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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR)
News article17 January 2024Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations

Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 14-15 December 2023 and preparation of the Special European Council meeting of 1 February 2024

VDL Parliament

Madam President, dear Roberta,

Madam Minister,

Honourable Members,

A global year of elections has just begun. It is the hour of democracy, also here in Europe. But the world around us keeps spinning. We have two bloody wars that continue to rage just outside our borders. The human suffering is immense. And the shock waves are felt well beyond Ukraine and Gaza. After the energy and food crises set off by Russia, global trade is now being disrupted by Houthi terror in the Red Sea. Our world is in an era of confrontation and conflict, of fragmentation and fear. And this moment calls for focus and responsibility inside our Union. Only together can we address the grave challenges we face. And that is the greatest lesson we have learnt over those four years: When we stand united, Europe stands strong.

We have seen it again at the end of last year. After almost ten years of divisive debates, we have an agreement on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. I want to thank all of you in this Parliament who have never stopped seeking common ground. And of course, I count on you and your final green light before the end of this mandate.

And the Pact is not the only critical step that our Union has taken in the recent weeks. The hearts of millions of Ukrainians were filled with joy and hope when we announced the opening of accession negotiations. The people of Ukraine have fought hard to achieve this goal, not only on the battlefield but also through the work of their democratic institutions. It is in a matter of just a few months that they have passed new laws to expand national minority rights, to improve the judicial system and to ensure checks and balances on power. Last week, the Rada approved in first reading the lobbying bill that will curb the power of oligarchs. These are significant achievements. Ukraine's democratic institutions are delivering not only on our recommendations but on the aspirations of their people. A whole nation is showing us just how much Europe means to them. And I am proud that our Union has answered Ukraine's call.

Now we must follow up on the political situation and decision that we took at the European Council. In preparation for the accession talks, we are starting the screening process and putting together now the negotiating framework. And in the meantime, we will also start working on our own reforms to prepare for a Union of 30 plus Member States. At the last European Council, we also agreed to launch accession negotiations with Moldova, and with Bosnia and Herzegovina, when the necessary criteria are met. We have granted candidate status to Georgia. And we have confirmed our collective commitment to the future where all six Western Balkan partners are part of our Union. How will a Union of 30 plus countries work in practice? Only we, inside the European Union, can answer this question. This House has already put forward bold ideas for a reform of our Treaties. Next month, the Commission will set out our ideas in a communication to the European Parliament and the Council, ahead of the Leaders' discussion organised by the Belgian Presidency.

Honourable Members,

The last European Council has shown the political will to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. But we must back this decision with adequate funding. We have proposed to guarantee stable and substantial financing to Ukraine over the next four years to support the daily functioning of the State, to stabilise the economy and to bring it closer to our Union. All this requires an updated EU budget. And as you all know the mid-term review  is not only about Ukraine. It is about competitiveness; it is about migration; it is about our support for the Western Balkans; it is about solidarity when natural disasters hit, like floods or wildfires. These are priorities that we collectively share. And we need this mid-term review, and I am confident that we will find a solution at 27 so that this is possible.

The final topic I would like to address is Hungary and its access to EU funds. This is also about the fundamental values that bring us together. When we took office, we promised to safeguard the rule of law in our Union, while being fair to all Member States. I have made this a priority for my Commission. That is why this Commission has created the annual Rule of Law Reports. And we have used all the instruments available to us to protect both the values and the EU's financial interests. Our goal has always been to push for reforms in the Member States, that they can improve the life of every European. Last May, Hungary passed a new law on justice reform that addresses a number of our recommendations from the 2022 Report. It is a law that strengthens judicial independence and limits the possibility of political interference in the judiciary. This was required for Hungary to meet the conditions for cohesion funds. This is what we requested – and this is what Hungary delivered. Commissioners briefed Parliament beforehand, and of course they stand ready to provide further information anytime. At the same time, around EUR 20 billion remain frozen. They are suspended for reasons that include concerns on LGBTIQ rights, academic freedom and asylum rights. Some are blocked under the conditionality mechanism. And they will remain blocked until Hungary fulfils all the necessary conditions.

In the meantime, Hungary has also received pre-financing under REPowerEU, like any other Member State. This pre-financing is not subject to any condition. These are the rules, we have all agreed to them, and we will follow them. This is what makes the rule of law stand out from arbitrary power.

Thank you.

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