Honourable Chair,

Honourable Members,

I am coming straight from the College, as you know, where we have adopted the enlargement package of this year, half an hour ago.

And since the presentation of last year, you see, I agree with David in his assessment, that the world has changed and major developments have taken place also in the EU enlargement agenda.

First, Russia’s war against Ukraine has fundamentally changed Europe’s security environment and is putting our rule-based order to a test. In this context, the EU’s enlargement policy is more than ever a geostrategic investment in long term peace, stability and security of our European continent. 

Second, as an immediate reaction to the beginning of the war, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia decided to submit their request for EU membership. These decisions by partner countries underline their view of the central role that the EU holds in ensuring peace and stability. This was a clear commitment and choice for the EU!

In June, the EU leaders recognised the European perspective of these countries by granting the status of candidate country to Ukraine and Moldova, and by granting the status of potential candidate country to Georgia once the priorities specified in the Commission’s opinion have been addressed.

Finally, the EU hold the first intergovernmental conferences with Albania and North Macedonia in July. This was a major breakthrough, opening a new chapter in the EU’s enlargement policy. The Commission started immediately the screening exercise, as the first step in the negotiation process.

The Western Balkans are part of the European family and remain a priority for us. It is in the EU’s strategic interest and essential to their own stability and prosperity that all Western Balkan Six get into the EU as fast as possible.

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Turning now to the enlargement package let me be clear:  This year, like in the previous years, and for the last time, I am presenting 7 country reports. The enlargement package covers the Western Balkans and Türkiye.

As of next year, we will report on 10 countries, including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as part of our regular and annual enlargement package. In addition, by the end of 2022, so this year, we will present our assessment on the ability of the three countries, meaning Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to assume the obligations of EU membership. These are the so-called acquis reports which were missing from our opinions delivered this year.

Our reports offer a factual and fair assessment and a clear guidance precisely to allow our partners to identify where they need to go faster in reforms to move ahead on their European path.

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The current energy crisis is a challenge for the Western Balkans and Türkiye as well as for the EU.

The EU has invited the Western Balkans to join the common EU energy purchases platform for joint purchasing of gas, liquefied natural gas and hydrogen. Serbia and North Macedonia have joined the first regional group meeting of the South-East Europe regional task force.

The REPowerEU Plan will help to reduce the EU’s and the Western Balkans’ dependence on Russian gas.

Through the Energy Community, the EU is opening its electricity market to the Western Balkans, subject to regulatory reforms. Green transition is Europe’s best chance of becoming more energy independent and also contributing to slowing down climate change and improving people’s lives.

In this year’s package we put a particular focus on the implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan that we have launched 2 years ago.

The plan comes with EUR 9 billion of EU funding from the IPA programme and the possibility to leverage EUR 20 billion of investments in the next six years.

Part of this funding is already well underway. In the last 2 years we have adopted EUR 1.2 billion in investment grants under the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF), with a view to finance 24 flagship projects with a total investment value of EUR 3.4 billion.

The implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan is also key in facing the energy crisis. Now we need to focus on investments that can, over time, help our partners in the Western Balkans to improve their energy security.

In the past year, six renewable energy projects were approved for financing, including the rehabilitation of a hydropower plant in Albania, three solar power plant projects in North Macedonia and Albania, and a smart metering project in the electricity distribution system in Serbia.

Funding was also allocated to the construction of a segment of the Trans-Balkan electricity corridor. The EU is financing with a 49.6 million EUR grant the construction of the Serbia-Bulgaria gas interconnector, which is the physical pre-condition to open Serbia’s gas market for non-Russian gas sources. We are now working closely with international financing institutions and our Western Balkan partners to speed up the development and rollout of additional projects in the area of energy efficiency and energy transition.

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Now let me give you a short overview of the individual countries.

Starting with Bosnia and Herzegovina:

The Commission recommends that candidate status be granted to Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Council on the understanding that a number of steps are taken.

We expect that Bosnia and Herzegovina:

  • adopts, as a matter of priority, integrity amendments in the existing law of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council;
  • adopts a new law on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council;
  • adopts the law on Courts of Bosnia and Herzegovina;
  • adopts the law on prevention of conflict of interest;
  • take decisive steps to strengthen the prevention and fight against corruption and organised crime;
  • decisively advances work to ensure effective coordination, at all levels, of border management and migration management, as well as ensuring the functioning of the asylum system;
  • ensures prohibition of torture, notably by establishing a national preventive mechanism against torture and ill-treatment;
  • guarantees freedom of expression and of the media and the protection of journalists, notably by ensuring the appropriate judicial follow-up to cases of threats and violence against journalists and media workers.
  • and finally ensures a track record in the functioning at all levels of the coordination mechanism on EU matters including by developing and adopting 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. This reform will have to be advanced as an urgent priority.

Granting candidate statues is an offer from Europe to Bosnia and Herzegovina and to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are doing this for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it also comes with high expectations. It is for the elite to turn this into reality. Following general elections on 2nd October we expect the legislatures and governments (at State, entity and cantonal levels) to be swiftly set up in order to focus on EU reforms.

It will be for the European Council to take the final decision, possibly in December.

The Commission stands ready to step up its support and to be a reliable partner along this road. The Commission also continues to monitor and report on the implementation of the 14 key priorities based on progress on the ground.

The 14 key priorities remain unchanged and are not negotiable. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to fulfil them all before being able to open EU accession negotiations.

For North Macedonia the past year was important. The start of the accession negotiation process with the holding of the first political IGC was long overdue and a breakthrough for the country.

North Macedonia has shown its determination and made steady progress in implementing EU reforms.

But, the country needs to keep up the speed and make use of the screening process to explore its full potential to accelerate the implementation of EU reforms. The fight against corruption needs to continue and further efforts are needed in the area of Public Administration Reform.

North Macedonia has made very good progress in the area of CFSP and is now fully aligning with the EU positions and statements, following the war in  Ukraine. By doing so, North Macedonia has shown its determination to advance on its EU path as a reliable partner.

Albania is the second country, with which we launched the EU accession negotiations this year.

Albania has continued to make good progress and deliver tangible results. The comprehensive justice reform and the vetting process, which has continued to advance at a steady pace are examples of good progress.

The country has shown a high level of commitment to strengthen the rule of law, to fight corruption and organised crime. Albania has maintained a consistent 100% alignment on the CSFP and used its current term in the UN Security Council to respond to Russia’s war along with like-minded actors tabelling proposals.

Further efforts remain needed in key areas of rule of law, including the reform of the judiciary, freedom of expression, the fight against corruption, as well as on property rights, minority issues and media freedom.

For Montenegro, the priority for further overall progress in the accession negotiations remains the fulfilment of the rule of law interim benchmarks as set out in chapters 23 and 24. 

In order to reach this milestone, Montenegro needs to intensify its efforts in tackling outstanding issues, including the critical areas of freedom of expression and media freedom, as well as fight against corruption and organised crime. We have made the same assessment last year, but the before mentioned points remain a significant concern.

Ensuring functionality and credibility of the judiciary includes the appointment of judges to all 4 vacant positions in the Constitutional Court, just to give you one example.

Political commitment, credible engagement and consensus building by all political actors and a functional administration to carry out Montenegro’s EU reform agenda are of fundamental importance.

Positively, Montenegro continued to fully align with the EU’s CFSP, demonstrating it is a reliable partner.

Serbia continued with the implementation of EU accession related reforms, including in the area of rule of law. Following the approval in the referendum in January of a constitutional reform, Serbia is now working on the implementation. In particular, Serbia should adopt the legislation needed to apply the constitutional changes in practice within the foreseen deadlines.

We also recognise the progress made in fighting corruption but expect stronger efforts when it comes to the freedom of expression and in particular the implementation of the media action plan.

The EU is Serbia’s most important political and economic partner, and we want to help Serbia to address its challenges, including in the area of energy security.

At the same time, we need to count on Serbia as a sincere European partner and ally standing with us for our common values, security and prosperity.

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

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

We recognise that Kosovo also made efforts to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and intensified its fight against corruption. Work has been done to lay the foundation for sustainable progress in several areas, including the green and energy transition, and innovation.

Over the coming year we would like to see a faster and more effective delivery of Kosovo’s EU reform agenda.

On visa liberalisation, the Commission stands by its assessment of July 2018 that Kosovo has fulfilled all benchmarks. The proposal is still pending in the Council and we support the renewed discussions by a technical update of this assessment.

On the Belgrade - Pristina dialogue we need Kosovo to engage constructively as we need Belgrade to do the same.

Dialogue and cooperation continued with Türkiye in essential areas of joint interest, however the EU’s overall relations with Türkiye remains complex.

On the one hand, the assessment of the Commission confirmed that the country has not reversed the negative trend of moving away from the EU with continuous backsliding in key areas of fundamental rights, rule of law and independence of the judiciary, and worsening economic governance and macroeconomic imbalances. In this regard, the accession negotiations remain at a standstill.

Despite the EU’s offer for constructive engagement with Türkiye, tensions with some Member States increased again in 2022. The June 2022 European Council expressed deep concern about recent repeated actions and statements by Türkiye. It reiterated that Türkiye must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all Member States and it emphasised that the European Council expects Türkiye 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.

Türkiye’s foreign policy continued to be at odds with EU priorities, notably due to its interventions and support for military actions in regional conflicts, and its non-alignment with the EU restrictive measures against Russia and its strengthening of economic and trade relations with Russia.

On the other hand, the Commission’s assessment also confirmed that Türkiye remains a key partner for the EU and a candidate country.

The EU continues to have a strategic interest in a stable and secure environment in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the development of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Türkiye. In line with the guidelines of the European Council, 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.

The current geopolitical challenges make it ever more relevant for the EU and Türkiye to work closely together, for instance on energy or food security. Türkiye played a key role in brokering direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in the July grain deals. It continues to be an important and reliable transit country for the energy security of Europe.

Last but not least, our cooperation with Türkiye on migration remains essential, though challenging. The EU-Turkey statement continued to yield results and we appreciate Türkiye’s sustained efforts to host over 4 million refugees from Syria and other countries. The number of irregular border crossings between Türkiye and the EU remained significantly lower than before the adoption of the EU-Turkey statement. However, the irregular migratory flows through alternative smuggling routes to Cyprus and Italy have substantially increased in 2022 and is a source for concern.

Increased cooperation to preventing illegal migration, strengthening border control and cracking down smugglers of migrants and organised crime groups must be a key priority.

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The last months have demonstrated how the idea of joining the Union built on freedom, democracy, rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights remains a powerful vision for many citizens on our continent. It is now our responsibility to live up to these expectations. To further strengthen the enlargement policy based on strict but fair conditionality and the principle of own merits.

And now I want to listen to your questions, and I am more than happy to answer them.

Thank you very much.