EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – Planting his flag firmly in the pro-Turkey camp, the European Commission’s incoming enlargement and neighbourhood policy chief, the Czech Republic’s Stefan Fuele, said Turkey could one day could become a full EU member during his Brussels interview with MEPs on Tuesday (12 January).
Despite high-level opposition in France and Germany to Ankara’s accession, the 47-year-old career diplomat and ex-European affairs minister said he hoped to move forward with negotiations on his watch.
“I intend to go ahead with accession negotiations,” he told MEPs in the chamber’s foreign affairs committee, adding: “They are the best leverage we have to help Turkey modernise.”
He said that there had been a lot of progress in the country in recent years, breaking down taboos, while underscoring that there remained human rights concerns.
Asked by a Polish centre-right deputy whether Turkey could be awarded full membership in the bloc, he said: “Yes, I can well imagine. It is in the credibility of the EU, but Turkey must fulfill all conditions. This will be a reformed and modern Turkey and its accession will benefit both parties.”
He explicitly ruled out a so-called “privileged partnership” for Turkey, another option that has been mooted by opponents of the country’s adhesion.
Mr Fuele appeared as a robust supporter of enlargement in general, cheering the changes Europe has helped make to the east and his own central European republic: “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,” he said.
As for the western Balkans, he said that he hoped “to invite new members to our family” during his time as commissioner and to recommend that Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina be awarded visa-free travel this year.
He said he sympathised with feelings of enlargement “fatigue” when quizzed on the matter by Austrian centre-left deputy Hannes Swoboda, however.
“We must clarify the goals of expansion and demonstrate the benefits, otherwise we run to failure,” he said.
Mr Fuele would not be drawn on whether other eastern neighbours, such as Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Georgia, should ultimately find themselves in the club, saying that he maintained “an open mind” on the question of Ukraine, while underscoring his concerns about the human rights situation in Georgia:
“The EU must play a stabilising role in this region and repeat again and again that we want the territorial integrity of Georgia.”
Ahead of the hearing, some were expecting a grilling over Mr Fuele’s former membership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party before 1989, but in the end, only a British Tory and a pair of hard-right deputies from the Netherlands and Austria pressed the issue.
Twenty-seven years old when democracy came to eastern Europe, he said that his past was “a result of the time and place I grew up in,” emphasising his record of public service as an ambassador to the UN, in Lithuania, Britain and NATO.
“And it is in this spirit that I am offering my capacities also to the European commission, if you agree,” he said.