Chairman, Honourable Members,
I am very grateful for this evening’s structured dialogue which allows me to give you a snapshot of the work we’re taking forward across my portfolio. I also welcome the opportunity to share with you my political priorities for the coming months.
Continued commitment to fundamentals first
I would like to start with enlargement and you won’t be surprised if I reiterate our continued commitment to the principle of “fundamentals first” in the accession process.
Rule of law and economic development
There will be no let-up in our efforts on the rule of law, which is crucial. This includes judicial reforms, tackling organised crime and corruption. We will also maintain a strong focus on fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and fighting discrimination.
We will continue with a strong emphasis on promoting economic development and strengthening competitiveness. The rule of law and economic development are two sides of the same coin. Rule of law, in particular legal certainty and a functioning judicial system, foster investments and economic growth. Conversely, economic reforms have the capacity to stabilise countries in the longer term.
Turning to the enlargement package which we will present in the autumn, you will recall that last year we introduced a number of new elements. Our plan for this year is to further expand our new reporting methodology to areas linked primarily to economic development. We are also looking at further modernising the economic criteria sections of the annual reports.
Our new approach ensures maximum transparency. We are providing more clarity and guidance than ever before to the enlargement countries so that they stay engaged and move ahead with the necessary reforms. And this increased transparency helps keep all stakeholders on board so that they can follow the accession process and hold their governments to account.
Connectivity – next stop Paris
Turning to our connectivity agenda, The Western Balkan summit in Vienna last year was successful because we managed to reach agreement on a number of tangible and important issues such as the Core network corridors for the Western Balkans.
We aim to have an equally successful summit in Paris on 4 July. This requires that the parties deliver on all the issues agreed in Vienna including in particular the “soft measures” on energy and transport, ensuring the region can make full use of the newly connected infrastructure. I have been very clear to all countries that the delivery is falling behind.
We will continue our hard work on the functioning of democratic institutions in the enlargement countries where, if we are honest, there have been important shortcomings. And I am most grateful for the strong support that I have received from this House on numerous occasions over the last years when we have been confronted with stalemates and boycotts of parliaments. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the situation is still unacceptable. But we continue the efforts and to help the political parties to find a solution.
In Kosovo, the next challenge is implementation of the SAA. The SAA cannot fix Kosovo’s internal political problems but properly implemented, it will help keep Kosovo on the path of reform and will create trade and investment opportunities. We have also made a proposal for lifting the short-term visa obligation for Kosovo. Once adopted, this will open new possibilities for the people to connect with Europe.
Serbia took major steps on its EU path last year, with the opening of the first negotiating chapters. I’m now looking forward to the next steps in EU accession negotiations, namely the opening of chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) & 24 (Justice Freedom and Security) as quickly as possible.
While relations with Turkey have been dominated by the migration crisis, work is also progressing along all aspects of the 18 March EU-Turkey agreement. Concerning accession negotiations, the opening of chapter 33 (budget) is envisaged during the Dutch presidency.
Preparatory work continues at an accelerated pace on five other Chapters including the key areas of judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security (Chapters 23 and 24). The Commission aims to table the preparatory documents for the Rule of Law chapters in June still. This work provides an excellent basis for supporting the reform process in Turkey.
The rule of law chapters should become our main anchor to hold TK to fundamental rights and values, on which the Union cannot compromise. Such discussions are much needed: we have repeatedly stated our concern on the deteriorating fundamental rights situation.
On visa liberalisation all five outstanding benchmarks relate to a number of important matters that need to be fixed before visa liberalisation can be decided by the co-legislator and can enter into force – 1/ data protection; 2/ operational protocol with Europol; 3/ cooperation in criminal matters; 4/ terrorism legislation and; 5/ anti-corruption measures. This is why we will focus all our attention on these in the coming weeks and seek to secure tangible progress from Turkey on every one of them.
Increasing concerns on migration
On migration, the EU-Turkey agreement of 18 March is delivering results. The Western Balkan/Eastern Mediterranean route is closed. And there has been a substantial decrease in the numbers of irregular migrants arriving from Turkey. A significant element is the Facility for Refugees in Turkey which is up and running and delivering tangible support to those in need. EUR 235 million out of the EUR 250 million foreseen in the EU budget 2016 for the Facility have been committed already and many more contracts are in the pipeline. Payments already made under the Facility amount to 106 million EUR.
But the migration situation in Libya and Egypt is of increasing concern with potential negative spill overs. That is why, in addition to the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU Trust Fund for the Syrian crisis and the Compacts under preparation with Jordan and Lebanon are such important tools.
The Africa Trust Fund is also up and running now. It addresses the root causes of migration in countries of origin of sub-Saharan Africa. An important component is dedicated to North Africa, where our partner countries are primarily countries of transit and destination, and less so of origin and therefore present a vast array of challenges.
Overall, our assistance to better manage migration flows is aimed at saving the lives of migrants and refugees and tackling irregular migration and trafficking. Access to education for refugee children and young Syrians is an absolute priority. We must also, however, remember to consider the needs of host communities.
The migration package that will be adopted tomorrow by the Commission will complement these efforts and will put our actions beyond our borders in a more strategic framework.
Chairman, Honourable Members,
Differentiation and focus
I would like to turn now to our work on the European Neighbourhood Policy. Last year’s communication on the ENP review, which I presented in this Committee last November, provides a clear political framework for the next 3-5 years with a focus on differentiation and tailor made partnerships based on our common interests.
We are currently discussing with partner countries how they want to refocus their relationships with the EU on a smaller set of joint priorities, where countries so wish.
To give you a flavour, a number of contacts with Egypt have showed enthusiasm for new more political, more focused partnership basedon shared priorities. Reaching an agreement on human rights remains key for us.
In Jordan and Lebanon we are following up with the work on the compacts with wider discussions on partnership priorities
Tunisia is a good positive example of transition in recent times but it faces many challenges including the threat of Daesh, and the related negative impact on the tourism sector. So we must remain determined to intensify our support for Tunisia.
Tunisia will continue to focus on its Action Plan which is in place until the end of 2017. Nevertheless we are coordinating with our Tunisian counterparts in order to start negotiating partnership priorities for 2018 onwards in line with the reviewed ENP.
We are currently exploring both financial and non-financial means of bolstering our support to Tunisia, having already channelled over €1 billion to Tunisia since the Revolution in 2011. [In this context, we will prepare a Joint Communication to show the EU’s determination and continued engagement. Support for socio-economic development, notably job-creation measures on a regional and local level, coupled with security assistance are crucial to our efforts]
In the east, our tailor made approach is kicking into gear. Negotiations on new agreement with Armenia and Azerbaijan and the new engagement with Belarus following lifting of most sanctions are paving the way for agreeing on new partnership priorities.
Keeping Nagorno-Karabakh in mind, I was also pleased to see that both Armenia and Azerbaijan attended the recent Eastern Partnership ministerial in Brussels. It will be important for the EU to continue helping to ensure that this relationship continues and that the risk of conflict is carefully managed.
With the DCFTA countries, (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) our focus is on refining the Association Agendas to create the right environment for them to do well economically and benefit from the new agreements increase investment and create opportunities for EU business.
Stabilisation is at the heart of the revised ENP. Economic development is important here, as is improving employability and private sector development. But we are also increasing our support on security and migration; and paying particular attention to youth, including tackling radicalisation.
We will also contribute to stability by continuing to uphold and promote EU principles and EU human rights. Good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights remain a key area for cooperation under the revised ENP.
Fundamental role for Civil Society
This will be supported by an increased role for civil society which is one of the priorities of the revised ENP. We are working on reaching out to civil society in its broadest sense and also to promote the skills of civil society leaders.
Two weeks ago, I spoke at the Southern Neighbourhood Civil Society forum and heard first-hand the concerns of many representatives of Civil Society in the region. And I heard similar views at an Eastern Partnership event in Kyiv last November. On both occasions I made it clear that we see a fundamental role for Civil Society in promoting change, by calling for increased freedom, more respect for human rights and the application of the rule of law.
We will continue to report on progress on good governance, democracy, human rights and rule of law as part of the new regional Communication on the Neighbourhood which we will launch next year. Protecting and expanding space for civil society is in both the interests of the EU and in the interests of Neighbourhood countries and we will continue to make every effort to support civil society’s efforts both politically and through our programming.
Overall, my message is that we’re making rapid progress with an ambitious agenda. We are not going to solve all problems overnight but with the support of this House, I am sure we will be able to make a difference.
We have a lot to discuss and I look forward to your questions, not just today but in the months ahead.