BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission will shortly propose that the EU give more cash to countries that want to join and offer them access to the single market to speed up their membership preparations, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi said.
Eight countries currently have official EU candidate status - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine - while two, Georgia and Kosovo, are potential candidate countries.
The chair of European Union leaders, Charles Michel, has called for the EU to be ready to accept new members, and for candidates to be ready to meet the entry criteria, by 2030.
"In a couple of weeks time you will see us presenting a new way of thinking about enlargement and a package that will now include 10 candidate countries, or countries with a European perspective," Varhelyi told a news conference.
"In that report we not only want to move forward, but we want to provide the means for an accelerated integration," he said after a meeting in Spain of EU ministers, who debated how the EU should prepare for admitting new members.
Varhelyi said the EU would seek to help the candidates prepare faster for EU membership through a growth plan for the Western Balkans to reduce the "economic and social gap" between these countries and the rest of the EU before accession.
Under the scheme, the countries would gradually get access to the EU's single market of 450 million consumers, where goods, services, labour and capital can move freely, even before becoming full EU members.
"We want to create the opportunity to gradually integrate these countries into the single market, into the four freedoms, already before accession, because this will be for the benefit of both the European Union and for the candidate countries," Varhelyi said.
He said the Commission proposal would also call for more EU money for the candidates to help speed up reforms needed to join the now 27-nation bloc. Potential sums were not specified.
The money would come on top of the EU's existing pre-accession assistance for candidate countries, which in the 2021-2027 EU budget totals 14.2 billion euros ($14.98 billion).
The measures would demonstrate the EU was ready to welcome new members and put the onus on the candidate countries to make full use of these opportunities, Varhelyi said.
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(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Mark Potter)