Chairman, Honourable Members of Parliament, Ladies and gentlemen.

Twenty years ago the Western Balkans was torn by conflict. 

Twenty years ago, the European Union established the Copenhagen criteria. 

Ten years ago, the Thessaloniki Summit gave all countries of the Western Balkans a clear perspective of European Union membership. 

This year, on July 1st, the European Union welcomed Croatia as the 28th Member State and the first country to complete the Stabilisation and Association Process.

Today, the Copenhagen criteria are just as relevant. They reflect the core values on which the European Union is founded: democracy, rule of law and the respect for fundamental rights. 

The historic agreement of Serbia and Kosovo is further proof of the transformative power of the European Union perspective.

Honourable Members,

The accession process today is built on strict but fair conditionality and the lessons learned from previous enlargements. One of the key lessons has been the importance of addressing “fundamentals first” and this is the main theme of the 2013 Strategy Paper. Recalling the principles of the Copenhagen criteria we highlight five fundamentals:

First, we confirm that the rule of law remains at the heart of the accession process. The new approach to the rule of law that we launched last year needs also a cultural change. It requires that, early in the process, countries ensure that they have the administrative capacity and this has to be backed by the political will.  It gives countries maximum time to develop solid track records of implementation, delivering reforms that are deeply rooted and irreversible; and it ensures that benefits will be felt by the citizens during the process and not just at the end.

The rule of law is also of great economic relevance in terms of legal certainty and investor confidence and hence, key for economic reform.

Second, we set out concrete proposals that will help the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey to strengthen their economic governance. Over the last three years, the European Union has radically changed and strengthened its economic governance through the European Semester so it is important to help the candidate countries to pass through what we might call a “touch of the European Semester” so that they can adapt their own governance to the changing European model and at the same time ensure that structural reforms can help improve their competiveness and the economy.

All are affected by high unemployment. The young unemployed need actions, they need decisions, they need jobs so it is crucial that these countries sustain the reform efforts to drive growth. The enlargement countries already benefit from on-going macro-economic and fiscal programmes and we have started rolling out special reform programmes for labour markets. In addition, this year we are introducing new tools to guide the enlargement countries on:

structural reforms in key areas like infrastructure, research, transport and education; and

plans for public financial management which will help the countries to meet the Copenhagen economic criteria, fight corruption and allow budget support under IPA II.

Third, we underline the importance of functioning of institutions guaranteeing democracy and ensuring that democratic processes are more inclusive. That means constructive opposition – not boycotting parliaments. And an area where we would appreciate the help of this house is on cooperation between national parliaments of the region and those of the Member States and the European Parliament.

Fourth, our strategy paper focuses on respect for fundamental rights. We want to see an end to unacceptable incidents such as the attacks on the LGBT centre in Skopje. Journalists must be able to do their job without fear of violence and intimidation and more efforts are required to support the inclusion of Roma.

The priority attached to the protection of minorities in the accession process will be increased including through better targeted IPA funding and more assistance to support Roma through a Roma “facility”. Freedom of expression will be promoted in our political dialogues with enlargement countries and we will ensure that it is consistently addressed as a priority. Further to the “Speak-Up Conferences”, we will also promote excellence in investigative journalism through an award, starting with the first one in 2014.

Fifth, we call for renewed efforts to overcome bilateral disputes among enlargement countries and with existing Member States. The historic agreement between Belgrade and Pristina shows what can be achieved with political will, courage and support. The challenge now is to build on this progress. The Commission stands ready to help in the search for solutions and we will encourage increased dialogue on key issues.

Moving now to the countries. Last year, Montenegro moved to a new stage on its path to the European Union. It is the first country to implement the new approach to chapters 23/24. This will not only require the administrative capacity to deliver, it will also  require deep and lasting political reforms supported by political will, particularly on judiciary and fundamental rights and on justice, freedom and security. Continued strong involvement of civil society in the reform process is crucial. 

Freedom of expression needs to be strengthened in Montenegro. All the cases of violence and threats against journalists need to be properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. 

2013 has been a historic year for Serbia. The decision of the June European Council to open accession negotiations marked the start of a significant new phase in our relations.  Serbia has actively and constructively worked towards improvement of relations with Kosovo. We look forward to the first Intergovernmental conference on Serbia’s accession by next January at the latest. During this new demanding phase, Serbia will need to play particular attention to implementing reform of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime as well as public administration reform, independence of key institutions, media freedom, anti-discrimination and protection of minorities.

Serbia should build on its positive contribution to regional cooperation over the past year, which has included stepping up high-level contacts with neighbouring countries.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the political crisis demonstrated the excessive polarisation of politics in the country and the lack of normal political discourse. Equally importantly it distracted from grasping the opportunity which last year’s package and Council Conclusions had opened.

More generally, reforms have however continued and the European Union agenda remains the country’s strategic priority. The High Level Accession Dialogue is a useful tool which will continue to focus on key issues, including good neighbourly relations, but it cannot replace the accession negotiations.

The priority for the coming year should be effective implementation and enforcement of the existing legal and policy frameworks. Close attention needs to be paid to rule of law and achieving results in the fight against organised crime. Freedom of expression also remains an issue of concern.

The Commission is recommending the opening of accession negotiations for the fifth time. No decision has been taken by the Council to date. Failure to act risks damaging both reforms in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the credibility of our enlargement policy.

The Commission remains ready to present a proposal for a negotiating framework without delay, taking into account the need to solve the name issue at an early stage of accession negotiations. The Commission considers that, if the screening and the Council discussions on the negotiating framework were underway, the necessary momentum could be created which would support finding a solution of the name issue even before negotiating chapters are opened. Applying the new approach on chapters 23 and 24 would also provide the tools to tackle key issues of concern to Member States.

In Albania there has been significant progress in the follow-up to the December Council conclusions. Two key laws and the Parliament rules of procedures were adopted with cross-party support. The elections went smoothly and the people gave a clear mandate to their leaders. 

In view of Albania having achieved the necessary progress, the Commission recommends that the Council should grant Albania the status of a candidate country on the understanding that Albania continues to take action in the fight against organised crime and corruption. 

In order for the Commission to recommend the opening of accession negotiations, Albania will need to reinforce the efforts already made and take action to fully address the following five key priorities: 

1. continue to implement public administration reform; 

2. take further action to reinforce the independence, efficiency and accountability of the judiciary; 

3. make further determined efforts in the fight against corruption;; 

4. make further determined efforts in the fight against organised crime; and

5. take effective measures to reinforce the protection of human rights, including of Roma, and anti-discrimination policies, as well as implement property rights. 

The Commission stands ready to support Albania’s efforts toward meeting these key priorities by engaging in a high level dialogue with the country.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina the European integration process is at a standstill. Last night Bosnia and Herzegovina’s football team showed a strong display of team spirit and unity and delivered a night of success, a night of achievement. We have currently an EU team in Sarajevo trying to support the political parties to achieve a breakthrough on the Sejdić-Finci ruling which would open a new era for Bosnia and Herzegovina and its citizens. My message today to Bosnia’s politicians is follow the example of your footballers, live up to the expectations of your citizens, deliver a new future. We are committed to help but further progress depends on the ability of the political leaders to agree together on a compromise that unlocks the path to the European Union. This would:

help renew trust of the citizens in the capacity of their leaders to deliver on European Union integration; and

pave the way for the entry into force of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and subsequently for a credible membership application.

In 2013 the decision of the Council authorising the opening of Stabilisation and Association Agreement negotiations brought Kosovo to a significant new phase in European Union – Kosovo relations. This is recognition of the progress made on key reforms and the substantial efforts made by Kosovo towards normalisation of relations with Serbia. The Commission aims to complete these negotiations in spring 2014 and initial the draft agreement in summer and thereafter submit the proposals for the Council to sign and conclude the agreement.  And naturally, I will keep you informed on the state of play in the SAA negotiations at all key stages of the discussions.

Kosovo has made efforts to ensure progress on visa liberalisation and has kept it high on its political agenda. On our side we remain equally committed and we intend to report in the first half 2014 on progress. Kosovo needs to actively support EULEX in implementing its mandate. Kosovo now needs to focus on implementing the reforms to meet its obligations under a future Stabilisation and Association Agreement with particular attention on tackling organised crime and corruption. Additional IPA funds will help the implementation of the April agreement, including in support of Serb communities in Kosovo.  

Turkey is a strategic partner for the European Union considering the size of its economy and its important role in foreign policy and energy security. The positive agenda launched in 2012 continues to support and complement accession negotiations. There has been progress in judicial reforms and the government has started an historic peace process aimed at ending terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country, paving the way to a solution to the Kurdish issue. 

The protests in May/June and the excessive use of force by police and the overall absence of dialogue have raised serious concerns. Investigations into the police conduct need to be completed and those responsible brought to account. 

I have heard the voices who said that the right response of the European Union to events in Gezi Park should be for the Union to disengage. But the message of the package adopted today is different: the European Union needs to step up its engagement and continue to support Turkey and Turkish citizens in fulfilling their legitimate expectations of further reforms that can strengthen freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly.

The democratisation package presented in September 2013 holds out the prospect of progress on a range of issues, including the use of languages other than Turkish and minority rights. As I have stated in this house before: the full potential of our relationship with Turkey is best fulfilled within an active and credible accession process where the European Union remains the benchmark for reforms. 

We have so many issues of mutual interest. The signature of the European-Union-Turkey visa readmission agreement and the simultaneous launch of the visa liberalisation process would be a win-win situation for both sides. Both Commissioner Malmström and myself are entirely committed to this. The ball is in Turkey’s court, play the ball! This is a wonderful opportunity to concretely demonstrate the advantages of the EU-Turkey relationship to Turkish citizens. 

I also want to underline the importance of Progress in the normalisation of relations between Turkey and all European Union Member States, including the Republic of Cyprus. It is now urgent that Turkey fulfils its obligation of fully implementing the Additional Protocol. 

As regards the Cyprus issue, the Commission expects the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to resume fully-fledged negotiations on a comprehensive settlement under the auspices of the United Nations. We encourage all parties to do everything possible to establish a positive climate between the communities. The Commission stands ready to further strengthen its support for this process should the two parties request it and the UN agree.

With the decision of the new Government of Iceland to put accession negotiations on hold, the accession process has come to a standstill.   Let me be crystal clear: Iceland remains an important partner for the European Union and we stand ready to reinforce our relations at any moment. We on our side have not disengaged. Whenever, and if ever, Iceland wishes to do so, the Commission would be ready to resume work on negotiations which have reached an advanced stage. And I remain confident that we could come to an outcome beneficial and positive for all sides. 

Mr Chairman,

I have painted a picture today of a strong and open European accession process that addresses the fundamentals first; a process where candidates and potential candidates build their credibility through a track record of reform and implementation.

Looking at the work that lies ahead for next year, the co-operation and support of this Committee will be required more than ever if we are to ensure that the benefits and opportunities of enlargement will continue to gradually build up, until accession and beyond. 

I look forward to the response of this House to each one of the country reports and I look forward to your questions and comments.