When Johannes Hahn was handed his commission portfolio he was in the curious position of seeing his mandate divided between one of the EU's most contentious policy areas in neighbourhood policy, and an area of activity in enlargement that can largely be considered 'on ice'.
Despite commission president Jean-Claude Juncker pledging the addition of no new member states within the next five years, the Austrian commissioner believes the EU's "neighbourhood policy and enlargement strategy are crucial for Europe's citizens".
He points to "developments in our close vicinity which directly impact on our own stability, security and prosperity". The neighbourhood policy commissioner is adamant that, "the EU has a vital interest in becoming an even stronger player in the regions close to its borders". This is necessary "to promote our values and interests, and to support shared stability and prosperity through political and socioeconomic reforms".
"When our partners deliver on better governance and reform, the EU must also deliver on what it has promised"
The Austrian official says, "I have been asked by president Juncker to lead a fundamental reform of the European neighbourhood policy (ENP) and make sure it gives us greater leverage." Hahn notes that the current policy was devised in 2004 and that Europe's "neighbourhood is now very different".
"Our idea is not to throw out the policy – because that would be very counterproductive to the EU's interests' ‒ but to overhaul it for our citizens and partners."
The former commissioner for regional policy says, "The review process has already started and some essential elements are already clear." Hahn highlights the need for "true tailor-made solutions, based on shared interests, rather than a somewhat academic one-size-fits-all approach", as each partner country has "different challenges and levels of engagement".
He wants the EU's neighbourhood policy to be "more focused on key areas of most importance, such as trade and investment, energy and migration". Ensuring there is "sufficient flexibility in the tools we use" is important in the future development of ENP.
"When our partners deliver on better governance and reform, the EU must also deliver on what it has promised. When partners do not deliver, we need to have a clearer strategy to pursue our interests and maintain our influence while remaining true to our principles."
Hahn says, "we need to strengthen the joint ownership of our relations with our neighbours. I don't want to preach or talk down to them – I want a true partnership of equals." ENP is "no longer just about building an area of democracy and prosperity in the longer term, it is about preserving the vital European interest right now".
This 'interest' spans a number of areas "from security and upholding universal values to creating a climate conducive to investment, bringing benefits to businesses in member states, as well as partner countries".
Noting that no new members will join the EU in this commission's term, Hahn maintains that "our enlargement policy remains as relevant as ever to the EU's security and prosperity".
He says that, this does not mean we "will stand still", "so let's use this time window to get everyone into shape". In relation to ongoing enlargement negotiations, the commissioner identifies "three make or break issues".
These are: "the rule of law and fundamental rights; a properly functioning democracy; and especially the economies of our friends in south eastern Europe".
In an effort to better support these priorities, "there are basics on which we cannot compromise: improving the investment climate and opening markets, tackling organised crime and corruption, reforming public administrations, and moving towards independent and professional judiciaries."
He adds that, "the same holds true for fundamental rights: discrimination and attacks on freedom have no place in societies that wish to join the EU."
The former Austrian minister for science and research notes that, "economic performance is not only about money, it is especially about structural reforms and creating the right conditions for attracting business investment and generating jobs." This is something "I will place a particular emphasis on", says Hahn.
"EU restrictive measures constitute a strong signal to the leaders of Russia: destabilising Ukraine, or any other European neighbouring state, has a cost"
On the commission's new configuration, Hahn emphasises that both elements of his brief, neighbourhood policy and enlargement, are "by definition covering horizontal and cross-cutting issues that require close cooperation between services and the different commissioners".
He cites "economic reforms, foreign policy and security issues, trade, energy and infrastructure, and migration" as areas where cooperation is particularly required.
On "the aggressive actions by the Russian Federation in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, stability and security", the commissioner believes the EU's stance is "very clear". Russia's actions are "entirely unacceptable and have a clear price tag".
Hahn emphasises that, "EU restrictive measures constitute a strong signal to the leaders of Russia: destabilising Ukraine, or any other European neighbouring state, has a cost."
He says recent events demonstrate that, "the ENP is more important than ever" and "political engagement must and will continue with the EU's six eastern partners".
Another focus for the enlargement commissioner in recent times has been Iceland's decision to withdraw from accession negotiations. Hahn underlines that the decision "is a sovereign choice of a sovereign country". "It is Iceland's decision whether to proceed with these negotiations or not. Should they decide to resume the negotiations, we stand ready to continue the process."
The Austrian official says, "the European parliament has always played a very welcome, active and important role with regards to ENP and enlargement."
He says, "MEPs have already shown strong support to me in the first weeks of my mandate, for which I am grateful". Hahn highlights that, "many MEPs still remember their own accession processes, so they are true European ambassadors of reform."
He expects the parliament "to play a particularly significant role with regard to the ENP review" in 2015.
Furthermore, "the ideas generated by the European parliament's foreign affairs committee will play a big part in the development of our policy recommendations, and we will consult closely with other relevant committees too."
Johannes Hahn is European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations commissioner