Štefan Füle i, the Commissioner-designate for EU enlargement and neighbourhood policy, was quizzed by MEPs on Tuesday 12 January about his ideas on enlargement, the state of play in negotiations with Turkey, the prospects for accession of the Western Balkans, cooperation with the High Representative and his professional experience.
Mr Füle described himself as a "champion of a thorough-going reunification" of the European continent. "The shadow of the iron curtain that fell in 1989 only really disappeared with the enlargement" of 2004, he told Members of the EP Foreign Affairs Committee.
In response to the Commissioner-designate's remark that new Member States might join the Union "within five years", Johannes van Baalen i (ALDE, NL) argued that "the Commission must stick to the Copenhagen criteria and not speak about timetables".
Mr Füle, however, stressed that while the Copenhagen criteria remained central, his task would consist in "helping these countries to put in place the reforms necessary" to meet those criteria.
During the hearing, several MEPs including Hannes Swoboda (S&D, AT) stressed the need for the Commission to take steps to counter the enlargement "fatigue" being expressed by public opinion in Europe. "We must be clearer about enlargement and demonstrate its benefits, otherwise we are heading for failure", Mr Füle told MEPs.
On the Parliament's position regarding enlargement, the candidate Commissioner said he shared the EP's vision as set out in a resolution adopted in plenary in November 2009.
He told MEPs that he would recommend in the course of 2010 that Albania and Bosnia-Hercegovina be added to the list of countries whose citizens should not require visas to enter the EU. He also wanted to launch "a structured dialogue with Kosovo" on this matter, "although I will bear the safety of our citizens in mind", he said in an answer to Ulrike Lunacek (Greens/EFA, AT).
"Enlargement is more than just a public policy and more than a Commissioner's portfolio. It has transformed my country, my life and the whole of Europe", said the Czech candidate, who nevertheless stressed that "there are not and there should not be any shortcuts to accession".
Only "the pace of reform" will determine progress towards EU membership, he said. Iceland will have to observe the economic dimension of the Copenhagen criteria, he told Cristian Preda (EPP, RO), who asked him about the Icesave law.
Negotiations with Turkey
"Religious freedom will be part of the key criteria on which I will focus with Turkey and also with other countries", was Mr Füle's response to Bastiaan Belder i (EFD, NL), who voiced concern about discrimination against the Christian minority in Turkey.
On the Ankara protocol, which has not been signed by Turkey, and on the Cyprus question, the Commissioner-designate called on MEPs to "allow me time to try and settle the issue using my contacts". He undertook to "report" to MEPs on the talks. He also indicated that "accession negotiations are a good opportunity for the EU to clarify" what it expects from Ankara, which is still a crucial partner in the field of energy.
To a question by Miroslaw Piotrowski (ECR, PL) on whether Turkey could actually become a fully-fledged member of the EU, Mr Füle replied "Yes, I can very well imagine that. The EU's credibility is at stake but so is Turkey's: it must meet all the conditions. It will be a modern and reformed Turkey and its accession will be of benefit to both sides". However, given the divergent views of MEPs on this issue he said he would be willing to discuss it with them.
Mr Füle clearly ruled out a "privileged partnership" with Turkey, in a response to Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Ria Oomen-Ruijten i (EPP, NL).
In his opening remarks, the candidate Commissioner made clear his wish to "devote as much attention to our neighbours in the east as to those in the south".
On Ukraine, he had an "open mind" regarding any link between the country and Article 49 of the Treaty (which defines accession conditions) "even if this country does not, of course, meet the Copenhagen criteria", he stressed. He added that "the eastern partnership helps bring this country closer to the Union".
On developments in Belarus, he told Andrezj Grzyb (EPP, PL), who spoke on behalf of the Human Rights Subcommittee, that "this country still has a long way to go to integrate with our activities". He pointed out that Belarus was only taking part in the eastern partnership at this stage.
To Willy Meyer Pleite (GUE/NGL i, ES), who asked about human rights violations that he said had been committed by Israel and Morocco, Mr Füle said he shared his concerns but believed that "if you halt dialogue, you can't take the issues forward".
"I firmly believe that the neighbourhood policy gives us a coherent approach which ensures that the whole EU is committed to deepening relations with all [its] neighbours, while still allowing us to tailor our relations to each country's circumstances", he said.
Mr Füle saw cooperation with the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, which is chaired by Kristian Vigenin (S&D, BG), as one of the channels for "giving impetus" to the eastern partnership launched in Prague in May 2009.
Answering a question by Renate Weber (ALDE, RO) about the fate of the secessionist regions, Mr Füle explained that "the eastern partnership was not designed to settle frozen conflicts but that should not prevent us helping those countries to resolve their issues".
Cooperation with other Commissioners responsible for international questions
When asked how his field of activity would dovetail with that of the High Representative, Mr Füle said he saw Georgia as "a test case", as it involved "reconciling crisis management", an area that comes under Lady Ashton i, and the policy for the region conducted by the competent Commissioner.
On Georgia, he assured Inese Vaidere (EPP, LV), who was concerned about the human rights situation in the country, that "the EU must play a stabilising role in the region and repeat again and again that we support the territorial integrity of Georgia".
Mr Füle, a 47 year old Czech diplomat and former foreign minister of his country, was quizzed about his alleged communist past by some MEPs, including Charles Tannock (ECR, UK) and Andreas Mölzer (NA, AT). Barry Madlener i (NA, NL) asked him to repeat, in front of MEPs, his apologies for his membership of the Czechoslovak communist party.
"Everyone has his personal history. At the time when I was able to make choices, I put my skills at the service of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic as I have done these past twenty years. And it is in this spirit that I am ready to offer my services to the European Union, if you are in agreement", replied Mr Füle.