Setting a clear timeline for the next phase of EU enlargement has long been the subject of sensitive internal debate among the institutions. Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi’s latest remark suggests the division runs even deeper.
The European Commission should be ready to welcome the new EU members by 2030, the bloc’s Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said after a meeting with Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday, September 6th, taking the opposite stance from his boss, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Politico reported.
“On our side, we have been working tirelessly to that end—so I’m very happy to see finally, the member states are also starting to move and mobilize politically and ready to invest politically to have new members of the EU by 2030,” Várhelyi said during his press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.
The idea of an official accession timeline for current candidate countries has been repeatedly ruled out by von der Leyen, who prefers EU expansion to remain a “merit-based process” without any promises.
By specifically mentioning 2030, Várhelyi was referring to the enlargement timeline proposed by European Council President Charles Michel, who suggested the date back in August so that the EU would begin preparing for the expansion by having a deadline to accommodate the newcomers with certain updated frameworks.
At the same time, Michel underlined that “enlargement is and will remain a merit-based process,” and setting a timeline doesn’t mean candidate countries won’t need to fulfill the accession criteria regarding the rule of law, economic standards, or foreign policy.
Michel was also backed by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who argued that the 2030 deadline would “mobilize the energy” of both the candidates and the EU itself.
Meanwhile, the pressure is mounting on the EU to begin official accession talks with Ukraine by the end of this year, even though Kyiv is nowhere near fulfilling all the required criteria for the next step to begin.
According to the last progress report, presented by Commissioner Várhelyi in July, Ukraine completed only two out of the seven legislative milestones set by the EU, and in four key areas—anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, deoligarchization, and national minorities—the reform progress is still less than 50% of the required levels.
Naturally, discussing Turkey’s own enlargement prospects was also on the agenda, but Várhelyi made sure Ankara didn’t mistake the suggested timeline for a promise, as it was meant for the Eastern European and West Balkan applicants only.
“The negotiations for [Turkey’s] accession are at a standstill now, and for this to be remobilized there are very clear criteria set out also by the European Council that would need to be addressed, and these criteria are related to democracy and rule of law,” Várhelyi underlined.
Nonetheless, the visit is significant in itself, since it marks the first time an EU official has met with members of the new Erdogan cabinet after the president’s re-election at the end of May. EU-Turkey relations have been practically frozen in recent years, but the bloc’s foreign ministers decided to re-engage with the country, which is seen by many as an important partner, especially in the fight against illegal migration and the “externalization” of the refugee crisis.
During the two-day visit, Várhelyi will sign a contract worth €780 million for a social safety net for the most vulnerable refugees in Turkey as part of the additional €3 billion EU funding Brussels pledged to Ankara in exchange for continued support on the migration front.
As a goodwill gesture, the EU also pledged €400 million in assistance for the reconstruction of the February earthquake’s most affected areas.
Whether Brussels is ready to resume accession talks with Turkey remains a question for the future, but it may be addressed in the upcoming enlargement progress report that will be presented next month.