Press Releases Speech by President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum

Speech by President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum

Yesterday I visited a few areas hit by the recent floods — it was truly shocking. But I also witnessed the remarkable courage of the Slovenian people. I have been impressed by the focus and determination of the Slovenian authorities and by the leadership of Prime Minister Golob. And you are right, dear Prime Minister: you are not alone. Slovenia is not alone.

The EU is lending a strong supportive hand, along with our member states and partners such as Ukraine and the Western Balkans. It makes the title of this year’s forum — Solidarity for Global Security — even more resonant.

Solidarity — this is what reinforces the fabric of a community. Solidarity — this is what gives us the power to stand strong against life’s greatest challenges, and this same solidarity is at the very heart of European integration. It makes our European Union stronger. So you won’t be surprised that today I want to talk about solidarity. And I want to talk about enlargement.

We are facing unprecedented and interconnected crises. This summer’s natural disasters — here in Slovenia, in Greece and across the globe — are urgent reminders why we need to manage our transition to climate neutrality.

The war in Europe — on Ukrainian soil — has shown that peace and democracy cannot be taken for granted. This war is not just devastating Ukraine. It has a profound impact on the future of our continent and on global security.

Covid-19 also taught us some hard lessons — global health security is not a given, even in developed countries.

Faced with these challenges, the EU has shown that we are able to act boldly and decisively when needed. We were the first in the world to decide to make our continent climate neutral by 2050. And when faced with the first global pandemic in a century, we stood together to agree quickly on a massive recovery plan.

And when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin, and many others, expected a weak response, a divided Europe.

They got the opposite. In just a few hours, on 24 February, we responded with massive sanctions against Russia and deliveries of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. A different EU revealed itself on that day. Fast, determined, united and more decisive.

And when Putin launched an ‘energy missile’ at us, we responded with a powerful energy shield — a true ‘energy defence system’. We have diversified our energy sources and have broken our over-dependence on Russian fossil fuels. We have also re-energised our alliances with our strategic partners. Solidarity was our guiding light for all these decisive actions.

In today’s increasingly complex world, we, as Europeans, have crucial choices to make: are we content with a European Union that only manages crises? Or do we want to be a leading global actor that shapes the future? Are we resigned to a bipolar confrontational world? Or do we want to help build a multipolar world anchored in global cooperation?

We have already become more influential (e.g. climate neutrality), more assertive (e.g. confronting Russia’s aggression) and more realistic (e.g. working with partners not fully aligned with our values). We are also working hard to help remodel the global approach to development. Because it is essential to make the world safer and more prosperous. We want to be more influential to shape a better world. And we want to be stronger — to be a stronger ally. This is why we are building our strategic autonomy, brick by brick.

To be stronger and safer, the EU needs to reinforce our bonds and become more powerful. That’s why it is now time to tackle the challenge of enlargement. Both for us in the EU and for our future member states. Yes, I believe this is how we should now call the countries with confirmed EU perspective, future member states.

It’s time to get rid of the ambiguities. It’s time to face the challenges with clarity and honesty. The road to the EU for the Western Balkans began more than 20 years ago. A region at the heart of Europe, surrounded by the EU. It was also a region emerging from conflict after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The Thessaloniki Summit, in 2003, confirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans. But the slow pace of this EU journey has disappointed many, both in the region and in the EU. I agree with Chancellor Scholz when he says Europe must keep its promises.

As we speak, the people of Ukraine are heroically defending their country. The Kremlin is not only attacking a free and sovereign neighbour. The Kremlin is attacking all that we believe in — freedom, democracy, prosperity, and cooperation. So, in June last year, we granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. And the same status awaits Georgia when they complete the necessary steps.

So now enlargement is no longer a dream. It is time to move forward.

There is still a lot of work to do. It will be difficult and sometimes painful. For the future member states and for the EU.

To be credible, I believe we must talk about timing and homework. And I have a proposal. As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready — on both sides — to enlarge by 2030. This means that the EU’s next long-term budget will need to include our common goals. This is ambitious, but necessary. It shows that we are serious. It will build momentum. It will give a transformative boost to reforms and it will generate interest, investments and better understanding, and encourage us all to work together.

The window of opportunity is open. We need to act on it. That is why EU leaders will discuss enlargement at our next European Council meetings. We will take a stand on the opening of negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. And I also expect Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia to be back on the table.

Dear Western Balkan friends, you have made your aspirations clear. And I want you to succeed. So what will it take?

Values and the rule of law. Our Union is founded on the fundamental values of human rights and dignity, democracy, and solidarity. The rule of law ensures that we can live, work, create and trade fairly in one big area of liberties. In full respect of our diversity. In the EU, each citizen, each business must trust that they will be treated fairly — wherever they live or operate. This includes respecting the rights of minorities.

Enlargement is and will remain a merit-based process. Membership of the Union brings both responsibilities and benefits. In order to take on the responsibilities and reap the benefits in a highly competitive environment, one needs to be ready.

This means making sure the judiciary plays an independent role. And fighting corruption and organised crime. It also means being ready economically — in particular by adopting the EU acquis. And standing with us in foreign policy — more important today than ever.

Resolving bilateral conflicts from the past may be more painful than reforms. But it is necessary. You are walking the same path as the founding members of our Union. There is no cooperation without reconciliation. And I must say it clearly: there is no room for past conflicts within the EU.

Your people, especially the young, want to be inspired by a brighter, fairer and more prosperous future. Joining our Union would be splendid proof of a collective success. Ideally, you would all join together.

Yet future member states are at different stages on their journey to the EU. But we need to make sure that past conflicts are not imported into the EU and used to block the accession of their neighbours and other future member states.

One way could be to add a so-called ‘confidence clause’ in the accession treaties to ensure that countries that have just joined cannot block the accession of future member states.

To address all these challenges, the EU is strengthening our support for you. But we need to do more to close the development gap.

First, through gradual and progressive integration into EU policies, so the benefits can be felt more quickly — even before membership. I put forward this idea last year and the European Council supported it.

The Commission’s enlargement package — expected in October — is an opportunity to outline the concrete details of this progressive integration. This could take place in different areas — the single market, for example.

We have ambitious frameworks in place that support the alignment of future member states with the EU acquis. They can take advantage of existing options, such as the energy and transport communities. I propose that we use these frameworks to phase in future member states and to integrate them into specific EU policy areas once membership conditions are fulfilled.

For instance, a country could participate in the corresponding Council formation once they complete negotiations in the given policy chapter. In the same spirit, we have established the principle of yearly EU-Western Balkans summits. I will convene our next EU-WB summit in December, back-to-back with our European Council meeting.

Another area for gradual integration could be security and defence. We could invite interested future member states to more actively participate in some policies or instruments, such as CSDP missions, our Defence Fund, or the European Peace Facility.

The EU also needs to get ready for enlargement. I fully agree with President Macron: not reforming on our side before the next enlargement would be a fundamental mistake. Let’s be honest — we have sometimes used the lack of progress of future member states to avoid facing our own preparedness. We must now take a serious look at the EU’s capacity to absorb new members.

This idea is sometimes misunderstood as a hidden obstacle to accession. On the contrary, it only makes sense for new member states to join a Union that is efficient. It also makes sense for existing member states — if enlargement creates new opportunities.

Integrating new members into our Union won’t be easy. It will affect our policies, our programmes, and their budgets. It will require political reforms and political courage. The EU’s territory and demography will get bigger.

Yet its relative prosperity will not immediately follow — significant funds will be needed to help countries catch up. We need to make sure that the EU budget brings European added value for all. The GDP of the future member states is about 50-70% of the smallest EU economy. This means they will be net recipients, while several current net recipients will become net contributors. So we need to work out how to manage this complex transition.

The EU’s decision-making process has made a quantum leap in recent years. Yet we can do more to speed up our decision-making. More members will mean more diversity. We will have to adapt our institutional framework and procedures so that an enlarged EU is able to make efficient and timely decisions. And on the sensitive and difficult issue of unanimity, I believe that completely scrapping unanimity could be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Because unity is at the core of the EU’s strength. Unity is the best way to make sure decisions are uniformly implemented. There are various ways to become united. When we decided to activate the Peace Facility to finance arms delivery to Ukraine, constructive abstention was used to not impede unanimity. And there are different ways to adapt the qualified majority voting — whether in numbers or how and when we apply it. This will be a hard nut to crack. But there is no way to avoid this debate now.

Let me share with you my personal conviction. The heart of enlargement is not about processes, assessments, screenings, negotiations and treaties. The heart of enlargement is about the people, about the future of our children and the fate of Europe. So we need to make sure we have their hearts with us.

The hearts of the people may be our biggest challenge. This involves explaining the EU and highlighting its benefits. It’s a societal choice. It also means moving beyond the language of the past to focus on the future. With real political will, we can make both the EU and the future member states ready.

Now is the time to be bold. Now is the time to build our larger European future together.

Thank you.

Visit the website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *