Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Macedonia’s EU accession progress remains stalled amid the country’s worst political crisis in 14 years, while most countries in the Southeast Europe region have taken steps towards EU integration this year, the European Commission said on November 10.
EU accession is the primary policy goal for countries across the region. This year’s Enlargement Package, which assesses progress in seven states from the Western Balkans plus Turkey, showed varying levels of progress in most countries, though the report pointed to the need to continue focussing efforts on the rule of law.
“With respect to the rule of law, judicial systems are not sufficiently independent, efficient or accountable. Serious efforts are still needed to tackle organised crime and corruption, in particular to establish track records of investigations, prosecutions and final convictions,” the report says, adding that, “While fundamental rights are often largely enshrined in law, shortcomings persist in practice. “
In the economic sphere, the EC also reports “significant challenges” in most countries concerning economic governance and competitiveness.
From the EU’s side, the refugee crisis has given an added impetus to bring countries from the region into the European fold. At the presentation of the 2015 Enlargement Package, Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn acknowledged the burden refugee inflows have put onto states across Southeast Europe, and stressed the need for cooperation between EU member states and would-be members on the main migration route.
“The current refugee crisis has only reinforced the strategic case for close cooperation with the countries in Southeast Europe - for the sake of Europe's own stability,” Hahn said.
Turkey has shouldered the greatest burden, providing humanitarian support to more than 2mn refugees from Syria and Iraq.
“We share common opportunities and challenges [with Turkey], as made painfully clear by the ongoing refugee crisis,” Hahn commented.
But while he commended Turkey's “impressive humanitarian support” for the refugees, he was critical of the “significant shortcomings” within Turkey that “affected the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression”.
Political problems are also holding back Macedonia, where progress towards integration - already held back by its long-standing name dispute with Greece - was further stymied by the political crisis in the country. This was precipitated when the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia started releasing transcripts of wiretapped conversations that revealed damaging evidence of official corruption, which sparked mass protests this spring.
Under an EU-brokered deal, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski will stand down by the end of this year and early elections will take place in April 2016. Despite the deal struck in July, tensions between the government and opposition remain high. In addition, Hahn said, “the content of the wiretaps which have come into the public domain shows that the political system is seriously undermined by political interference and corruption". The inter-ethnic situation in the country also “remains fragile”.
By contrast, Macedonia’s business environment and legislative alignment with the EU are good, and the EC is prepared to extend its recommendation to open accession negotiations, provided the July political agreement is implemented and reforms are made. The situation will be reviewed after next year’s elections.
Elsewhere in the region, solid progress was made in several countries. Serbia is expected to open its first accession chapters by the end of this year after taking important steps including reaching four key agreements with Kosovo in July. Belgrade was also commended for its “ambitious economic reform agenda” and efforts to develop regional co-operation.
Bosnia, which was criticised for lack of reform in last year’s report, is now back on track, Hahn said. In two significant recent steps, Bosnia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) entered force in June, and Sarajevo adopted its comprehensive Reform Agenda the following month.
However, the country is still at an “early stage” in developing a functioning market economy, says the report, which singles out the significant state presence in the economy and difficult labour market conditions leading to high unemployment.
Kosovo also signed its SAA in October, becoming the final state in the western Balkans to do so.
However, like Bosnia, both Kososo and Albania need to make further reforms despite recent progress, the report said.
The six-month political deadlock following Kosovo’s June 2014 elections ”delayed key reforms”, the report points out, adding that, “Kosovo is at an early stage in numerous areas and needs to stay focused on its reform agenda".
It also issued a warning over the new political crisis in Kosovo, where members of the opposition Vetevendosje party have refused to take part in parliamentary work and several times forced MPs to end their sessions by letting off tear gas in the chamber. The “violent obstructions” of the parliament’s work need to be urgently resolved, the EC said.
While Albania made “steady progress”, Hahn warns that “more needs to be done on the rule of law”. He called for a “thorough reform of the judiciary” and for Tirana to gradually build a solid track record on fighting corruption and organised crime. On November 9, the day before the report was released, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama appointed a new justice minister, Ylli Manjani, with the aim of intensifying judicial reforms.
Similar targets were set for Montenegro, even though Podgorica has made some progress in the fight against corruption and against organised crime.
“The track record on effective investigation, prosecution and final convictions in corruption cases, in particular regarding high-level corruption, remains limited. […] Further efforts are needed, in particular to investigate wider criminal networks and to counter money laundering,” the report says.
The country needs a credible track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime in order to advance in the accession negotiations, as well as to further improve freedom of speech.
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