The European Commission released its annual assessment of countries seeking to join the EU on October 16. It recommends that Albania should be given the green light to start membership talks, and Turkey invited to resume stalled negotiations.
The EU is currently evaluating seven countries in southeast Europe for their suitability as potential member states of the 28-nation bloc. Of those, four have received the status of candidate - Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia - while Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are considered "potential candidates."
Albania had the most to cheer about following the presentation of the latest report by Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele, who claimed "enlargement continues to be one of the most effective EU policies." The report said that at the next EU summit, to be held at the end of November, EU governments will decide on whether to formalise Albania's candidate status.
That comes three years after Brussels rejected the country's first application, saying Tirana was not doing enough to combat organised crime and corruption. However, Albania this year held "smooth and orderly" elections that voted in a new reformist government, and also made progress in combatting corruption. The commission said the new status for Albania would be granted on the condition that it continued "to take action in [that] fight ..."
Turkey came in for a fair degree of criticism for using excessive force to suppress anti-government protests earlier this year, but the commission urged renewed efforts be put into Turkey's EU bid. The report calls for the opening of talks on a new chapter of membership negotiations, the first in three years.
Turkey's progress toward joining the EU has been long and fitful. It first began talks in 2005, 18 years after applying, but a series of obstacles - notably the divided island of Cyprus and resistance in big member states like Germany and France - have slowed that progress.
The latest hiccup came when the EU postponed talks on regional policy in June, following the aggressive response to the anti-government protests across Turkey. The country-wide demonstrations against Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) left four dead and thousands injured.
"The excessive use of force by police and the overall absence of dialogue during the protests in May/June have raised serious concerns," the commission said in its report. "This underlines the urgent need for further reforms and the promotion of dialogue across the political spectrum, and in society more broadly, as well as for respect of fundamental rights in practice."
However, it also noted positive signs, exemplified by reforms outlined by the PM in a recent big policy speech, such as judicial reforms and the reinforcement of the Kurdish peace process. "The commission underlines the importance for the EU to enhance its engagement with Turkey, so that it remains the benchmark for reforms in the country," the report reads.
Elsewhere, Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro were praised for their progress.
In June, Serbia was given the nod to start negotiations on joining the bloc, after an agreement was reached over its tense relations with erstwhile province, but now independent state, Kosovo.
The commission report says that continued progress in normalising relations with Kosovo, including the implementation of agreements reached so far, remain essential. The local elections in Kosovo on November 3, in which the Serb enclaves in northern Kosovo will take part for the first time, are seen as a litmus test for the agreement. As such, the report said it is particularly important for Serbia to continue to encourage Serbs in Kosovo to go to the polls in the greatest possible numbers.
In keeping with the progress that has been achieved, the commission said it expects the European Council to draft and adopt the negotiating platform for Serbia as soon as possible, so that the first intergovernmental conference could start in January 2014 at the latest.
EU leaders also agreed last June that Brussels would start talks with Kosovo on a trade and association pact, which is a first step towards eventual membership. The commission, in its report, called on Kosovo to build on the "considerable momentum" it has gained by taking part in the reconciliation talks with Serbia.
Fuele, meanwhile, announced Montenegro will be the first country to start talks on chapters 23 and 24, which deal with judicial reform, human rights and security. "According to my crystal ball we might be able to open both these chapters before the end of the year," the commissioner said.
Elsewhere, the report also made the fifth recommendation in as many years for accession talks to start with Macedonia, stating it was "time to break the vicious link" between the country and its name dispute with Greece. The full name of the country is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - a mouthful to which neighbour Greece objects due to its own region of Macedonia.
"Twenty years after the country's entry into the United Nations, a solution to the name issue should be found without further delay," the commission's report said. One idea under consideration, according to reports, is that the head of European diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, who did much to broker successful talks between Serbia and Kosovo, should join Fuele in trying to bring Greece and Macedonia closer to a solution.
The commission reserved its most damning verdict for Bosnia and Herzegovina, citing the country's failure to implement a European Court of Human Rights judgement prohibiting discrimination of citizens based on ethnicity. The divided country has persistently failed to get to grips with its split between Serbs, Muslims and Croats, which paralyses political decision-making. "Results achieved so far by Bosnia and Herzegovina's leaders remain below expectations," said the commission.
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