There was good news for two of the EU accession candidates in the Western Balkans on April 17, with the European Commission recommending the start of accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia in its latest set of enlargement progress reports.
The reports were issued two months after the Commission put forward a new strategy document with which it intends to give a fresh impetus to the bloc’s southeastward enlargement, which had stalled since Croatia’s accession in 2013.
The strategy gave new hope to most of the six Western Balkans accession candidates, as it set the two countries most advanced in the process — Serbia and Montenegro — an accession target date of 2025, which is the first time a target date has been mentioned. There was also more clarity for Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia about what their accession paths might look like.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on April 17 reinforced the message that the Commission wants the enlargement process to continue to the Western Balkans, even warning that a new outbreak of war in the region could be a consequence of failing to do this.
“I'm not naive, I know the difficulties. I know the efforts that the Western Balkan countries have to make. I know the need to improve the performance of some of the Western Balkan countries in some respects,” Juncker said in an address to the European parliament.
“But if we remove from these countries, in this ultra-complicated — I should say tragic — region, the European perspective, we will relive what we experienced during the nineties. I do not want war to return to the Western Balkans.”
However, French President Emmanuel Macron took a very different tone in his address to the European parliament, saying he wants the Western Balkans countries to be admitted, but the time for their membership has not come yet. He linked future enlargement to the need for the EU to reconfigure after the departure of the UK.
“I will support enlargement only when integration and reforms in our Europe are deepened,” Macron said according to newswire reports.
"I don't want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, but I don't want a Europe that, functioning with difficulty at 28 and tomorrow as 27, would decide that we can continue to gallop off, to be tomorrow 30 or 32, with the same rules," he added.
Macron’s stance is not surprising as there have already been signs of a deep division among the EU’s members over further enlargement. For the most part the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) would like to see the bloc extended into the Western Balkans, while France and other “old” members are more cautious.
A breakthrough for Macedonia
The Commission’s position is closer to that of the EU member states from CEE in favouring enlargement. The enlargement reports issued a few hours after Macron’s comment contained recommendations for the start of accession negotiations with both Albania and Macedonia, citing the progress both countries have made recently.
“A step forward today for Macedonia and Albania is a step forward for the entire Western Balkans region. The work on reforms and modernisation however needs to continue, in the interest of the partners and the EU,” the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini said in the statement.
Johannes Hahn Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy, said that the progress achieved is an important step forward, but reforms, especially in the rule of law, must be implemented more vigorously and produce sustainable results. He was referring not only to Macedonia and Albania, but to all the Western Balkans countries.
“These reforms are not for Brussels – effective judiciary, effective fight against corruption and organised crime, efficient public administration, stronger economy – all this will directly benefit the region and its citizens, and Europe as a whole," Hahn said.
Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005 and so far has obtained a recommendation each year since 2009 to start negotiations, but these were conditional on Skopje’s solving its long-standing dispute with Greece and making other reforms. Now the two countries appear to be close to a breakthrough in resolving the “name dispute” — Athens objects to the use of the name “Macedonia” as there is a Greek province with the same name.
Macedonia was praised for steps taken with regard to regional cooperation, specifically in improving good neighbourly relations, including through the entry into force of a new bilateral treaty with Bulgaria.
In terms of political criteria, the report said that Macedonia finally overcome its most severe political crisis since 2001 and it is undergoing fundamental changes in a more inclusive and open political atmosphere. “The new reform-oriented government has taken steps to address state capture by gradually restoring checks and balances, strengthening democracy and rule of law,” the statement said.
Concerning the judicial system, the backsliding of previous years has started to be reversed through decisive steps taken in recent months, notably to start restoring the independence of the judiciary, the EC said.
The Macedonian authorities were very pleased that the country had received what they called a “clear” recommendation to start long-awaited EU talks.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said that this means that Macedonia is on the right path. “April 17 is a great day for Macedonia,” Zaev said. He underlined that Macedonia is focused on reforms and quickly solving the name dispute with Greece.
Progress was also noted in Albania, a candidate country since June 2014, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said, “Albania has just opened a new chapter in its history as a state.
“The next station at the end of this new road is membership in the EU and the speed of this arrival depends first and foremost on us,” Rama said in the government statement.
However, the European Commission specified that progress in the key field of the rule of law will be crucial, as will the fight against corruption and organised crime. Recent progress includes the adoption of amendments to the criminal procedure code, and in fighting against cannabis cultivation. Tirana launched a large-scale campaign against cannabis cultivation at Europe’s so-called marijuana mountain at Lazarat, and Rama claimed at the end of last year that large scale cannabis plantations have been almost eradicated.
“Albania needs to build on operational results in this area, intensifying confiscation of assets belonging to criminal gangs and pursuing the destruction of all existing cannabis stockpiles,” the report said.
Concerns were also expressed over the strong polarisation in the political system. The report pointed to the opposition boycott of the parliament in early 2017. The situation has taken a turn for the worse recently, with the main opposition parties embarking on a campaign of civil disobedience over the arrests of 11 people involved in riots over the country’s first road toll system.
Far to go
While there was good news for Albania and Macedonia, the reports on Serbia and Montenegro highlighted the large amount of work the two frontrunners need to complete before they can be considered for membership in the EU.
The European Commission harshly criticised Montenegro for its lack of progress in the fight against organised crime in its progress report, and said that the country needs to make further progress in most other areas.
“Despite some progress, corruption is prevalent in many areas and remains an issue of concern,” the report noted. The country must make progress in financial investigations and seizure and confiscation of assets. It should also continue investigations and convictions in high-level corruption cases.
For Serbia, meanwhile, the European Commission honed in on the incomplete structural reforms to the public administration, the tax authority, and state-owned enterprises. Even though the government claims it is making an effort to make these changes, the process still goes slowly as it requires politically unpopular moves which none of key political players are able to take without jeopardising their support. What has been done so far has been done mainly as part of the EU integration process.
“Serbia is moderately prepared to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Some progress was made to increase competitiveness. However, the level of investment activity is still below the economy's needs. Despite some improvements, companies face a number of challenges, including an unpredictable business environment, a high level of para‑fiscal charges, and difficult and costly access to finance,” the European Commission report said on April 17.
There was also a lot of homework set for Bosnia, which applied for candidate status in 2015, and finally sent answers to its EU questionnaire this February — which is symptomatic of how political disagreements and the very cumbersome decision-making process have slowed Bosnia's progress towards accession, and are likely to continue to delay it in future.
Bosnia has to urgently amend its electoral framework to ensure proper organisation of the October general and presidential elections, the European Commission said in a long list of areas where reforms are needed. The country also needs to adopt countrywide strategies in areas such as energy, employment or public financial management, it added. “Key remaining issues are a weak rule of law, a still poor business environment, a fragmented and inefficient public administration and major labour market imbalances, related to a poor education system, weak institutional capacities, and an unsupportive investment climate. Moreover, the informal economy remains significant,” the report reads.
Kosovo, which is not yet recognised as an independent state by five EU members, was also issued various recommendations, including for more effort to normalise its relations from Serbia.
In addition, ”Corruption is widespread and remains an issue of concern. Concerted efforts are needed to tackle this problem in a comprehensive and strategic manner," the EC said. In the political sphere, the continuing political fragmentation and polarisation have adversely affected the role of the parliament and have impacted the effectiveness of the government.
The recent strategy document offered less hope to Kosovo than any of its neighbours, to a large extent because of its still unresolved status, but also because of various unfulfilled obligations towards the EU — though the parliament has recently ratified a border demarcation deal with Montenegro that should pave the way for visa liberalisation for Kosovan citizens travelling to the EU.
Kosovan President Hashim Thaci said following the release of the progress report that Kosovo has enough political will to intensify its steps towards EU integration and is fully committed to the EU reforms. However, he said that Kosovo needs clarity about its EU perspective and to be treated equally with other countries in the region.
"In absence of a clear perspective, everything else can bring more complications and consequences not only for Kosovo, but also for the entire region,” Thaci was cited by broadcaster RTK.
Finally, a report was issued on Turkey, despite the region’s largest economy no longer being considered a viable candidate for accession in the foreseeable future, as a political rift has opened up between Brussels and Ankara.
The report on Turkey was highly critical of the country’s political situation, pointing to the state of emergency declared in the wake of the attempted coup of July 2016, which still remains in force. “[T]he broad scale and collective nature, and the disproportionality of measures taken since the attempted coup under the state of emergency, such as widespread dismissals, arrests, and detentions, continue to raise serious concerns. Turkey should lift the state of emergency without delay,” the report stressed.
It also criticised the April 2017 referendum that considerably extended the powers of the presidency, the undermining of guarantees of respect for human and fundamental rights and what it claimed was a complete lack of progress in fighting corruption.