EU Commission Charts Uneven Progress in Balkans

08 Oct 14

EU Commission Charts Uneven Progress in Balkans

Most Balkan countries have made some progress on their EU path, but key areas of concern remain organised crime, corruption, the rule of law, the courts, politicized state administrations – and giving a free media room to breathe.


Brussels, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Podgorica

Presenting the annual Enlargement Package in Brussels on Wednesday, Commissioner Stefan Fule said EU enlargement policy was delivering concrete results through reforms that gradually transform Balkan countries.

“Five years ago, we set out to strengthen the credibility and the transformative power of enlargement policy. Today, this approach is bearing fruit,” Fule said.

At the same time, the reports that European Commission has published on Wednesday show that progress in Balkan countries has been uneven, and some will have to work harder than others.

Albania: political dialogue needed

The Commission praises Albania for its “concrete action and sustained political will in the area of EU-related reforms.

“The new government undertook a number of reforms to bring the country closer to meeting the key priorities for progress towards the EU and deliver further tangible results, notably in the area of rule of law,” the EU noted.

However, the report also voiced concern about political divisions; the main opposition Democratic Party has been boycotting parliament since July.

The Commission said that “government and opposition should take steps to restore political dialogue in parliament.

“The government needs to ensure that the opposition has the possibility to fully perform its democratic control function. At the same time, the opposition also needs to engage constructively in the democratic processes.

“Increasing cross-party cooperation remains essential for a sustainable reform process,” report said.

On the economy, the report stated that Albania had maintained macroeconomic stability but still faces significant challenges.

“Persistent fiscal imbalances have caused public debt to reach high levels and fiscal buffers are largely exhausted,” it said.

“Large accumulated government arrears have sapped liquidity and confidence in the economy, despite the government beginning to clear these in March.

“The high current account deficit reflects weak competitiveness and a narrow production base. The private sector is held back by weaknesses in the regulatory environment and the rule of law. Substantial efforts are required to improve the labour market,” the commission wrote.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: at a standstill

The Commission noted with regret that Bosnia and Herzegovina remains at a standstill on its path towards European integration, and lamented a lack of political will to address necessary reforms.

Bosnia: time to listen to the EU

Vjekoslav Bevanda, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, said the European Commission had set clear recommendations before the country.

“No one can be satisfied what has been done [in Bosnia],” Bevanda said adding that Bosnia urgently needed to set up mechanisms that would enable state institutions on different levels to coordinate work.

Zeljka Cvijanovic, Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s mainly Serbian entity, stated that the European Commission should apply the same criteria to Bosnia as those applied to other countries.

She said she felt concerned about whether Brussels remained genuinely committed to further enlargement.

“For years we have listening to European Commission’s statements of concern that this country lacks a common vision of the future and has different ethnical- political agendas – but I see the same in Belgium,” Cvijanovic stated, referring to Belgium’s linguistic and ethnic division.

Cvijanovic agreed that Bosnia needed to introduce a “system of coordination between institutions” that would enable all levels of government to function.

“Once we achieve that, the [Commission] reports will be different, as everyone will know what they need to do,” she concluded.

“Following the elections [on October 12], it will be essential for the country to speak with one voice, to tackle urgent socio-economic reforms and to progress on its European agenda,” the report stated.

The report remarked that Bosnia made limited or no progress in adopting EU-related laws, fighting corruption, judicial reform or improving the functionality and efficiency of all levels of government.

“The complicated decision-making process, lack of shared vision and weak cooperation between the various levels of government have delayed structural reforms and hampered the country’s progress,” the Commission wrote.

The EU further noted that “continued use of divisive rhetoric by some political representatives and questioning of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capacity to function as a country had a negative impact on cooperation between the [two] Entities and the functioning of the State.”

The report also noted that Bosnia had not acted on the ruling in 2009 by the European Court of Human Rights in case of Sejdic and Finci case and had not adjusted its constitution to enable citizens who do not declare themselves as one of the three constituent peoples from standing as candidates for the Presidency and the House of Peoples of parliament.

Macedonia: a politicized administration

The Commission continues to recommend that Macedonia be allowed to start membership talks with the EU, noting, however, that the country has recent slid backwards in terms of freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary.

“There is indirect state control of media output through government advertising and government-favoured (and favourable) media outlets,” the report noted.

The report remarked that the functioning of parliament continued to be hindered by the lack of a constructive political dialogue and deep divisions between the main parties.

“The absence of most opposition MPs from parliament hampered its work on adopting new reforms, and its ability to provide the necessary checks and balances on the activities of government,” it recalled.

“Government and opposition should take steps to restore political dialogue in parliament,” the Commission wrote.

The report stated that the politicization of government at both central and local level remains of concern.

“Confidence in the independence of state institutions is low due to widely-held perceptions that the public administration is politicised and lacks transparency,” the report said.

Montenegro: time to tackle corruption

Tangible results on the ground are needed and will be key to determining the overall pace of the country’s EU accession negotiations, the report on Montenegro said.

The Commission concluded that the country continues to meet the political criteria for membership, had made further progress in establishing a functioning market economy and had improved its ability to take on the obligations of EU membership.

“Delays have been, however, noted on a number of measures, especially on legislative reforms,” the Commission wrote.

Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said that Montenegro needs to make sure that cases of corruption, including high-profile cases, were thoroughly investigated and, where appropriate, the perpetrators prosecuted.

The degree to which the fight against corruption and other rule of law-related reforms produces results, he added, will determine the overall pace of the accession negotiations.

“If no tangible progress is made, negotiations would have to slow down, as agreed in our negotiating framework,” Fule told the Montenegrin media.

Kosovo: effective rule of law required

In its report on Kosovo, the European Commission stated that the initialling of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement in July was a major milestone in Kosovo’s relations with the EU.

“Now Kosovo needs to deliver on key reforms, in particular the rule of law,” the Commission stated.

Fule urged Kosovo to move forward and form a new government, which has been on hold since the June elections.

The report, meanwhile, told Kosovo to amend its constitution in order to align it with EU standards, reform the public administration, improve the independence, accountability and impartiality of judges and prosecutors and repress corruption and organised crime.

“Even though Kosovo’s judicial and prosecutorial councils prioritised corruption cases there is no track record of convictions,” the report noted.

“Corruption remains prevalent in many areas, including in public procurement, and continues to be a serious problem that needs to be addressed urgently.

“Real political commitment is needed to translate efforts into actual results in the fight against corruption,” the Commission wrote.

Serbia: progress on Kosovo essential

The Commission said Serbia continues to meet the EU’s political criteria, but it needs to comprehensively reform the rule of law and the public administration while ensuring full freedom of expression.

Serbia: We came top in the region

Aleksandar Vucic, the Prime Minister of Serbia, stated that he was pleased to note that the European Commission report on Serbia was better than the reports on Serbia’s neighbours.

“[Our] report is better from all other reports in the region. If nothing else we are the best. However, we want to work harder and better,” Vucic told a press conference on Wednesday.

He said Serbia accepted the European Commission’s observations and was ready to deal with the issues that had been highlighted.

“I would be even harsher in [my] assessments, especially when it comes to judiciary and environmental protection,” Vucic noted.

He said that the government would take on board remarks regarding media freedom and would establish who was pressuring and influencing the media.

Progress in normalising relations with Kosovo is deemed essential for advancing the European future of both Serbia and Kosovo.

The report stated that although both governments in Belgrade and Pristina had remained engaged in the EU-facilitated dialogue, progress has markedly slowed since March 2014, largely due to elections in both countries.

“New momentum needs to be generated to tackle key outstanding issues and open a new phase in the normalisation of relations,” the report noted.

The report also noted that Serbia had not joined the EU sanctions on Russia imposed in relation to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The country “needs to progressively align its policies and positions with the EU ones, in the period up to accession”, the report advised.

It also needs to step up its efforts “towards alignment with the EU acquis in particular in the fields of energy – including on the South Stream gas pipeline,” the report added.

The fact that Serbia secured the first Gay Pride Parade in three years was welcomed. However, concerns were expressed about freedom of expression.

“A growing trend of self-censorship which, combined with undue influence on editorial policies, and a series of cases of intervention against websites, are detrimental to freedom of the media and adversely affect the development of professional and investigative journalism,” the report wrote.

The report also states that further efforts must be made towards judicial reform and the fight against corruption, as well as addressing the very high budget deficit, by streamlining government spending, restoring fiscal discipline and improving tax collection.

Source: Balkan Insight (Montenegro)