Brussels, 15 December 2006 - "Europe has finally found the courage to talk openly again," commented Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, referring to the discussion in the European Council on enlargement and the EU’s capacity to absorb new members. "Austria has always insisted that the criterion of absorption capacity be placed on the EU agenda. The fact that open discussion among the member states on enlargement is now taking place represents a major step forward and is also the fruit of Austria’s patient groundwork," continued Plassnik. "Austria’s influence in this sphere is clearly visible."
The Foreign Minister went on to point out the importance of putting the concept of absorption capacity into practice: "This is not merely an academic exercise; specific steps are required. It is not a question of setting up artificial barriers. Absorption capacity is rather a question of common sense: how many new members can the European Union reasonably manage?"
Apart from impact assessments to determine the effect of possible enlargement on sensitive EU policy areas, Plassnik also said that, in Austria’s view, maximum public support was also vital. "Objective information is required, and not just by governments. This aspect has not been sufficiently emphasised to date. In the past we tended to assume that the advantages of EU enlargement were obvious to everyone. The events in the last few years have moved too quickly for some, however. We must therefore respond proactively to the fears and concerns of our citizens. Every enlargement process must be prepared with care and circumspection, and accompanied by a sustained and open communications policy. The EU must have the backing of its citizens if it wants to make a success of enlargement," continued the Foreign Minister.
The fifth enlargement round since the start of European integration will be completed with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on 1 January 2007. "History has set us an epoch-making challenge with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and we have faced up to this challenge very well. I am firmly convinced that the reunification of Europe through the progressive development of freedom and justice in the European region will stand the test of time," said the Foreign Minister.
The rate of EU enlargement was now slowing down, according to Plassnik. The EU was managing the process with great care and circumspection, both within and outside the Community. "Future enlargement processes must not be allowed to compromise or detract from what we have achieved together. This is something we need to ensure - in the interests of both present and future member states."
This did not mean, Plassnik felt, that the door would be shut. The Balkan states in particular still had a clear European perspective. "The European Council will give a very clear signal that the states of the western Balkans are welcome in the EU as friends and neighbours," emphasised the Foreign Minister. The same held true for Serbia. "Yesterday’s signing of the NATO Partnership for Peace marks an important advance by Serbia towards the Euro-Atlantic structures. It is a success for the pro-European forces in the country, and a further responsible step towards admission to the European system of values," added Plassnik.
At the European Council meeting the foreign ministers also spoke of the situation in the Middle East, Iran and Sudan. As far as the Middle East was concerned, Plassnik stressed that consolidation of the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians and its possible extension to western Jordan was an important element on the way towards the peaceful co-existence of the two peoples. "The next building block must be the formation of a government of national unity within the framework of the Palestinian constitution. Yesterday’s clashes in the Gaza Strip show how urgent and indispensable efforts to foster dialogue amongst Palestinians themselves are," explained the Foreign Minister.
"There are now signs of cautious hope in the region. But there are also dark clouds on the horizon: the worsening crisis in Lebanon and the increasingly critical humanitarian and economic situation in the Palestinian Territories. Sustained international commitment is now required more than ever. Politicians must not allow extremists to snatch back the initiative."
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