Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
The EU enlargement reports showed very mixed progress, with Albania, Kosovo and Serbia all making breakthroughs towards EU integration in the last year, while progress has stalled in both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia.
Across the region, the European Commission’s annual reports on Turkey and six countries from the Western Balkans identify a need for more progress on the rule of law, in areas including fighting corruption, ensuring freedom of expression and public administration reform.
"Five years ago, we set out to strengthen the credibility and the transformative power of enlargement policy. We put a particular emphasis on three pillars: rule of law in 2012, economic governance in 2013 and this year, we're setting out new ideas to support public administration reform, and strengthening of democratic institutions. Today, this approach is bearing fruit,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule on the launch of the reports on October 8.
The last year has marked a turning point for Serbia on its road towards EU membership, with the accession negotiations process formally launched in January 2014.
The report was welcomed in Belgrade, with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic saying on October 8 that the country had “by far the best assessments" in the region. “I am particularly proud of the fact that the report acknowledges the fight against crime and corruption,” Vucic said, according to the Serbian government website.
In an article published in Serbian daily Blic on October 8, Fule said Serbia had become one of the EU’s closest partners, and also commended efforts by the Serbian government at modernisation. “Serbia has made a serious start on its programme of economic reforms, by adopting new laws on labour, privatisation and bankruptcy, salaries and pensions,” the report said, though adding that, “Significant efforts are still needed to address the very high budget deficit, by streamlining government spending, restoring fiscal discipline and improving tax collection. A wide range of structural reforms remains to be carried out.”
Another critical issue raised by the EC report is the normalisation of relations with Kosovo, where it calls for “new momentum... to be generated in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.”
The report also called on Belgrade to “step up its efforts toward alignment”, singling out the the South Stream gas pipeline - a Russian-backed project suspended by EU member states but still progressing in Serbia. Apparently alluding to Serbia’s close relationship with Russia and decision not to join EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, the report said that, “in the foreign and security policy area, Serbia also needs to progressively align its policies and positions with the EU ones”.
In response, Vucic said that, “We respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and we have not contributed in any manner or with any statement to the escalation of the conflict. But Serbia has its own interests and it must survive."
Progress has also been made in Albania, which was given EU candidate status in June, though the EC noted a need for more work in several areas. “In order to be able to move towards the opening of accession negotiations, Albania will need to undertake sustained efforts to implement reforms in key priority areas, with particular focus on public administration and judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organised crime and strengthening the protection of fundamental rights,” the report said.
Similarly, there was breakthrough in Kosovo’s EU integration progress with the initialling of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement in July, but Kosovo, like Albania, “needs to demonstrate practical results notably in the fight against organised crime and corruption.”
Not a Turkey this time
Turkey, by far the largest economy among the pre-accession countries, got a mixed review from the EC, despite taking several “important steps” over the last year.
In particular, the EC report praised Turkey’s 2013 democratisation package, the Action Plan for the Prevention of Violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the signature and the entry into force of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement. It also noted steps towards a settlement of the Kurdish issue - though relations between Turkey and its Kurdish minority have exploded in the last few days over Turkey’s lack of action to protect Kurds in neighbouring Syria.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Fule gave an encouraging message to Ankara, saying that “Turkey and the European Union's futures are inevitably tied together”. “Turkey is a strategic partner for the European Union, not least in economic and trade relations. Its location also underlines the importance of further cooperation in the areas of migration policy and energy security. It is therefore paramount that accession negotiations remain the main engine of our relations," Fule told journalists.
However, the EC also voiced “serious concerns” over the independence of the judiciary and the protection of fundamental freedoms in Turkey. “These concerns relate to the adoption of the legislation undermining the independence of the judiciary, massive reassignments and dismissal of judges and prosecutors and even detention of a high number of police officers, as well as blanket bans imposed on social media,” the report said.
“The tendency to pass laws and decisions, including on fundamental issues for the Turkish democracy, in haste and without sufficient consultations of stakeholders is a matter of concern as well. All this stresses the need to engage in an effective dialogue, both within the country and with the EU to ensure that further reforms in the area of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms follow European standards.” Fule also singled out the use of anti-terrorism legislation to limit freedom of expression and blocks on Twitter and Youtube.
Turkey’s EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Volkan Bozkir said later on October 8 that the report was "balanced and objective in general."
"We will continue to benefit from the Progress Report as a constructive tool for Turkey's progress in the EU accession and reform process," Bozkir said, according to Daily Sabah. "Those areas that have been criticized in previous Progress Reports for years are now being praised. Besides the reforms, Turkey's economic and foreign policy performance of the past 10 years have also been reflected in the report."
Some progress was reported in Montenegro where 12 accession chapters have so far been opened, but the report was significantly less positive than those published in previous years, and criticises the lack of legislative reform in the country and the lack of judicial independence. Fule took a tougher stance than previously, warning that the accession progress could stall if Podgorica fails to make improvements.
“A credible track record of investigations, prosecutions and convictions in corruption cases, including high-level corruption, needs to be developed,” the report said. “The systematic use of the instruments of seizure and confiscation of assets should be ensured. Shortcomings with regard to the independence and accountability of the judicial system remain a matter of serious concern and hamper the fight against corruption.”
The EC singled out the situation at Montenegro’s largest industrial company Kombinat Aluminijuma Podgorica (KAP), writing that, “Compliance with SAA [Stabilisation and Association Agreement] state aid rules in the case of KAP needs to be urgently ensured.
KAP’s former owner Central European Aluminum Company (CEAC), which claims the company was expropriated through forced bankruptcy proceedings that were launched in 2013, is now trying to recover its investment through the international courts. In July, a Cyprus court on July 7 issued an injunction blocking the government's attempt to sell the company.
“We welcome the report on Montenegro and fully agree with its findings,” a spokesman for CEAC told bne. “The EU recognises that the reality on the ground is different from the rosy picture the local authorities have been drawing for the Commission in previous years.”
Meanwhile, the report drew a bleak picture of progress in two other countries - Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia.
In Bosnia, where general elections are due to take place on October 12, the EC reported “very limited” progress. “Bosnia and Herzegovina has not overcome the standstill in the European integration process while most other countries in the region are moving ahead decisively. This regrettable situation is caused mostly by a lack of collective political will on the side of the leadership,” the report said, urging Sarajevo to tackle urgent socio-economic reforms as soon as a new government is in place.
The situation is even worse in Macedonia, where progress towards accession is “at an impasse,” as the country has made “backward steps” in the last year. The former frontrunner, which has been a candidate country since 2005 and already fulfils the political criteria for accession, is primarily being held back by the long-standing name dispute with Greece. However, the EC also reports growing concerns over the increasingly divisive political culture, politicisation of state institutions and government control over media.
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