2014 marks an important anniversary: it’s been ten years since Western and Eastern Europe were reunited. While the earlier enlargements of the EU were first of all about expanding and consolidating the single market, and anchoring democracy in formerly authoritarian countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece, the enlargement of 2004 was a real watershed in our recent history: it healed an artificial divide and brought back together a continent torn-apart during the cold war.
Today, nationalisms in Europe, prompted by economic uncertainty, would have us all fold back onto ourselves. Is this really the answer the Union of today want to give to the eligible aspirations of peoples still outside its doors? If we want a secure and economically strong Europe, playing a leading role in world affairs, we must not lose sight of our overriding objective: together, we are stronger and we can achieve more.
As was the case back in 2004, the enlargement process now, encompassing the aspirant countries in Southeast Europe, continues to play an important role in fostering stability on our continent. Over 10 years after the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Thessaloniki, our political commitment to an EU future for the Western Balkan countries still stands, and we keep the promises made then, as Croatia’s recent accession has shown. Turkey is also part of the process. A NATO member since 1952, it already plays a crucial role in European stability. A credible accession process with Turkey is the best way for the EU to remain an anchor for democratic reforms and modernisation of the country. The EU as a civilian power, extending the area of peace and prosperity, liberty and democracy, can achieve far more through its gravitational pull than could ever be achieved by other means.
And this is what the enlargement policy is all about: it makes us all stronger. I know there is a lot of concern among EU citizens about enlarging the EU: is it really sensible to let in new members? Shouldn’t we fix our own problems first? Are they really ready to join and to respect our rules? What’s really in it for us?
These are all legitimate questions and we address them through a carefully managed enlargement process, based on strict conditions, and on delivery of visible results. Being an EU member is demanding, which means that a country on the road to the EU needs to be well prepared. While the pace of progress depends on each country’s own merits in carrying out the necessary reforms, the process has become more sophisticated and rigorous overtime, anchoring “fundamentals” at the very heart of the project. By the time they can join the EU, the aspiring countries must first demonstrate their record on human rights, respect for minorities, freedom of expression and media, rule of law and sound economic governance. They need to tackle issues such as judicial reform and the fight against organised crime and corruption early in accession negotiations, to show solid, sustainable and irreversible results. Let me remind you that insisting our own high standards are applied beyond our borders also benefits ourselves: it reduces the risks of EU citizens being affected, for example, by imported pollution.
There is still a lot of work to do in the aspirant countries, and we will keep supporting them in addressing the challenges they face. While many complain the conditions are harsh, we keep explaining that shortcuts will not work: they would neither help the EU, nor the countries wishing to join. The aspirant countries need to carry out essential reforms, modernise their societies and economies, and strengthen their democratic processes. This is a good deal for them and us alike. A good deal for a more secure, stable and prosperous Europe. This is how the perspective of EU accession can work to the benefit of both sides. And we will not stop there: we will keep looking for ways to make the enlargement process better, to make sure it best plays its role in defining the future place of the European Union in the world.