I am pleased to be here today to present the plans about a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans.
The European Union enlargement is a top priority for this Commission. The firm, merit-based prospect of full EU membership for the Western Balkans is in our own political, security and economic interest. It is a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe.
We are working on three tracks:
1) the revised methodology for accession talks, adopted today;
(2) opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania;
(3) economic development and investment plan for the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb on 6-7 May.
Our proposals for a revised enlargement methodology aim to make the accession negotiations more credible, more predictable, more dynamic and guided by a stronger political steer. The purpose is not to completely redesign the EU enlargement, but to improve and strengthen the process. The goal remains accession. Full EU membership cannot be questioned.
We looked at how to improve our tools to push reforms forward, notably in areas crucial for moving closer to the EU (rule of law, economy). These reforms need to have a real impact on the ground - boosting prosperity, creating jobs, improving the quality of life and the sense of freedom for people in the countries in the region. This will only happen if the pace of reforms is not only sustained, but accelerated.
Proposal for revised methodology builds on 4 principles:
The accession process needs to rest on solid trust and mutual confidence: the Western Balkans leaders need to deliver more credibly on the commitment to implement the fundamental reforms required, especially on rule of law. This will help reassure EU Member States’ and citizens’ legitimate concerns.
The focus on fundamental reforms will be further strengthened, as this is the core for real transformation. This means rule of law, functioning of democratic institutions, public administration reform and economic criteria.
On the EU’s side, it means delivering on its commitment to a merit-based process. When partner countries meet the objective criteria, the Member States shall agree to move forward to the next stage of the process.
Stronger political steer
In view of its political nature, the process needs strong political leadership on both sides.
We intend to ensure a top-level engagement with the candidate countries, through regular EU-Western Balkans summits and ministerial meetings.
We want to involve Member States more strongly and give them better opportunities to monitor and review the process, to support and keep track of the fundamental reforms needed.
A more dynamic process
To inject further dynamism we will group the negotiating chapters in six thematic clusters: fundamentals; internal market; competitiveness and inclusive growth; green agenda and sustainable connectivity; resources, agriculture and cohesion; external relations.
Clustering chapters by policy fields will allow for more thorough political discussions on thematic areas and to identify opportunities for early alignment and involvement into EU policies. Negotiations on each cluster to be open as a whole rather than on an individual chapter basis.
The cluster on fundamentals (rule of law, economic criteria, public administration reform) will, of course, take a central role. It will be opened first and closed last, and sufficient progress will need to be achieved in these areas before other clusters can be opened.
Where important reforms will be implemented before opening, the timeframe between opening the cluster and closing of chapters should be limited, preferably within a year.
Predictability – for both sides
Greater clarity on what the EU expects of enlargement countries: defining more clearly the conditions, and what the positive impact is when there is progress and what are negative consequences if there is no progress.
We will also provide clear incentives along the way if key reforms are implemented, in particular through gradual integration into EU policies and markets. The faster reform progress, the faster can the country advance on the EU path.
At the same time, Member States need to be confident that corrective measures are taken where there is prolonged stagnation or backsliding. More decisive measures sanctioning any serious or prolonged stagnation or even backsliding will occur.
A word on the other two tracks
In parallel, the Commission stands by the recommendations to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and we hope that these can be opened ahead of the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb.
Both countries have delivered, and both have engaged in further reform efforts. We continue to monitor progress and will report to EU Member States soon, hopefully still this month. To be a credible partner, the EU needs to deliver on its promises.
And in preparation of the Zagreb Summit, we will also come forward with a proposal, with a strong focus on economic development. Our objective is to intensify our presence in the Western Balkans, to increase investment and to help close the economic development gap between us.
And to conclude
As you can see, this is an ambitious agenda, and we will need your support to deliver it. We need to think together what concrete measures we can take to bring forward investments in the Western Balkans and support socio-economic integration, enhance access to the EU single market, create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, improve the business and investment and stop the brain drain from the region.
As always, I am very keen to hear your views and to answer your questions.
[The full press conference can be viewed here]