BRUSSELS -- The first Eastern European to be trusted with a significant foreign-policy role in the European Union went through his confirmation hearing today and stuck closely to the established political consensus within the bloc on future expansion, arguing that all current candidates should be admitted
Stefan Fule is a former Czech diplomat and Europe minister who will work under the EU's new high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton.
The prevailing view in the EU is that while the EU's final borders are as yet undecided, only the western Balkan countries stand a realistic -- albeit increasingly contested -- chance of entry in the foreseeable future. Turkey, although a candidate country, faces possibly fatal opposition by France and Germany.
Championing the cause of further EU expansion, Fule appealed to historical justice and the importance of accession prospects in encouraging reforms, using his native Czech Republic as a case in point.
"To me, enlargement is more than a policy portfolio. It has transformed my country and my own life. It has transformed Europe as a whole. It has restored hope and dignity to millions of people. This is why I am a strong believer in further reunification," Fule told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
Fule, who stepped down from his job as a junior Czech minister last year, is relatively unknown on the EU stage. But in the amphitheater-like hall where the hearing was held, Fule appeared confident throughout the three hours of interrogation by EU deputies. His credentials and expertise were not seriously questioned, and only passing mention was made of his past as a communist functionary in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.
The relatively low-key atmosphere of Fule's hearing -- and that of Catherine Ashton's on January 11
-- is a reflection of the desire of the leading political groups in the European Parliament to avoid another political upheaval in the EU so soon after the long-awaited Lisbon Treaty came into force last month. United Front
Foreign-policy related appointments are seen as key for the smooth functioning of the EU under the Lisbon Treaty, and Ashton's and Fule's hearings have attracted intense media attention.
Although European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso appeared to deliver a blow to Ashton when he split the enlargement-and-neighborhood brief from her portfolio, she and Fule have taken pains to present a united front.
Fule openly deferred to Ashton's primacy in determining the strategic goals of the EU's Neighborhood Policy.
Ashton, who will head the EU's future External Action Service -- effectively a thousands-strong diplomatic corps -- will also control the lion's share of the bloc's foreign-policy budget. But Fule can expect more leeway in enlargement matters, where the European Commission reports directly to the member states.
Fule's predecessor as enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, representing Finland, enjoyed great personal authority in his handling of the dossier.
Fule today repeated what effectively became Rehn's mantra over the past five years -- that the successful integration of the western Balkan countries is vital for the EU's own stability and that their eventual EU accession is the best way of doing that.
"This is a priority I will be focusing [on] in the years to come -- on the Balkans -- also making sure that we do not leave any country from the western Balkans behind [or out] in the cold," Fule said.
Fule said he will work with politicians across the EU to reinforce the case for the speedy accession of Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and eventually, Kosovo.
But he explicitly ruled out a "privileged partnership" for Turkey, saying the ongoing accession talks are about full membership.Distant Neighbors
The commissioner-elect was markedly less expansive in his comments about the neighborhood part of his portfolio.
On January 11, Ashton did not address the EU's neighbors' eventual membership prospects, and today, although Fule promised "deeper" relations and "the closest dialogue possible," he also refused to directly respond to questions about whether the EU's eastern neighbors -- Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and the three Caucasus countries -- qualify as "European countries" in terms laid out by the EU's basic treaties.
That's a significant blow for Ukraine, especially -- which top EU officials have described as "European" -- even if Kyiv has never explicitly been promised membership.
Fule is also likely to have caused some alarm in Eastern European capitals by his apparent willingness to accommodate Russia's ambitions in the region.
"The future of Eastern Europe, as I see it, is a future where each and every country of Eastern Europe is in charge [of] steering its own future closer to the European Union and closer to Russia," Fule said.
"I don't see any problem or any contradiction here. I don't think it is [necessary] for these countries to choose between better relations with the European Union or better relations with Russia."
In a different context, Fule did stress that Russia must be a "constructive partner" to the EU and abandon any "zero-sum" strategies for domination in Eastern Europe.