Council conclusions on Enlargement and Stabilisation and Association Process

    BRUSSELS – The Council takes note of the communication from the Commission of 10 November 2015 on the EU Enlargement Strategy and the reports on Turkey, Montenegro, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo* , and of the conclusions and recommendations therein. The Council welcomes the Commission’s increased focus on the state of play, the provision of more guidance, as well as the further harmonisation of reporting.

    In line with the renewed consensus on enlargement approved by the European Council on 14 and 15 December 2006, and the Council conclusions of 16 December 2014, the Council reiterates that enlargement remains a key policy of the European Union and an investment in the peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability of our continent. In this context, the Council reiterates the EU’s unequivocal commitment to the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Turkey remains a key partner in many areas. Active and credible accession negotiations, which respect the EU’s commitments and established conditionality, will contribute to EU-Turkey relations to achieving their full potential.

    In line with previous Council conclusions and in the framework of the Copenhagen political criteria and the Stabilisation and Association Process, that remains the common framework for relations with the Western Balkans, the Council reaffirms the need, in accordance with the renewed consensus on enlargement, for fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits, combined with the EU’s capacity, in all its dimensions, to integrate new members.

    The Council continues to attach great importance to the credibility of the Enlargement Process, which remains crucial to maintaining the momentum of reform. Public support for and understanding of the benefits and obligations of enlargement should be enhanced through improved strategic communication. The Council looks forward to the plan of the Commission and the EEAS to step up their efforts and actions, along with the continued engagement of Member States and partners in this area. The Council welcomes the continued efforts of the Commission to strengthen the focus on addressing fundamental reforms early in the process, in particular on rule of law issues, fundamental rights, economic development and competitiveness, and on the strengthening of democratic institutions and public administration reform.

    The rule of law is a fundamental value on which the EU is founded and which is at the heart of both the Enlargement Process and of the Stabilisation and Association Process. Strengthening the rule of law, including through judicial reforms and by tackling organised crime and corruption, as well as fundamental rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, the non-discriminatory treatment of national minorities, as well as tackling discrimination of vulnerable groups such as the Roma, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons, remain key challenges. The Council is seriously concerned by the shortcomings in the area of freedom of expression and media which should be addressed in a decisive and effective way. Further work is also required to promote gender equality. Proper functioning of democratic institutions, requiring inclusive political dialogue and compromise, notably within parliaments, as well as public administration reform, are crucial. An enabling environment for civil society organisations needs to be ensured. Further efforts are needed to improve economic governance, competitiveness, business environment, growth, job creation, in order to ensure sustainable economic development. A solid track record of reform implementation, leading to tangible results, is to be established in all these fields.

    Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation are essential elements of the Enlargement Process, as well as of the Stabilisation and Association Process, and contribute to prosperity, stability, reconciliation and a climate conducive to addressing open bilateral issues and the legacies of the past. In general, continued efforts are needed to tackle outstanding bilateral disputes, including border disputes, in order to ensure that they do not have a detrimental effect on the accession process. Outstanding disputes and issues should be solved in line with international law and established principles, including through implementation of legally binding agreements, inter alia the Agreement on Succession Issues.

    The Council welcomes the positive developments in South Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans in regional cooperation, in particular progress on connectivity within the region and with the EU, including on the connectivity agenda. It fully supports initiatives and structures which reinforce inclusive regional cooperation. The Council also welcomes the efforts made to overcome legacies of the past, foster reconciliation and support inclusive regional cooperation, including through promoting a climate of tolerance and condemning all forms of hate speech or wartime rhetoric. The Council reiterates the need to avoid any source of friction or actions that could damage good neighbourly relations and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Continuous efforts are needed in this regard, including the protection of all minorities, ensuring equal rights for all citizens, and addressing the issues of missing persons and refugee return. The Council underlines the need to continue handling domestic war crimes cases, as well as addressing impunity for war crimes and to ensure accountability, including fully cooperating with and supporting the work of ICTY and the EULEX Special Investigative Task Force and Specialist Chambers.

    While recognising in particular the importance of visa liberalisation for citizens, the Council encourages the Commission to continue to closely monitor the implementation of all conditions set for visa liberalisation, including through its follow-up mechanism. The Council encourages the authorities concerned to actively continue their efforts to take all the necessary measures against the abuse of the visa free travel regime.

    The Council underlines the growing importance of further deepening cooperation on foreign policy issues and of progressive alignment with the EU’s foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, such as on restrictive measures.

    In line with the orientations of the informal meeting of the Heads of State and Government of 12 February 2015 and the Council conclusions on the renewed European Union Internal Security Strategy for 2015-2020, the Council recalls the importance of a reinforced cooperation with the Western Balkans and Turkey to fight terrorism, in particular regarding the fight against illegal trafficking of firearms, the fight against financing of terrorism, combat and prevention of radicalisation and reinforced border checks, making best use of regional platforms such as the Western Balkans counter-terrorism initiative and the Salzburg Forum. The Council calls on Western Balkans partners to step up legal and operational measures against illegal trafficking of firearms, in particular by improving the use of existing databases and the exchange of information. The Commission is invited to address this issue in the framework of its pre-accession support.

    The Council commends Turkey and the Western Balkans, at present in particular Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for their efforts in addressing the refugee and migration crisis which has seriously affected the region. The Council calls for increased cooperation between the EU and the region, as well as within the region. This is urgently required to further address the situation, in order to identify people in need of protection, to provide assistance, to secure the EU’s external borders, to fight trafficking and smuggling of migrants, and to prevent irregular migration. The Council calls for the continued implementation of the recommendations contained in the declaration of the High-Level Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans Route. The EU will use the financial instruments and technical assistance available within the Enlargement Process and the Stabilisation and Association Process, including the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA II), to strengthen cooperation and provide support in this field.

    The Council recalls the continued EU financial assistance for the Enlargement Process and the Stabilisation and Association Process, in particular in the form of the Instrument for PreAccession Assistance (IPA II), with a focus on key priorities and enhanced coherence between the financial assistance and the overall progress made in the implementation of the pre-accession strategy, increased budget support and priorisation of projects.

    Council conclusions on Enlargement:

    Council conclusions on  Stabilisation and Association Process: