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After An Era Of New Horizons, EU Turns Its Gaze Inward

  • Daisy Sindelar

While some see Johannes Hahn as little more than a caretaker commissioner, others believe he is the ideal candidate to keep EU neighbors enthused about remaining in Brussels' orbit.

While some see Johannes Hahn as little more than a caretaker commissioner, others believe he is the ideal candidate to keep EU neighbors enthused about remaining in Brussels' orbit.

Like all of us, the European Union's vision is changing as it gets older.

In 2004, as the European Commission appointed Finland's Olli Rehn its new enlargement chief, the European Union had just undergone its largest single expansion, bringing 10 new Eastern European and Mediterranean members into its fold. Hopes were high the EU would continue to absorb as many as a dozen additional countries, broadening the European neighborhood into the western Balkans, Turkey, and post-Soviet states.

That once-hearty appetite, however, now seems to be gone -- spoiled by a decade of financial crises, EU skepticism, and a mounting reluctance to antagonize Russia. As the EU announced its latest round of commissioners on September 10, it became clear that the 28-member bloc is no longer looking out, but in.

The clearest sign of the EU's new inward gaze is the fact that the number of commission posts dealing with the economy has grown significantly, to include at least four new portfolios focusing on the internal market and industry, taxation and customs, consumer policy, and financial services.

Moreover, the enlargement post -- held by both Rehn and his successor, Stefan Fuele of the Czech Republic -- has been modified. It is now the neighborhood and "enlargement negotiations" post -- a distinction that appears to reflect that the EU is happy to talk, but not necessarily to act.

Belt-Tightening

The European Commission's incoming president, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, had already made clear that no additional countries would enter the EU during his five-year mandate. The last country to enter the bloc was Croatia in 2013, following the addition of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.

His adjustment of the enlargement title appears to confirm the commission's disinterest in expansion -- as does the fact that during the course of a wide-ranging press briefing by Juncker on September 10, the issue of enlargement wasn't raised a single time.

The new EU priorities may strike a blow to current EU candidates, particularly western Balkan countries like Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania, where the EU has dangled the prospect of membership to encourage local governments to push through unpopular reforms.

IN A NUTSHELL: RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak takes a look at who's who, who's new in Brussels:

Daliborka Uljarevic, an analyst with the Center for Civic Education in Montenegro, said it would be "devastating" for the western Balkans to lose the EU's backing and resources. But Maya Bobic, the head of Serbia's European Movement, says the EU's dictate shouldn't prevent candidate countries from continuing internal reforms on their own.

"It's worth noting that [Juncker's stance] isn't a position held by all the EU member states," Bobic says. "And Juncker didn't entirely rule out the possibility of further expansion. But his assessment -- and this is an expert political assessment -- is that none of the candidate countries is going to be ready for admission during his mandate."

'He Will Engage'

It is unclear how Juncker's choice for the neighborhood and enlargement negotiations post -- 56-year-old Johannes Hahn of Austria -- will affect the post. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Fuele, who grew up in communist-era Czechoslovakia and speaks fluent Russian, Hahn has no personal or linguistic connection to Europe's eastern neighborhood.

Hahn, who rose through the ranks of the Austrian People's Party before serving as the country's science and research minister, most recently served as the European Commission's regional policy chief, a post that focuses on internal EU infrastructure and contact with local government officials, particularly in the bloc's poorer eastern states. He is seen as a low-profile hard worker, with a personality that one observer described pointedly as "gray."

Juncker has now tasked Hahn with "strengthening the EU's political and economic ties with its southern and eastern neighborhood... notably with the western Balkans." While some see Hahn as little more than a caretaker commissioner, Werner Fasslabend, the president of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, says he is the ideal candidate to keep EU neighbors enthused about remaining in Brussels' orbit.

"He grew up in a situation where Europe, especially Vienna, opened itself to Central and Eastern Europe, and so he will be very interested in everything opening up again," Fasslabend says. "You know, we have quite some tradition here in Vienna [of neighborhood relations], especially in the Balkans. This is something like the Austrian backyard. I'm absolutely sure that he will engage himself quite a bit."

The new EU priorities, however, may strike a blow to distant EU hopefuls -- particularly post-Soviet countries, like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- all of which signed Association Agreements with Brussels in June -- that see membership in the bloc as the ultimate protection against Russian aggression.

But Amanda Paul, an analyst with the European Policy Center, says the perceived shift away from enlargement concerns will do little to affect the Eastern Neighborhood countries, whose prospects remain distant at best.

"We don't have any promise of membership for any of these countries, and frankly speaking, whatever word you have there [in Hahn's title], I don't think that's going to change," Paul says. "There's absolutely no appetite whatsoever to have any of those countries given a membership prospectus for the foreseeable future.

"You could say that this is a signal to say, 'OK, this is the end of enlargement,' but I don't see the point of that, because this would be shooting themselves in the foot, because they want these countries to keep going [with reforms], perhaps just in the off chance that one day they will get a membership goal."

Even those who are neutral on Hahn's appointment may be relieved that the man who had been widely tipped for the post, Maros Sefcovic of Slovakia, was not the final choice. Slovakia, in addition to serving as one of Russia's most loyal EU defenders, is also one of five EU countries that has refused to legally recognize Kosovo and would most certainly oppose its EU aspirations.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service and Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak contributed to this report
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