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15th Oct 2018

New Austrian commissioner backs EU sanctions on Russia

  • Hahn: 'We can’t make any concessions to Russia' (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The EU’s next neighbourhood commissioner was tougher than expected on Russia at his EU parliament hearing on Tuesday (30 September).

Johannes Hahn said the bloc should maintain sanctions and that Moscow has no right to veto its neighbours’ decisions.

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He said his “first priority” in office will be to help solve the Ukraine crisis.

“I also want to move forward in our relations with Russia, but Russia should not underestimate the European Union’s resolve to stand by its principles … until [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity has been restored, we can’t make any concessions to Russia”.

Asked by one MEP if the EU’s offer of free trade deals to Russia’s neighbours caused the confrontation, Hahn added: “I don’t think you can accuse the EU of pursuing an expansionist policy … it [whether to integrate with the EU or Russia] is the sovereign prerogative of each country and, logically, of its people, to decide on”.

He also said the content of the EU-Ukraine trade agreement should not be altered despite Russia’s demands.

The Austrian politician has, for the past five years, looked after the European Commission’s regional policy.

Diplomats from Ukraine and some eastern EU states are wary of his change of dossier because Austria is one of the most Russia-friendly EU states.

But Hahn’s remarks on Tuesday reflect the prevailing mood, with EU countries’ ambassadors the same day opting to maintain economic sanctions on Russia despite the ceasefire in Ukraine.

With Hahn to also take care of “enlargement negotiations”, he told parliament that “with regard to the [EU] countries that don’t recognise Kosovo, I think there’s some movement starting there”.

He later told press he plans to hold talks with each of the five non-recognisers - Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain - at the oustet of his term.

He also spoke firmly on Turkey.

When one MEP noted that Turkey has jailed more journalists than China or Iran, Hahn said: “It’s unacceptable that anybody is jailed for reasons related to freedom of expression and this is something you can be assured I will address in the accession negotiations”.

He added that no new “chapters” in the EU entry talks will be opened until Ankara “proves over a time period” that it is serious on reform.

Hahn’s boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, had earlier said there will be no new EU countries in the next five years.

But Hahn noted this is a reflection of the state of play, rather than a policy change: “We just started negotiations with Serbia, last year with Montenegro - if you look at the average duration of negotiations, it can’t be expected we will conclude very soon”.

Some euro-deputies voiced concern he is more interested in the EU’s eastern flank than in the south.

But Hahn replied that security issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, are primarily for the EU foreign relations chief.

“We must not get into a situation where too many cooks spoil the broth”, he said.

With some conflicts, such as Cyprus-Turkey, also falling into his lap, he added: “I’m new to the world of diplomacy and I don’t want to be a bull in a china shop … I want to speak to experts in the area and I don’t want to make grand promises [here]”.

He also found time for humour in the three-hour hearing.

Asked by one MEP whether he is more of a neighbourhood or enlargement commissioner, Hahn replied: “I’m both. You can move to your next question”.

Asked how the EU can help rebuild Ukraine, he turned to the meeting's chairman, who was being strict on speaking time, and said: “First, let me ask: Do I have one or one and a half minutes to explain the future of Ukraine?”

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