By the end of his term in 2014, Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle hopes to have achieved enough to end talk of "enlargement fatigue" and help EU citizens to see more clearly the benefits of an enlarged Europe.
Mr Füle: you have been very active in recent weeks since taking up the post of EU enlargement commissioner. Are you enjoying your new job?
I am, very much, I am enjoying every minute of it. I have to say that it is rather a big challenge, combining the enlargement and neighbourhood policies, and covering many individual countries with a specific east and south dimension. I am also working with Cathy Ashton and colleagues from the member states on how to arrange the European External Action Service (EEAS) to try and ensure that, following the Lisbon Treaty, the EU really does have a strong, single voice in external policy. This is a challenge.
You mentioned EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, but it is not yet clear what kind of working relationship will exist between the EEAS and your services. Do you think that a satisfactory solution can be found that does not involve you losing some of your competencies?
But it is clear: the Lisbon Treaty has not changed anything concerning the competencies of the Commission and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). We have been working hard with Catherine Ashton on the EEAS to make sure that we can combine the European Community pillar and the CFSP into one, single EU voice.
There are now concrete ideas on what the EEAS should look like, on its coordination and its programme responsibilities. I have to say that the plans for both practical and formal cooperation fully fulfil my expectations and I hope the expectations of all those who want to see a stronger EU external policy.
Speaking about enlargement, it seems that Croatia could finish its negotiation process this year. But there are still some problems, such as the shipyard issue, which is currently blocking the competition chapter. It is also not clear whether there will be a monitoring mechanism for Croatia like those for Bulgaria and Romania. What are your views on this?
First of all, Croatia has made excellent progress in recent months and we are very much in the final stage of accession negotiations. I cannot see any issue or challenge that Croatia won't be able to overcome with the assistance of the European Commission.
We are so focused on the quality of accession negotiations that speculation about an eventual monitoring mechanism does not have any place and I take my responsibilities very seriously in this regard. I am not in the business of running an accession process that requires such a mechanism.
Many lessons have been learned from the previous enlargements and we are taking them all on board. We now have a very streamlined process for accession talks with so-called 'benchmarks' for opening and closing chapters, so the focus is very much on quality and making Croatia fully ready to take the advantages and also assume the responsibilities that come with membership. Enlarging the EU must mean strengthening the EU.
You say "lessons learned," but this is a diplomatic way of saying 'learning from mistakes'. Were the accessions of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 a mistake?
No, I think that the whole enlargement was generally a success. Each and every accession process has had its challenges and I use this phrase again – 'lessons learned' – because we want to apply these lessons to the next enlargement to make it even more streamlined and more effective. This is exactly what we are doing with Croatia.
Regarding Macedonia, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said during his visit to the Czech Republic last February that he would like his country to join the EU within a few years – meaning during your term as enlargement commissioner. Do you think this is feasible?
I think first of all we need to start the accession negotiations. The last couple of years – in particular 2009 – were good for reforms in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), so much so that the Commission has recommended to the European Council to begin discussions with the country. So it is now in the hands of the Council.
Our colleagues in FYROM know what challenges remain and it is essential that the name issue is tackled and solved in cooperation with Greece. I hope very much that this will happen soon, as I see a window of opportunity between now and the European Council in June. It is essential that the reform process is not halted so that the country can continue the process towards fulfilling its European aspirations.
But the name issue is only one aspect of a complicated picture in the Balkans. Another ongoing issue in the Balkans is Serbia taking Kosovo to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its independence. It appears that until the court's decision, relations between the two remain paralysed – we witnessed this at the recent Brdo meeting. What are your views on this stalemate? Are you also waiting for the ICJ ruling or are you asking Belgrade and Pristina to overcome the problem without delay?
The position of the Commission is status-neutral. We see a clear European perspective for both. Serbia applied for EU membership at the end of last year and the Commission is waiting for a green light from the European Council to start the process of forming an official opinion.
In the meantime, we are working hard with the Kosovo authorities in three specific areas to promote their European aspirations, because from the Commission's perspective it is very important that none of these countries are left in the cold.
Cooperation in the region and relations between Serbia and Kosovo are very important. Regional cooperation is a key part of the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) and should be inclusive, representative and effective. I think the Brdo conference was a success, because for the first time the leaders of the countries pledged their commitment to help each other in fulfilling their European aspirations.
At the Brdo conference, I stressed that all efforts need to be made towards an inclusive framework and that all stakeholders have an important role to play in regional cooperation. I also made the point that regional cooperation needs to be approached in a pragmatic way and that it should be used to solve all remaining bilateral problems. I see determination among the Balkan leaders to solve problems in parallel to accession negotiations – it would be very unfortunate if accession talks were taken hostage by any ongoing bilateral issues.
Such as the recent border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia?
That could be an example. If there is a will, there is a way, and that was clearly demonstrated in this case. I see now the determination of the leaders of the region to solve all the remaining issues, not at the expense or within the framework of the accession negotiations, but in parallel.
Do you think that the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) is an appropriate format for this? I believe it has not been asked politically to resolve such outstanding problems.
While RCC reflects the best of the Stability Pact and is a good instrument for regional cooperation, much more could be done at the higher level to increase confidence among the Balkan countries. But it is necessary to have an organisation like the RCC in addition to the accession talks that can be used to solve bilateral issues separately, not as part of the accession process.
The fact that you are Czech perhaps helps when you are discussing difficult issues such as separated or divided countries. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), diplomats are saying that the situation is very worrying as the three political entities do not appear to envisage a common future under the Dayton model. If this model is challenged it could become a major international problem. How do you see the future of BiH?
Some Czech experiences are to be followed, some are not. The separation of Czechoslovakia is certainly not a good example for BiH. The international community and the European Council have stressed the territorial integrity of BiH and the need for unity. The European Council has also stressed that BiH has a European perspective and the EU wants a functioning, stable country with an effective government. It is very important to move the country from a post-Dayton to a pro-European era and I hope that the elections due in October can be a step towards this.
You were in the region recently and visited Albania, a country that is somewhat invisible in mainstream international news. Since political elections last June, the opposition has boycotted parliament – something that does not augur well for the country's SAP. Albania has applied for EU membership but there are clearly problems. What is your message to Tirana?
My messages to Tirana were rather clear. Firstly, I expressed appreciation for the progress that has been made: Albania has become a member of NATO and the European Council has asked the Commission to prepare an opinion on the country.
But I also stressed the importance of the political Copenhagen criteria. I expressed concern about the stability of democratic institutions and the lack of political dialogue in the parliament. I stressed the importance of this: of course, all laws are adopted here, and there would be no reforms without appropriate legislation.
It is very much in the hands of the Albanians and I hope very much that they will make progress and show that they have a mature democracy. Responsibility lies with both political parties – both the ruling group and the opposition.
Albania has changed enormously: it was an autarchy during the communist period and was in a much worse situation than any other country. Can you evaluate the evolution of Albania in those twenty or so years? Yugoslavia was a very successful country at that time – its citizens enjoyed free movement and millions worked in the West, while no Albanian could imagine even leaving the country…
Obviously every country has its own history and the Western Balkan countries carry a lot of historical baggage. Conflict prevailed too often in the region and Albania in particular has a lot of baggage. So I agree – it is remarkable to see the progress they have made in the last twenty years.
The fact that the European Council asked the Commission to prepare an opinion is proof of the progress made in Albania. That does not mean, however, that the work is done and I think this is the most important message to all the Balkan countries – including Croatia, which still needs to open negotiating chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental freedoms.
This is one of the lessons to be learned from the previous enlargement: to put particular importance on the Copenhagen criteria – especially the political criteria – from the very beginning of the accession process until the very end. We need to ensure that countries not only have the legislation and institutions, but also a track record of implementation.
To move on to Iceland: it has been a NATO member since its establishment, it is a democracy and it is a rich country, despite the recent Icesave banking collapse and the dispute with the Netherlands and the UK about their citizens' lost savings. Do you think that if Iceland wants to join the EU, this will constitute an obstacle?
Firstly, I do not have any doubts that Iceland wants to join – it is a governmental decision backed by the parliament. Though I am concerned about the lack of support among the citizens, I don't really see a link between the bilateral discussions between the Icelandic government and the Netherlands and the UK on the loan repayments and the Commission's recommendation to the European Council to start accession negotiations with Iceland.
We found that Iceland fulfils the Copenhagen criteria and while we have some reservations here and there, Iceland has already aligned itself with much of the EU's 'acquis communautaire' through its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).
In the course of prospective accession negotiations we will focus very much on Iceland's capacity and will to implement the parts of the 'acquis' relating to the financial sector.
In member states such as France, public opinion is against Turkish EU membership and this trend is unlikely to change in the near future. Is it possible for Turkey to join the EU if European citizens are not in favour?
There could be no EU enlargement without the consent of democratically-elected governments and parliamentarians. While I understand the question, I am confident that by the time we finalise accession negotiations with Turkey, it will be a new, modern European country aligning fully with our policies. And I am confident that European citizens would appreciate this new Turkey. Whether I will still be commissioner at that time is a question I leave to others…
Your predecessor, Olli Rehn, said his biggest disappointment was the lack of progress on the Cyprus problem. On your first visit to Turkey as enlargement commissioner, Turkey apparently signalled that it would not change its position and would not open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels. Also, UN reunification talks are not really advancing. Will the EU play a bigger role in these talks in future? This is a question I received from EurActiv Turkey.
I'm not sure that I share the view that the talks are not moving forward. It is a very complex issue that has existed since 1974 and there is a huge divide between the communities, so I am encouraged by what the two leaders have been able to achieve so far. They need encouragement from the EU and that is exactly what they are getting.
The EU cannot be a substitute for the UN, but that does not mean that we are not working with all parties concerned. Last year, Commission President José Manuel Barroso appointed a special representative to the UN office in Cyprus to help both parties discuss EU issues and I think this support and assistance will be strengthened in the coming months.
The negotiation process with Turkey is due to stop at the end of this year due to the suspension of most chapters – some frozen by the Commission due to the Cyprus stalemate and others by certain member states – so what would be your message to these EU countries and to Turkey? Does the Commission have an emergency plan to keep accession talks afloat?
I strongly believe that is it not only in Turkey's interest but also the EU's to continue the accession process. This is the most effective way for Turkey to implement reforms and I believe it is the best way to find a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue. So while some speculate that the process could stop, I am confident that a solution will be found to ensure that accession talks with this strategically important country will continue.
From time to time, Turkey says it has alternative options without spelling out what they actually are. Do you think this is the right way for them to present their position?
There may be speculation about alternative options, but the most important thing is that there are no alternatives on the table. What is on the table is a serious accession process.
It is impossible to cover all the issues and countries for which you have responsibilities but I must ask you about your recent trip to see newly-elected Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich. It cannot have been an easy political decision to give him encouragement from Brussels. He has been described as pro-Russian and there is a sense that EU-Ukraine relations have no real future.
What I can say is that it was very important for the EU to visit soon after the presidential elections with clear messages about our will and determination to engage with Ukraine and make sure that it is drawn closer to the EU.
It was very encouraging to see a new Ukrainian president and a team ready for such an engagement. We are now in the middle of very intensive negotiations and preparations to promote a pro-European agenda in Ukraine.
You hold the important post of enlargement commissioner, a position that was sought by several East European countries. When your term of office ends in five years' time, what would you like to leave behind for the next enlargement commissioner?
I always try to avoid answering the question of how many new member states there will be in 2014. But I sincerely hope that by the end of my term, there will be no reference to the phrase 'enlargement fatigue' and that EU citizens will see more clearly the benefits of enlargement.
Enlargement brings not only new members and bigger numbers, but new countries that can strengthen the Union. When you look at the challenges facing the EU in the 21st century, it is extremely important to look outwards, not inwards. Enlargement is an important element of this process.
Editors Note: Štefan Füle is a career diplomat and previously served as Czech ambassador to NATO and Lithuania.
Stefan Fule speaks to press on EU hearings