Albania and North Macedonia ready for EU membership negotiations: European Commission

European Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi. Photo: EPA-EFE / FRANCISCO SECO

The European Commission’s annual progress reports for six Western Balkan countries hoping to become members of the EU – plus Turkey – were released on Tuesday, assessing their achievements and shortcomings noted during the period between June 2020 and June 2021.

North Macedonia “makes progress in key areas”

The report notes that the country continues to meet the criteria to start EU membership talks, but says for that to happen, bilateral issues between North Macedonia and neighboring Bulgaria must be resolved.

Sofia blocked the start of membership talks for Skopje in late 2020, citing objections to different readings of Macedonian history and notions of national identity.

While North Macedonia is praised in the new report for making good to moderate progress in almost all key areas, including the rule of law, freedom of expression and the fight against organized crime, the country is criticized for the slowness of its reform of the judicial system. .

The report states that North Macedonia has continued its efforts to strengthen democracy, in particular by activating existing systems of checks and balances.

Opposition parties have reportedly remained actively engaged in parliament and, on some occasions, have supported key EU-related laws, the report notes. However, “parliamentary work has been hampered by political polarization, exacerbated by COVID-19,” he adds.

Regarding freedom of expression, the report notes that limited progress has been made.

Albania congratulated on reforms

In its report on Albania’s progress, the European Commission also notes that the country continues to meet the criteria for opening accession negotiations. He underlines that Albania has achieved “tangible” and “lasting” results by continuing its commitment to EU-oriented reforms.

However, the start date for Albania’s membership remains blocked due to the Bulgarian blockade of North Macedonia, as most EU countries prefer to see Tirana and Skopje progress towards the EU as a whole.

Albania is commended in the report for its progress in the judicial field and in the fight against corruption. He noted that Albania reached an important turning point when it succeeded, at the end of 2020, in electing three new judges to the Constitutional Court.

But the report notes that the country needs to do more to improve political dialogue between ruling parties and the opposition. He also notes gaps in freedom of expression, saying problems with smear campaigns and the intimidation of journalists have not improved.

Further membership talks with Serbia recommended

The report on Serbia, which is already in negotiations for EU membership, says the country has met the criteria to start talks on two “clusters” of legislation that need to be harmonized with the policies of the European bloc – group 3 on social policy and employment issues and cluster 4 on energy.

The report reiterates that the speed of Serbia’s accession negotiations to the EU will continue to depend mainly on the speed of reforms in the area of ​​rule of law and the normalization of relations with neighboring Kosovo.

The report notes “limited progress” in the areas of public administration reform, the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime, and media pluralism.

A new anti-corruption strategy has yet to be adopted, the report notes, adding that the number of first-instance charges and verdicts in high-level corruption cases has further declined compared to previous years.

The report further notes that Serbia has yet to complete investigations, prosecutions and final verdicts in serious organized crime cases.

On freedom of expression, an issue on which Serbia is also often criticized, reports indicate that verbal attacks on journalists by senior government officials have continued, as have other instances of threats and violence.

Serbia is also criticized in the report for foreign policy measures that “conflicted with EU foreign policy positions”.

For Serbia and Kosovo, the report reiterates that a “comprehensive, legally binding normalization agreement is urgent and crucial for Kosovo and Serbia to move forward on their respective EU tracks… Belgrade and Pristina must commit to constructive way in [EU-facilitated] dialogue process [to normalise relations]”.

European flags in front of the European Commission in Brussels. Photo EPA-EFE

Political instability in Kosovo hinders reforms

The Kosovo report indicates that for most of the past year the situation has been marked by political instability, which hampered work on the adoption of the legislation, including reform efforts related to it. ‘EU.

However, he adds, “the early parliamentary elections of February 2021 resulted in the formation of a new government which enjoys a clear parliamentary majority, the full and effective implementation of the reform action plan in the country. over the coming period will therefore be essential “.

The report says the European Commission maintains its July 2018 assessment that Kosovo has met all visa liberalization criteria, but the issue of visa waiver for citizens of Kosovo is still pending in the European Council and should be treated urgently. .

The report assesses the situation in the north of Kosovo, dominated by the Serbs, as “difficult”, in particular in terms of corruption, organized crime and conditions of freedom of expression.

Regarding the rule of law, the report says that Kosovo is only at an early stage in building a well-functioning justice system, but the overall administration of justice remains. slow, inefficient and subject to undue political influence, and has been further negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Limited progress has been made in the fight against corruption, including the investigation and prosecution of high-level cases. “Corruption is widespread and remains a matter of serious concern,” notes the Commission.

In the area of ​​freedom of expression, the report says Kosovo has a “pluralistic and dynamic media environment”, but warns that concerns remain over smear campaigns, threats and physical attacks against journalists.

Political conflicts slow reforms in Montenegro

In the report on progress in Montenegro, which is also already in the process of negotiating accession, the Commission warns that disagreements between the government and members of the ruling majority have slowed reforms in the country, stressing that the The political scene has been deeply divided since last year’s elections.

Reports indicate that Montenegro has made limited progress in the rule of law and fundamental rights, and that no progress has been made in implementing key judicial reforms.

“The strong political commitment needed to unlock important segments of these reforms is still not being met,” the report said, adding that a number of judicial appointments are pending in parliament due to failure to secure majority support.

The Commission says the number of organized crime cases that have been investigated and prosecuted has continued to increase, adding that international police cooperation continues to yield results, citing drug seizures in abroad.

However, the report indicates that Montenegro’s capacity to fight tobacco smuggling and money laundering is not yet at the desired level. Corruption also remains prevalent in many areas, he adds.

Bosnia and Herzegovina hit for inaction

This year, compared to all other countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina received the least favorable rating from the European Commission.

“In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the strategic objective of European integration has not been turned into concrete action,” notes the report.

The political environment in the country has remained polarized, as political leaders continued to engage in divisive rhetoric and unconstructive disputes, which have hampered overall progress on key EU priorities, adds. he does.

The report says the deadlock in state institutions and calls to roll back reforms “are a deep concern and can only be overcome through political dialogue,” adding that this is a negative sign that the country decreased its alignment with EU foreign and security policy.

However, important steps have been taken, including the holding of municipal elections in the city of Mostar after a 12-year hiatus, the report notes.

He urges Bosnia and Herzegovina to tackle key EU priorities, including electoral and constitutional reforms.

The country “will have to deliver a critical mass of reforms before the Commission can recommend granting candidate status to the country,” he warns.

“Increased dialogue” with Turkey

The European Commission report on Turkey notes that the country remains a key partner of the EU in the areas of migration, the fight against terrorism, the economy, trade, energy and transport, and that in 2021, “dialogue and cooperation with Turkey have intensified”. .

The report welcomes the de-escalation of tensions with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean and states that the EU is ready to engage with Turkey “in a gradual, proportionate and reversible manner to strengthen cooperation in a number of areas of common interest , provided that the current de-escalation is sustained and that Turkey engages constructively and subject to established conditionalities ”.

“In the event of further unilateral actions or provocations contrary to international law, the EU will use all the instruments and options at its disposal, in order to defend its interests and those of its member states,” warns the report.

The report notes that the issues of fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been credibly addressed by Turkey.

“Turkey must reverse this negative trend as a priority by tackling the weakening of effective checks and balances in the political system,” he said.

The report notes that Turkey has continued to play a key role in combating migration along the Eastern Mediterranean route and hosting the largest refugee population in the world.

About Eleanor Blackburn

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