On Tuesday, 6 October, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi presented the 2020 Enlargement Package and the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans to the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET). The European Commission delivered new guidance for aspiring countries to join the European Union highlighting the progress made and challenges still to be faced.
The Enlargement Commissioner reiterated that from the outset of his tenure the “aim was to ensure both [EU’s] partners in the Western Balkans and member states regain trust in the accession process.” In announcing details of the documents, the Commissioner told members of the AFET “we now have key elements on the table and need to move to implementation and delivery.”
The EU’s bloc candidates and potential candidates
Currently, there are five candidate countries negotiating EU membership: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are considered “potential candidates”, having been promised the prospect of membership once they fulfil the EU criteria.
The Commission confirmed that both Albania and North Macedonia are nearly ready for accession negotiations, based on progress in their implementation of EU acquis-compliant reforms.
On fundamental rights, the Commission affirms that Albania is compliant with international human rights instruments and that it has developed its legal framework in line with European standards.However, freedom of expression standards in the country are regarded as “moderately prepared”. In December 2019, the Albanian Parliament approved a set of amendements to the media law, aiming to regulate online media and some aspects of defamation
The Balkan country has improved on regional cooperation and is deemed to have good neighbourly relations. According to the EC, Albania is “moderately prepared” in terms of upgrading its public administration and its judicial system. Continuing implementation of a comprehensive reform of the justice system shows good progress overall. In dealing with corruption and organized crime, Albania had achieved “some level of preparation,” according to the EC assessment, which noted that Albanian authorities had “strengthened operational, coordination and monitoring capacities in the fight against corruption.”
There had also been “some progress” on migration, thanks to improvements in institutional capacity on border management and asylum. On the economic front, Albania is “moderately prepared” in developing a functioning market economy. Overall, the assessment concluded, Albania continued to align its legislation to EU requirements, “enhancing its ability to assume the obligations of membership”.
The Commission considered North Macedonia to be “moderately prepared” with the reform of its public administration. Some progress had been made in improving transparency thanks to the adoption of the 2019-2021 Transparency Strategy, the operationalisation of the open government data portal and the publication of data on government spending.
There was good progress in implementing the judicial reform strategy, thereby addressing listed ‘’Urgent Reform Priorities’’. The same applied to the fight against corruption, with acknowledgement of ongoing efforts to consolidate the administration’s track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying high level corruption cases.
North Macedonia’s legislative framework is broadly in line with European standards and efforts to implement strategies against organised crime must continue, the assessment observed. Also, the legal framework on the protection of fundamental rights is largely in line with European standards.
With regards to freedom of expression, the overall situation and climate in which media operates remain generally favourable to media freedom and allows for critical media reporting. However, there have been some increased tensions during the COVID-19 crisis and in the context of the recent elections.
In terms of economic criteria, North Macedonia is at a good level in preparations to develop a functioning market economy but had made limited progress during the reporting period. Economic growth accelerated in 2019 as investment picked up, but, since April 2020, the COVID-19 crisis has left its mark on the economy and on public finances.
In Serbia, the Commission considered that the legislative and institutional framework for upholding fundamental rights is broadly in place. However, the country is “moderately prepared” in the area of public administration reform. Lack of transparency and respect for merit-based recruitment procedures for senior civil service positions is an issue of increasingly serious concern.
Also, the scope for continued political influence over the judiciary under current legislation is a serious concern. Overall, corruption remains a problem in Serbia. There is still no effective prevention coordination mechanism in place. The number of finalised high-level corruption cases has decreased compared with the previous years. The EU executive recommended that Serbia “increase its efforts and step up the prevention and repression of corruption”.
As to the normalisation of relations with Kosovo, Serbia needs to make further substantial efforts and contribute to reaching a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement with Kosovo. Such an agreement is “urgent and crucial” in order to attain EU membership.
In Montenegro, the Commission found a need to strengthen transparency, stakeholder participation, and governmental capacity to implement reforms.
Montenegro remains moderately prepared to apply the EU acquis and meet European standards in the area of the judiciary and has made limited progress overall.
The Commission criticizedMontenegro for its poor performance on freedom of expression, including “arrests and proceedings against editors of online portals and citizens” for sharing or posting content in the course of 2020.
In Kosovo, the judicial system remains at an early stage of preparation. The EU executive deems that the legal framework broadly guarantees the protection of human and fundamental rights in line with EU standards. However, “inadequate financial resources, limited political prioritisation and lack of coordination” tend to undermine the implementation of human rights legislation and strategies.
Kosovo benefits from a pluralistic and lively media environment. Nevertheless, rule of law institutions need to continue efforts to follow-up on threats and attacks against journalists. The public broadcaster remains vulnerable to political influence and there is still need to find a sustainable solution for its funding.
As for economic criteria, Kosovo has made “limited progress” in developing a functioning market economy. The challenges identified by the EC range from a “difficult labour market situation” to a “lack of economic diversification”.
The Commission has been harsh on Bosnia-Herzegovina due to its lack of progress in a number of areas. “No progress was made in improving the electoral framework in line with European standards and ensuring transparency of political party financing,” the country assessment report concluded.
The EC added that “corruption remained widespread”, with “all levels of government showing signs of political capture directly affecting the daily life of citizens.”
Turkey remains a difficult applicant, as the EU consider it to have violated several democracy elements, including the rule of law and media freedom. “The deterioration of human and fundamental rights continued”, according to the EC, despite Turkey being a key player in curbing immigration into Europe. Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry termed the EU’s Enlargement Package a “biased approach” by the EU.
Following the Commission assessment of the EU-related reforms in each enlargement country, AFET Committee rapporteurs will draft country reports, outlining the Parliament’s conclusions and recommendations.
Vice-President of the European Parliament’s S&D Group Kati Piri said that they welcome the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, both as a tool for long-term support for the people of the region, and for the immediate needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.