Thursday, 28 September 2023 13:14

EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi: The EU enlargement policy aims to promote peace, stability, and reconciliation in Europe

Caspian Energy (CE): What does Eastern Partnership mean to the EU? To what extent has the trade-economic partnership been expanded with the Eastern Partnership countries?

Olivér Várhelyi, European Union Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement: As its name indicates, this is first and foremost a partnership between the Eastern neighbours and the EU.  The Eastern Partnership – a joint policy initiative - is based on close cooperation through which we offer tangible benefits to citizens and the economies of our partner countries, leading to an increased political and economic integration within the region and with the EU.

For the last 14 years this Partnership has been a successful tool for building resilience and promoting our shared values. Furthermore, recognizing the European perspectives of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and granting the status of candidate country to Ukraine and to Moldova, are proof of its success bringing these countries closer to the EU.

We are convinced that this regional framework remains a valid and important tool – in synergy with our enlargement policy – to address existing challenges from energy supply to food security. There is still so much the Eastern Partnership can do to promote a stable, peaceful and prosperous Europe and Eastern Neighbourhood, to the benefit of both. Through the Eastern Partnership, which includes a 17 billion euro worth of Economic and Investment Plan, the EU is contributing to a more diversified economies in the region attracting investment and creating growth and jobs. It has also opened more trade and business opportunities as we improve connectivity, i.e. transport and digital infrastructure, energy security and efficiency infrastructure, as well as invest in young people. Moreover, the EU has concluded Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as part of our Association Agreements with those countries. These are some of the EU’s most ambitious agreements worldwide. They eliminate most tariffs and quotas in our trade as well as providing for alignment of their national legislation with EU legislation in areas such as public procurement, food and product safety. We also have close economic ties with Azerbaijan. Noteworthy is the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement - with negotiations underway to update it - that aims to further boost trade. All this bring our partners’ economies closer to the EU internal market, bringing jobs, growth, innovation and higher standards to the people of the region. Trade between the EU and the Eastern Partnership region has increased by over 20% in a decade, and the EU is now the main trading partner for four of the partners.


CE: What criteria should a candidate for EU enlargement meet?

Olivér Várhelyi: The European Union is an anchor of peace, stability, and prosperity in the world. And enlargement is a key policy as well as our primary tool to spread peace, stability, and prosperity further to our partners in our neighbourhood who are committed to our values and wish to join us.

The European Commission has been relentlessly working on advancing the accession process for the Eastern partners and the Western Balkans.

From 2023, our annual enlargement package will include 10 countries, as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are now also part of the enlargement reporting process. We will provide a full assessment of the implementation of their progress in the autumn and make recommendations on the way forward. But let me be clear; enlargement remains a merit-based process. There are no shortcuts; the Copenhagen criteria must be met by all. Also, important to underline that the process follows the new methodology, so the fundamentals are at the centre of our assessment.


CE: What are the values that the enlargement policy is based on, what is its practical expediency for the EU? What real problems of the European space does it allow to solve?

Olivér Várhelyi: The EU enlargement policy aims to promote peace, stability, and reconciliation in Europe. Therefore, for any country it is a strategic choice to apply for EU membership. The Western Balkans and lately, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have chosen to be part of an alliance of strong and prosperous nations. Also accepting these countries was a strategic choice on the EU’s side as negotiations at the end lead to the full EU membership offering numerous benefits. One of the first, most visible benefits is that these countries can join the Single Market where goods, people, capital and services are free to move.

Therefore, enlargement promotes economic growth and prosperity for our partner countries, fostering economic integration and cooperation.

For this reason, at the beginning of this Commission’s mandate we set up a substantial EUR 30 billion Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans with which we are progressing well. We approved another 14 investment flagship projects. So in total we approved 54 flagship investments with a value of EUR 2.3 billion in EU grants, that will leverage up to EUR 8 billion in investment in the next years.

Being part of the enlargement policy also means that we are there when it is needed. As the consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine needed fast mitigation, the EU decided to support the Western Balkans with a EUR 1 billion Energy Support Package, to help these countries to cushion the drastic increase of energy prices for businesses and vulnerable households in the immediate term, and to support the energy transition and security of supply over the short and medium term. This year we disbursed the first tranche to all our partners in the Western Balkans - EUR 450 million, anticipating 90% of the overall EUR 500 million budget support. We look forward to the implementation of the national energy action plans to disburse the rest of the funds. The second part of the package – also worth EUR 500 million – is provided via the Western Balkans Investment Framework to support the region over the short- to medium-term.

Moreover, as there is a new momentum behind enlargement, we want to accelerate the accession of the Western Balkans. Therefore, last month we announced a new growth plan for the region. This new plan is based on four pillars. First, to increase the integration with the EU’s Single Market well before accession. Second, to boost regional economic integration based on EU rules. Third, to deepen reforms to accelerate regional growth and promote economic convergence. And fourth, an increased package of pre-accession funding to support all of this.

The message from the EU is clear; we are ready to reinforce our ties with enlargement countries and accelerate the accession process. Certainly, for this work, we also need a firm commitment from our partners to continue and accelerate the implementation of their EU reforms and reinforce regional cooperation so we can all build on the enlargement momentum.


CE: What are the outcomes of the Eastern partnership – EU summit dated 2021? How is the cooperation program being implemented in today’s conditions?

Olivér Várhelyi: At the 6th Eastern Partnership Summit in December 2021, EU Member States and partners reaffirmed their strong partnership and solidarity. Together, they agreed to focus on an agenda of recovery, resilience, and reform, centred around two pillars to bring our people and economies closer together: good governance, and investment through the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP).

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has only made these priorities more relevant. However, in order to make the best possible use of the Eastern Partnership, it has to work in a way that is more flexible, focused and tailor-made to address the different needs and priorities of each partner country and that supports the EU path of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Through this revitalised framework, we will continue to step up our engagement on security, good governance, and socio-economic recovery. We will continue to invest in the green and digital transition, energy independence and health resilience. Our vision and determination are very much shared both by Member States and partners. The continued implementation of the EUR 17 billion Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) will be key for supporting these priorities across the region. The EIP is already delivering on the ground. Less than two years after the EIP was launched, EUR 5.3 billion have already been mobilised through bilateral and regional grants, blending operations and guarantees, of which EUR 3.2 billion are supporting the implementation of flagship projects.

In Azerbaijan, for example, our assistance has contributed to rolling out high speed internet to rural areas, improving waste management, or saving energy and money by making buildings more energy efficient. Moreover, we are also connecting the EU and the South Caucasus in a very physical sense through digital and energy cables under the Black Sea.  


CE: In the recent exclusive interview to Caspian Energy, PM of North Macedonia Mr. Dimitar Kovachevski spoke about the progress of the accession negotiations with the EU. When do you expect North Macedonia to become a full-fledged member of the EU?

Olivér Várhelyi: The holding of the first political Intergovernmental Conference with North Macedonia last year was a major breakthrough and marked the beginning of a new phase in the EU accession process. The Commission launched immediately the screening of the EU acquis, which is the first step in the negotiating process. The screening is firmly on track and is proceeding smoothly.

The date of accession will depend on the speed of implementation of EU related reforms. Over the upcoming period, North Macedonia needs to use the full potential of the screening process to accelerate reforms, focussing on key areas of the rule of law, the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime, as well as the public administration reform. Progress on these fundamental reforms will determine the overall pace of negotiations. Further, North Macedonia has committed to amending its constitution. This is a sovereign decision. The country provides a good example of a multi-ethnic society. Amending the constitution will further advance fundamental rights. Therefore, it is important that both government and opposition, as well as other parts of the society, work together for the EU future of North Macedonia.  On our side, we remain committed to supporting North Macedonia to advance on its EU accession path.


CE: How do you assess the cooperation with Türkiye, a key partner of the EU?

Olivér Várhelyi: Türkiye remains a candidate country and a key partner of the European Union. We have a strong, strategic interest in the development of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Türkiye. The current geopolitical situation makes it ever more relevant to intensify cooperation for our shared prosperity and stability, including in the field of connectivity, digital, energy, human capital, migration and trade. As regards energy, the European Union seeks predictable and reliable partners for energy diversification and security. Türkiye continues to be a reliable transit country of natural gas and plays a central role in the expansion of the Southern Gas Corridor. There is considerable potential in stepping up cooperation across the board, including the development of offshore wind energy, green energy transition, nuclear safety and security. In this regard, the newly established Turkish Investment Platform opens the door to Türkiye to the European Fund for Sustainable Development+ that will mobilise capital and leverage funding to European and Turkish businesses and private sector. This innovative financial instrument will ensure that the EU can provide guarantees to mutually beneficial investments in Türkiye, through the support of the European financial institutions, including in the field of energy.


Thank you for the interview


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