-General in DG JUST.

Finally, we appointed Mr Leopoldo Rubinacci as Deputy Director-General in the Directorate-General for Trade (DG Trade). He is an Italian national and he is currently a Director in the same Directorate-General.

With this, I think I finish the College read-out and turn to the topic of the day, which is our Enlargement Package.

I am very happy to present this year's package to you, although this is a yearly exercise. Each and every year enlargement policy is very much in the limelight. And the reason for it is very simple: Enlargement policy includes all what we can offer to our partners.

Enlargement policy is our geostrategic investment in our European continent's peace, stability, security and socio-economic growth. It is in our common interest to accelerate the integration process, starting with the Western Balkans. For many years now, we have been investing to bring them closer and finally into the European Union.

The European Union's unanimous commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans was reconfirmed during the June European Council meeting. At the same time, the Member States firmly called for speeding up the accession process and for further advancing the integration between the European Union and the Western Balkans.

Today, I am presenting seven country reports for the Western Balkans and Turkey. As of next year, following the Commission Opinions and in line with the European Council Conclusions of June this year, we will present 10 country reports – including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – as a regular reporting exercise from there on.

Our reports offer a factual and fair assessment, and a clear guidance to allow our partners to identify where they need to go faster in reforms to make progress.

In this reporting year, a lot has been done to encourage the Western Balkans to accelerate their integration processes. This is being done through the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreements, the Western Balkans Economic and Investment Plan, their enhanced participation in EU programmes, but also through the inclusive regional cooperation frameworks, and through fostering regional economic integration that can help faster entry into the EU Single Market.

Beyond the opportunities under the individual Stabilisation and Association Agreements, regional agreements offer already the way to further integration. For example, through the Energy Community, the European Union is opening its electricity market to the Western Balkans and to Eastern candidate countries. Also, the REPowerEU Plan will help to reduce the European Union's and the Western Balkans' dependence on Russian gas.

In this year's package, we put a particular focus on the €30 billion Economic and Investment Plan that we have launched two years ago, including a detailed overview of its implementation.

Part of this funding is already well underway. In the last two years, under the Western Balkans Investment Framework, we started to finance €3.4 billion of investment over 24 flagship projects. These projects speed up the reduction of the apparent socio-economic gap between the European Union and the region.

The implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan is also key in facing one of the most striking consequences of Russia's war against Ukraine:  the energy crisis. We want to help our partners in the Western Balkans to improve their energy security. Therefore, we are speeding up the implementation of all the projects on energy independency, energy efficiency and energy transition. In the past year alone, for example, six renewable energy projects were approved for financing.

The impact of these investments will be intensified when at the same time there is progress in the areas of rule of law, public finance management and public administration reform.

Now, let me give you a short overview on the individual countries. I understand that colleagues from the region are waiting eagerly for this.

Let me start with Bosnia and Herzegovina, for which the Commission recommends that candidate status be granted by the Council, on the understanding that a number of steps are taken.

This is our European offer for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We expect from the leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina to make full use of this opportunity, and to make the following reforms as soon as possible:

  • The adoption of the integrity amendments in the existing law of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council;
  • The adoption of a new law on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council;
  • The adoption of the law on Courts of Bosnia and Herzegovina;
  • The adoption of the law on prevention of conflict of interest;
  • The enhancement on fight against corruption and organised crime;
  • Advance work on border management and migration management, as well as ensuring the functioning of the asylum system;
  • Ensure prohibition of torture, notably the establishment of a national preventive mechanism against torture and ill-treatment;
  • Guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the media;
  • The adoption of a national programme for the adoption of the EU acquis.

Finally, the Commission also underlines that the European Council called on the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina to urgently finalise the pending constitutional and electoral reforms, which must be an urgent priority.

Granting candidate status is an offer, which comes once in a time and with very high expectations. Now, all the eyes will be on the elite of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following the general elections on 2 October, we expect the leadership to be swiftly setting up the institutions in order to focus on the EU reforms. These are reforms which the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve and already asked for.

The Commission stands ready to step up our support and to be a reliable partner to deliver on this.  

The Commission also continues to monitor and report on the implementation of the 14 key priorities based on the progress on the ground. The 14 key priorities remain unchanged and are not up for negotiation. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to fulfil them all before being able to open EU accession negotiations.

Now turning to North Macedonia and Albania. A major milestone was the first Intergovernmental Conferences in July with North Macedonia and Albania where we could start the accession negotiations for membership. To show that there is no time to lose, the screening process immediately started on the same day, and it is proceeding smoothly.

North Macedonia has made steady progress in implementing EU reforms, including in the areas of rule of law, fight against corruption and organised crime. The country needs to keep up this momentum and make use of the screening process to explore its full potential and to accelerate reforms.

Albania has continued to make good progress and deliver tangible results in the implementation of the EU-related reforms. This is particularly true with regards to the comprehensive justice system reform and the advancement of the vetting process, which has continued to advance at a steady pace. The country has shown high level of commitment to strengthen the rule of law, to fight corruption and organised crime.

Turning to Montenegro and Serbia, both countries decided on their own to apply the revised methodology. In both cases, our clear assessment is that an overall balance in the negotiations, in line with the Negotiating Frameworks, is currently ensured.

For Montenegro, the priority for further overall progress in the accession negotiations remains the fulfilment of the so-called interim benchmarks of the rule of law chapters.  And in order to reach this milestone, Montenegro needs to address the outstanding issues, including reforms on the freedom of expression and media freedom, fight against corruption and organised crime and ensuring the functionality and credibility of the judiciary.

Serbia made an important advancement on its EU accession path, with the opening of negotiations under cluster 4 last year. And this was based on the constitutional reform on the area of judiciary.

Following the elections, we are expecting the formation of a new government to continue and deepen reforms, in particular in the key areas of the judiciary, fight against corruption and organised crime, media freedom, freedom of assembly and the domestic handling of war crimes.

Our assessment is that an overall balance is currently ensured between progress under the rule of law chapters and normalisation of relations with Kosovo, on the one hand, and the progress in the accession negotiations across chapters, on the other. This balance will continue to determine the overall pace of the accession negotiations.

In the current geopolitical context, it is also clear that Serbia needs to step up its efforts in aligning with EU positions in foreign policy, including declarations and sanctions, in line with the negotiating framework.

Kosovo enjoyed political stability throughout the year and the authorities continue to demonstrate their commitment to the European path.

During the reporting period, Kosovo made efforts to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and intensified its fight against corruption.

On visa liberalisation, the Commission stands by its assessment of July 2018 that Kosovo has fulfilled all the benchmarks. The proposal is still pending in the Council – as you know - and we welcome that the discussions are about to restart. We are supporting the discussions with a technical update of our assessment.

The normalisation agreement with Serbia is urgent and crucial to enable Kosovo and Serbia to advance on their respective EU path. We are, of course, supporting this process but we need full engagement both from Belgrade and Pristina in a constructive way to make this Dialogue successful.

Finally, on Turkey. The EU's relations with Turkey remain complex.

On the one hand, the accession negotiations remain at a standstill as the assessment of the Commission confirmed that the negative trend of moving away from the European Union in key areas of fundamental rights, rule of law and independence of the judiciary has not changed.

Tensions with some Member States increased again in 2022. The June 2022 European Council expressed deep concern about recent repeated actions and statements by Turkey. It reiterated that Turkey must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all EU Member States and it emphasised that the European Council expects Turkey to fully respect international law, de-escalate tensions in the interest of regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, promote good neighbourly relations in a sustainable way.

On the other hand, the Commission's assessment also confirmed that Turkey remains a key partner for the EU and a candidate country. Dialogue and cooperation continued in essential areas of joint interest, such as climate, counterterrorism, energy, food security, migration, public health, regional issues, trade and transport.

Now the current geopolitical challenges make it ever more relevant to work closely together, for instance on energy or food security. Turkey played a key role in brokering direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in the July grain deals and it continues to be an important and reliable transit country for the energy security of Europe. However, it has also decided to increase trade and financial relations with Russia and has not aligned with EU's restrictive measures. This is a cause for increasing concerns that requires close EU monitoring.

Of course, now I am happy to answer your questions.

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