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EU Enlargement Chief Tackles Balkans, Moldova, Eastern Neighbors, And 'Elephant In The Room'

Stefan Fule: "We are not ready to accept increasing the number of countries" in the Balkans.

Stefan Fule: "We are not ready to accept increasing the number of countries" in the Balkans.

Stefan Fule, the new EU commissioner for enlargement and the European Neighborhood Policy, says the European Union is looking to keep its relations with neighbors on a pragmatic footing. Fule also recommends pragmatism to the EU's neighbors in their relations with Russia, but says the countries must remain free in choosing their own future. In an interview with RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas, the commissioner also said the EU would not accept the emergence of any new states in the Balkans.

RFE/RL: Let's start with your job. As commissioner responsible for enlargement and the Neighborhood Policy, you function as part of a new setup put in place under the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which includes the high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton. So what's the difference between what you do and what Ashton does?

Stefan Fule:
What's new is that we [that is, the European Commission and the EU member states] coordinate much more. You could take as an example the Western Balkans, but as far as the Neighborhood Policy [goes], Ukraine, for example -- we have prepared a table in which, for the first time, we have combined what we require from Ukraine in terms of homework and incentives, the offers we can [make], and make a horizontal comparison of these two lists.

If it were only up to the commission, it would not work because you need the support of the member states and this is where [Ashton] comes on the scene -- the member states' input. My input was to take into account the current state of the EU-Ukraine, where we stand on the [Association] Treaty [talks], where we stand on the visa dialogue, where we stand on this deep and comprehensive free-trade [accord].

We combined this community approach with a political approach, and, as a result, we traveled together to Kyiv at the time of the inauguration of President [Viktor] Yanukovych, and we were able to offer him as a basis for future cooperation a rather coherent policy which reflects, again as I said, the full spectrum of what the EU could offer -- which is a combination of the community approach with a political context, political framework [provided by] the [European] Council."

RFE/RL: But that doesn't really represent a radical departure from the way things were done before...

Stefan Fule:
The radical departure is that it is [Ashton's] responsibility to make sure that at the end of the day the policy towards Ukraine is coordinated, that at the end of the day both the commission and the council, in their messages to Ukraine, speak in one voice. It is her responsibility -- and that of her team -- to make sure that the EU, by talking in one voice, is actually stronger in [its] foreign [policy].

RFE/RL: However, would it be fair to say that under the old system of rotating six-month presidencies you sometimes had presidencies which took a very close interest in the Eastern neighborhood -- Sweden, for example -- and then you had presidencies which would be less focused on this -- like Portugal, or Ireland. Isn't there a danger that what you now have is a more indifferent approach, because Catherine Ashton has no particular attachment as such to Eastern Europe?

It's not indifferent. It's interesting your saying that, because if you listen to [Ashton], she's saying quite clearly that she has three priorities. The first one is to build up an external [diplomatic] service; the second one is the neighborhood, the neighborhood in its entirety. As Cathy is saying, we cannot be a global player, play a more important role, unless we show in the neighborhood in particular the effects of our [foreign] policy. And the third priority is the relationship with the strategic partners.

And I'm helping her from the side of the commission to keep the focus actually not only on the Eastern dimension of the neighborhood but also on the South, because both of these dimensions are important to us. You are absolutely right in saying that at a certain moment in time you had a six-month presidency which was more interested in the Eastern dimension of the neighborhood, [and at other times] in the South. But [this way] the message was not always coherent. I mean, if you're changing your priorities every six months -- "so what's new?" responding to your first question, is that we now have the possibility to have a medium term more coherent policy vis-a-vis our neighbors.

RFE/RL: Moving on to the specifics. The two major goals -- let's call them shared goals -- of the EU for the Eastern neighbors are free trade and the eventual lifting of visa restrictions. Do you have a clear idea when either of these objectives might actually materialize?

You are right in that these are the two basic pillars. There is another one, which is [concluding] association treaties, because at the end of the day it is all about deeper political association and economic integration. I think it is important to say two things. Talking in rather technical terms [about] a deep and comprehensive free-trade area, what we are talking about is not just another free-trade area. What we are talking about is actually trade and economic integration. This kind of agreement opens the road to the acquis [communautaire -- that is, EU legislation] related to the internal market. This is actually how these countries could make significant progress towards then later, eventually becoming members of the European Economic Area. This is the way how [while] not being an EU member you are still able to align yourself, your economy, your finances, your administration with most of the acquis we have -- as most of the [EU] acquis is related to the internal market [sector]. So, it is a rather complex exercise.

We hope that in the case of Ukraine [with which] we have already entered discussion on this deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement, we think that it is possible within a year to conclude this agreement. We are now in the process of establishing the state-of-play with Moldova -- we sent very recently almost 250 questions to our partners in Moldova and are determined to start the discussions as soon as possible. In the Caucasus, the situation is a little different because you need to be a part of the WTO [World Trade Organization], [and] one country in the region is not yet [there] -- and with the rest of the countries in the region we hope that sooner or later we will start that process. And Belarus is a little bit different player, so we will come back to this issue later on.

Then once you conclude this treaty, it takes years for the country to do the work of aligning itself to the acquis. So we have a certain [idea] of the timeframe when we will be able to negotiate such an agreement, but then it will very much depend on the speed and the commitment of that country to reforms, the commitment of that country to adopting various [bits of] legislation. [There], it's very difficult to talk about a timeline.

The visas. There are two issues. Visa facilitation -- there are countries [with which] we have concluded the technical discussions, Georgia is a very good example. We hope to very soon to send both the readmission and visa facilitation agreements to the council and the European Parliament [for approval]. There are discussions with Ukraine, and we're starting the discussion with Moldova on this issue. For the first time, we're talking with the new Ukrainian president of the road-map approach -- and, who knows, vis-a-vis other countries, too -- taking our best experiences from the Western Balkans where we have three countries benefiting [from visa-free travel to the EU].

RFE/RL: In the Western Balkans, the most pressing problem is Bosnia. Is the EU prepared to see the country break apart, as seems increasingly likely? What would the EU do should that happen?

I think what we are now preparing [for] is not that scenario. What we are now doing is focusing on how we could help Bosnia-Herzegovina at this point in time to actually avoid such a scenario. It is true that we need to do a lot of things to put this country on a much more stable basis.

RFE/RL: Such as?

I think the key is the follow-up to [the 1995] Dayton [accord]. The key is in constitutional changes. The key is to come to the end of the OHR [Office of the High Representative] chapter and through the constitutional changes open the way for the country to run itself [with] a stable, effective administration, where the European aspirations are shared by, if not all, then most [participants]. In that environment, the community approach, the accession process, would hopefully anchor Bosnia-Herzegovina firmly in the European Union.

RFE/RL: Can you definitively rule out the possibility that the EU will accept the emergence of any further countries in the region?

No, we are not ready to accept increasing the number of countries in that region, and we are doing everything with the [existing] countries to avoid that situation.

Infrastructure in Moldova is in poor repair.
RFE/RL: Switching to Moldova, which is in a strange situation of being a small country right on the border of the EU, very close to one of its member states, yet it remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. What can the EU do to make a difference to the lives of the people in the streets?

The Eastern Partnership [contains] a very structured "menu" which we are offering to our Eastern partners in the bilateral and multilateral sphere. What it offers in practical terms in addition to the macrofinancial assistance we are now finalizing [with Moldova] is as follows. We have started the discussion on the visa dialogue with Moldova. This is after Ukraine, [which is] actually the second country to start the discussion, which we started on January 12, on an association treaty. It is a country which we hope very soon to start [talks] on a deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement.

Moldova is very active in the program of institution building, where we are offering experience and expertise on how to build the institutions the country needs for getting closer to the European Union. We are just finalizing putting together a group of experts which will be assigned to the government of Moldova. We're talking about nine experts who will help Moldova with all these processes we're talking about in general -- getting the country closer to the European Union. Which, by the way, is fantastic, because we got more than 250 requests from various member states to have their experts helping Moldova.

Moldova is also very active in all the multilateral formats of the Eastern Partnership with its concrete flagship projects like the integrated border management, like the governance in the [area] of protection of the environment, like better governance of the energy [sector].

RFE/RL: So this is where the extra money allocated to the Eastern Partnership last year will go?

Yes, exactly. we're talking about 350 million euros for the period 2011-2013 for the Eastern Neighborhood, for the six countries. There are those saying it's a decent sum of money [while], of course, for some it is not enough. But I think it is a substantial contribution of the European Union to support this very extensive structure of the Eastern Partnership. Moldova is actually a very good country to show that if you have a pro-European government, [that] if you're active enough, you could actually get a lot [out] of the Eastern Partnership offer.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
RFE/RL: I know that Russia is not part of your portfolio...

But still...

RFE/RL: It is the elephant in the corner when you're dealing with the Eastern Neighborhood. During the hearings in the European Parliament in January, you said the Eastern neighbors must build up good relations with both the EU and Russia. Do you think it is fair to ask the EU's Eastern neighbors to improve relations with a Russia where -- on the European Commission's own admission -- reforms have stalled over the past eight years, which invaded Georgia in 2008, and has troubled relations with more than one Eastern EU member state?

I think it is fair for us to say that we would like to deepen our relationship with that part of Europe not at the expense of the relationships that part of Europe has with third countries. So, I think it is fair to say that no third country should feel threatened, for whatever reason, by the European Union's trying to upgrade its relations with these countries...

RFE/RL: But if Russia objects to the spread of democracy and reforms in these countries?

The relationship with Russia is not only focused on how, for example, the Russians see human rights. It is multifaceted, with energy playing a big role, for example. There [I have some] personal experience, because at one time, when the Czech Republic was about to join NATO and also, later on, the European Union, there were those telling us, "You have to choose between Moscow and Brussels." And we were saying, "Actually no, we don't want to be pushed into that decision." We were saying that actually, through joining NATO and the European Union, we could strengthen to a certain extent our relationship with Russia. And I think it is actually exactly what has happened. The relationship between the Czech Republic and Russia is not full of emotions as it was before. We feel more on an equal footing when talking to Russia. It's actually improved the relations because they are now more pragmatic. And this is also what we seek vis-a-vis the countries of the Eastern Partnership.

RFE/RL: So improving relations with Russia is fully compatible with seeking full membership in the EU and NATO?

I see absolutely no problems here. Of course, where I see a problem, is if someone at the beginning of the 21st century tries to change borders by military force. Then [there] is a problem. That is not compatible with our policy; it is not compatible with what we are offering to that part of Europe.

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