European Commission Chief Jean Claude Juncker urged the European Parliament on Wednesday to put Western Balkan integration higher on the agenda.
Europe should be more open to the Western Balkans and should rapidly integrate Romania and Bulgaria into the passport-free Schengen Agreement, European Commission Chief Jean Claude Juncker told the European Parliament on Wednesday during his third annual State of the European Union Speech.
Predictably, he ruled out any EU membership perspective for Turkey in the near future, citing the recent purges in the country.
“It is clear that there will be no further enlargement during the mandate of this Commission and this Parliament. No candidate is ready yet,” he said.
“But, thereafter, the European Union will be greater than 27 in number. Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority,” he said.
In the Balkans, Montenegro and Serbia have started EU membership talks already while Macedonia and Albania have candidate country status.
Others, like Bosnia and Kosovo, are seen as potential candidates for EU membership, too, at some point.
The EU retains a supporting role in stabilising Bosnia and Herzegovina, through the EUFOR/Althea military-led mission. Between 2003 and 2012, the EU deployed a police mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, too.
In Kosovo, the EU still deploys EULEX, a mission to support the Kosovo authorities in upholding the rule of law.
Juncker, on the other hand, ruled out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future, citing what Brussels sees as major human rights transgressions during the past year, after a failed coup in 2016 resulted in mass purges in the army, justice and education systems and the media.
“Turkey has been taking giant strides away from the European Union for some time. Journalists belong in newsrooms not in prisons. They belong where freedom of expression reigns,” Juncker stressed.
“The call I make to those in power in Turkey is this: let our journalists go. And not just them, either. Stop insulting our member states by comparing their leaders to fascists and Nazis. Europe is a continent of mature democracies." Insults create roadblocks, he added.
For the first time during his tenure as head of the European Commission, Juncker said Romania and Bulgaria should join the Schengen zone immediately, while Croatia should do so as soon as it meets the requirements.
“If we want to strengthen the protection of our external borders, then we need to open the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania immediately,” he said.
“We should also allow Croatia to become a full Schengen member once it meets all the criteria,” Juncker added.
The Balkan region is also high on the EU agenda because EU members Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania will hold the European Council presidency in 2018 and 2019 during the important Brexit negotiations.
“On 30 March 2019, we will be a Union of 27. I suggest that we prepare for this moment well, amongst the 27 and within the EU institutions," Juncker said, calling for a special summit in Sibia, Romania.
“This is why I call on President Tusk and Romania, the country holding the Presidency in the first half of 2019, to organise a Special Summit in Romania on 30 March 2019.
"My wish is that this summit be held in the beautiful ancient city of Sibiu, or Hermannstadt as I know it. It should be the moment we come together to take the decisions needed for a more united, stronger and democratic Europe," he added.