Deputy FM Kouvelis’ speech at the international conference entitled “Southeast Europe: Crisis and Prospects” (Athens Concert Hall).>
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The enlargement of the European Union has always been an important, independent chapter of European integration and not simply a corollary of the Community’s success or of the notion of the Single Market. European integration was aimed from the outset at Europe’s peaceful reunification. The European Community is not and should not be the exclusive club of the six founding members. In fact, the accession of new member states has been a crucial issue that has concerned the European Union repeatedly during its major development phases.
So the enlargement is one of the most effective tools at the disposal of the European Union for the consolidation of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. But this truth stands perhaps even more for the region of Southeast Europe. The European Union has repeatedly confirmed, even at the highest level, the European perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans. This region cannot and should not be absent from a united Europe.
On this course of the Balkans towards the EU, a useful precedent has been set by the accession of other countries from the region, and particularly the recent entry of Bulgaria and Romania.
Greece, as an old member state, realises and recognises this. With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union, on 1 January 2007, the fifth wave of enlargement in the Union's history was completed. This wave symbolised the reunification of a continent that had been divided for decades. In fact, it is important that this was the first time since Greece’s accession to the then EEC, in 1981, that other Balkan countries became members of the Union.
Bulgaria’s and Romania’s course towards the EU certainly went through different phases. Their accession crowned a process that had started in the early 1990s, with the signing by Bulgaria in 1993, and Romania in 1995, of the Association Agreements with the European Communities. Following the decision of the European Council of Helsinki in 1999 to accept an enlarged group of 12 candidate countries, the negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania started in 2000. But a year later, the two Balkan countries were separated from the group of 12, because of deficiencies identified in the adoption and implementation of the community acquis, chiefly in the fields of Justice and Home Affairs.
The European Council of Thessaloniki in 2003, held under the Greek EU Presidency, was a milestone not only for the countries of the Western Balkans, but also for Bulgaria and Romania, as it confirmed that these two countries were “part of the same inclusive…enlargement process”, and that the target date for their accession was 2007. Finally, following intensive efforts and an acceleration of the reform process, the above target was achieved and the two countries became the 26th and 27th EU member states.
The notable difference with regard to the accession of other Central European countries is that in the case of Bulgaria and Romania, the difficulties that lingered until the last moment in a series of fields, and particularly in the field of Justice and Home Affairs, resulted in the accession of the two countries with the concurrent implementation of accompanying measures recommended by the European Commission and approved by the Council, which combined the provision of assistance with the threat of sanctions. It should be noted that the reform of the justice system and the fight against corruption and organised crime are still areas of major European interest also in the case of the Western Balkans.
What are the political conclusions to be drawn from the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU? Certainly, their entry, the outcome of constant efforts, is a turning point, firstly for themselves, on their course towards a better future.Secondly, it is a turning point for the future of the entire region of Southeast Europe, as it gave new momentum to regional cooperation on the basis of respect for European principles and values.For the EU itself, its enlargement to the Balkans offers several important opportunities for a more active role in the region.With regard to Greece, it has been offering new prospects for bilateral cooperation with our two neighbours and partners.
Allow me to set out the following in more detail:
·The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union is first of all the achievement of their peoples.It came as the reward for the necessary efforts and sacrifices that spanned many years, to the benefit of the countries themselves of course, in order for them to be in a position to take up their full obligations as participants in the common European endeavour.The full implementation of European criteria and prerequisites is at the heart of this endeavour.As full members of the European Union, Bulgaria and Romania now have the ability to make their own contribution to this joint effort and thus enrich the Union’s cultural diversity.
·Furthermore, for the first time since Greece’s accession in 1981, two more Balkan countries became members of the European Union, which was an event of major symbolic significance.Their accession has been a positive development for the stability and prosperity of the entire Balkan peninsula, whilst showing the way to the European perspective’s of the region’s other countries.Moreover, it was confirmed that this path towards accession is traversed through persistence, will for progress, the fulfillment of all the criteria and prerequisites, intensive work, and of course the power of cooperation and the promotion of good neighbourly relations.
·Bulgaria and Romania’s EU accession has also given a new momentum to the Union’s interest in Southeast Europe and, in fact, during a period of enlargement fatigue.Furthermore, their accession translates into the expansion of the Union's presence in the Black Sea region – a development of strategic importance.
·Finally, the EU enlargement to the Balkan countries was very important for our country as well.For more than two decades, Greece was a “European island” at the corner of the Balkan peninsula, geographically cut off from the rest of Europe.With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, Greece is now geographically connected with the rest of Europe.But it is of the utmost importance mainly because it furthers the Greek strategic goal of turning the Balkan peninsula into a truly European neighbourhood of peace and cooperation.The region’s European integration translates into the creation of a zone of security and stability around Greece;a stable framework of relations and understanding with our neighbours, and also broadened cooperation abilities aimed at development. For this reason, Greece became – and has been acknowledged as – a firm and active supporter of Bulgaria's and Romania's efforts.
·The indisputable fact is that since 2007, the conditions have been created for substantial strengthening of regional cooperation and, most of all, bolstering solidarity between the Balkan EU member states on the basis of respect for European principles and values.The potential and opportunities for bilateral cooperation between Greece and its two neighbours and partners have now been multiplied.With the launching of the trilateral cooperation, we also intensify the coordination of our actions within community bodies, as three equal European partners.Also, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece jointly reinforce the region’s voice within the EU.
·Here, I would like to point out that beyond the significant funds allocated to these countries by the European Union through its financing programmes, Greece has also supported Bulgaria and Romania through HiPERB.HIPERB is an ambitious plan, initially of five-year duration (2001—2006), subsequently extended for a second five-year period (2007-2011), with a view to implementing the comprehensive policy for the region of the Balkans.This policy’s objectives are the modernization of infrastructure, the promotion of productive investments, support for democratic institutions and the rule of law, the strengthening of the welfare state, and the mitigation of social inequalities.
·HIPERB's budget, worth a total of more than €500 million, finances projects, actions, studies, and activities in other Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, FYROM) but also in Kosovo. Its aim is to encourage the Western Balkans on their European course and, at the same, to consolidate political, economic, and social stability across the entire region of Southeast Europe.
Our country does not see the next enlargement wave as just another step forward.We see it as an historic wager, because it essentially concerns our neighbourhood.Thus, we have every reason to be active in this process and become the motor force behind our region’s course towards European integration.Greece, as a country that has benefited from enlargement, knows that the next enlargement fatigue should not affect the European perspective of the Western Balkans.
Greece’s gains from its accession into the European Union have been manifold:It consolidated and deepened its democratic institutions, it secured funds and foundations for its economic development and has succeeded in participating on an equal footing in an economic and political world power, also having a say in the decisions the EU makes.Today, most Greeks recognize that the European Union is a foundation on which security, economic prosperity and progress are built.It can and should become the foundation for our broader region.
Furthermore, given that our country is taking a leading role in guiding the Western Balkans on their accession course, a new framework of regional cooperation could be created with an emphasis on green development, environmental protection, energy security through the use of renewable and alternative sources of energy.This new policy of sustainable economic development that the EU has been trying to implement can be promoted across the broader Balkan region, which is the most appropriate from a geopolitical point of view.Greece can and must promote this policy and play a leading role in achieving stable and sustainable development for the region.
Our country has been a pioneer of the European course of all the countries of the Balkans. Under the Greek EU Presidency in 2003, the well-known Thessaloniki Agenda was adopted and has now become the official springboard and compass for our Western Balkan neighbours’ European course thus far. And today, following an admittedly difficult period of reflection for the European Union, it is now high time to give new momentum to this perspective.This is the aim of the initiative announced recently by the Prime Minister in Istanbul concerning a new road map for the intensification of the European course of the region’s countries.
This initiatives, by setting 2014 as a target date for the accession of all the countries of the Western Balkans to the EU, is not just strongly symbolic. It is also based on a specific and tangible logic:To encourage the countries of the Western Balkans to move ahead with more determination with the necessary reforms and the resolution of their pending issues, and to given new incentives to the peoples and governments of the region’s countries in order for them to fulfill their common European vision.