news 09 Nov 16

Balkan States ‘Reforming, at Different Paces’, Brussels Says

The latest European Commission reports suggest most Balkan countries, bar Turkey and Macedonia, are broadly moving in the direction of reform – but big issues over corruption, the rule of law, media freedom and minorities remain.

BIRN Team
 Johannes Hahn, Member of the EC in charge of European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, presented the 2016 Enlargement Package on Wednesday. Photo: The European Commision.

Johannes Hahn, EU Enlargement Commissioner, stated that “the prospect of EU membership continues to drive transformation and anchor stability” in the Balkans, presenting the European Commission’s annual progress reports on the Western Balkans and Turkey in Brussels on Wednesday.

“Today we … call on the governments of the enlargement countries to embrace the necessary reforms more actively and truly make this their political agenda – not because the EU is asking for it, but because it is in the best interest of their citizens, and Europe as a whole,” Hahn said.

The EU reports said that reforms across the region “are moving forward in most countries”, but at a different pace.

The Commission noted that while most countries have improved their legal frameworks, they still “continue to face problems of efficiency and lack of sufficient independence and accountability of the judiciary”.

While laws protecting fundamental rights are in place, issues remain over their implementation and protection in practice, particularly in Turkey.

“Freedom of expression and media remains a particular concern in most enlargement countries, albeit to different degrees … the lack of progress in this area, already observed over the past two years, has persisted and, in some cases, intensified,” the Commission wrote.

Balkan countries are also urged to better address discrimination and hostility towards vulnerable groups on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity among others.

“The proper functioning of democratic institutions remains a key challenge in a number of countries. The central role of national parliaments for the democracy needs to be embedded in the political culture,” the Commission wrote.

More optimistically, the EU remarked that the economic situation “has gradually improved across the region, with stronger growth, higher investment and more jobs created by the private sector.

“However, all enlargement countries face major structural economic and social challenges, with low efficiency of public administrations and high unemployment rates. Youth unemployment in particular remains worryingly high.

The investment climate is also negatively affected by the continuing weaknesses in the rule of law,” the Commission wrote.

Albania – judicial reform a must:

The Commission has recommended that EU the consider opening accession negotiations with Albania - which won EU candidate country status in 2014 - on condition that it moves forward in implementing judicial reforms, especially the new law on vetting judges.

The law, adopted in August, should introduce background checks on judges and prosecutors related to their professional preparation, moral integrity and level of independence from organised crime, corruption and political power.

“We must see very clearly and credibly that this works on the ground. Only results count,” Hahn stated on Wednesday.

The progress report said Albania has made steps towards “a deep and comprehensive justice system reform and the exclusion of criminal offenders from public offices,” but still needs to amend the electoral code before the 2017 general elections.

Albania was praised for its constructive role in region.

The EU stated that Tirana still needs to finish public administration reform. “Work towards solid track records of proactive investigations, prosecutions and convictions in the fight against corruption and organised crime also continued but must be deepened,” Hahn said.

Enforcement of human rights protection mechanisms must be strengthened, and the country still needs to develop a track record of anti-discrimination cases.

“As regards freedom of expression, Albania has some level of preparation ... The overall environment is conducive to the freedom of expression, but better implementation of the legislation is needed,” the Commission wrote.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – corruption and terror are worries

“Bosnia and Herzegovina made progress on key priorities stemming from its reform process. This paved the way for the Council to ask the Commission to prepare an opinion on the country's membership application,” Hahn stated on Wednesday, adding, however, that Bosnia’s leaders must tackle the deeply rooted structural problems.

“Strengthening the rule of law and public administration on all levels of government, as well as further improving cooperation between all levels, remains a priority,” he said.

The Commission report noted that Bosnia improved its electoral legislation, although some incidents were reported during October’s local election.

It also stated that cooperation between state-level and entity-level institutions had moved forward but needs to be further improved.

The Commission also noted that Bosnia’s constitution remains in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, referring to the failure to execute the 2009 “Sejdic and Finci” judgment of the Strasbourg Court.

Dervo Sejdic, a Roma, and Jakob Finci, a Jew, won their case against Bosnia in 2009. The court ruled that Bosnia needed to change its constitution to allow ethnic minorities run for the state-level presidency and for parliament’s House of Peoples.

The report noted that Bosnia is at an early stage of reform of its public administration and has yet to adopt a judicial reform strategy and strengthen judicial independence.

The report remarks that corruption remains prevalent and that Bosnia has yet to make real steps in fighting both corruption and organised crime.

The Commission also notes that Bosnia has been affected by the foreign terrorist fighters and Islamist radicalisation.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina has already taken important measures to deal with this problem which needs to be complemented by further steps to identify, prevent and disrupt the flow of foreign terrorist fighters travelling to conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria,” the report noted.

When it comes to the media, the Commission noted cases of political pressure and intimidation against journalists a need to adequately legally follow such cases up.

Kosovo – political dialogue in parliament urged

The polarisation between government and opposition parties in Kosovo has continued, the 2016 report noted.

Normal parliamentary functioning was prevented for the past year, including through the use of violent tactics by opposition activists and even MPs.

The Commission called on all political parties to re-engage in a constructive dialogue in parliament as the key forum for political debate. The recent return of opposition members to parliament was welcomed as a positive step.

In terms of fight against corruption and organized crime, the report said it is at an early stage. “The number of investigations and final convictions remains low,“ it noted.

Gaps in the legislation remain and enforcement needs to be improved in particular for money laundering, confiscation and seizure of assets, and financial investigation.

Kosovo continued its fight against terrorism, the Commission said, but still faces challenges in this area.

Regarding freedom of expression, the report noted “worrying developments” during the past year, including a number of threats against journalists

Progress in normalisation of relations with Serbia was limited, due to the elections in Serbia and the domestic situation in Kosovo, the report said.

However, “momentum was regained in August 2016 with the start of the work on the Mitrovica/Mitrovicë bridge and freedom of movement.”

Macedonia – ‘state capture’ of democratic institutions disturbing

Macedonia - an EU candidate country since 2005 - continued to face the most severe political crisis since 2001, the report on Macedonia noted.

“Democracy and rule of law have been constantly challenged, in particular due to state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society. The country suffers from a divisive political culture and a lack of capacity for compromise,“ it said.

The ethnic situation remained fragile, the Commission said, and the review of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended the 2001 conflict and provides the framework for inter-ethnic relations, still needs to be completed in a transparent and inclusive manner.

As for the courts, the EU warned that the situation has worsened ever since 2014 and the achievements of the previous decade's reform process have been undermined by repeated political interference in the work of the judiciary.

“The obstructions faced by the newly established Special Prosecutor [tasked with probing high-level crime and corruption] have shown the need to address effectively the lack of independence of the judiciary and to prevent selective justice,“ the reports read.

Concerning corruption and organized crime, the report warned that corruption remains prevalent and is a serious problem.

There is still a need to establish a convincing track record, especially on high-level corruption cases, it said.

The legislative framework on organised crime is broadly in line with European standards and strategies have been elaborated. However, capacities to investigate financial crimes and confiscate assets needs to be developed further.

Montenegro – corruption and media freedom in the spotlight

The Commission report on Montenegro - which started accession talks in 2012 -
said that no progress was made in the past year in the area of freedom of media.

The number of defamation cases remains high, which points to weak self-regulation mechanisms, as well as to challenges in understanding the role of the media.

“Montenegro still needs to achieve overall alignment with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights,“ the report said.

It recalled that the premises of one commercial media company were damaged and several journalists were physically and verbally assaulted and threatened during anti-government protests in October 2015.

There had been no progress in the resolution of cases of attacks on journalists, the Commission noted.

Referring to the fight against corruption and organized crimes, the report said corruption remains prevalent in many areas and is a serious problem.

It noted that despite some further steps taken, the track record both on successful investigations and convictions, in particular in high-level corruption cases, and on prevention of corruption remains limited.

“Montenegro needs to increase the capacity to carry out financial investigations and establish track records of seizure and confiscation of criminal assets,” the report said.

The report praised progress made in judicial reform and in reform of the public administration, but said that new legislation increasing the independence and professionalism of the judiciary has not yet been implemented.

Commenting on the general elections held on October 16, the Commission said the polls were conducted under a substantially revised legal framework and, overall, in a more participatory and transparent manner.

Serbia – EU progress depends on rule of law and Kosovo

“Serbia has also taken major steps forward, which led to the first four chapters of the EU accession negotiations being opened, including on rule of law and on normalisation of its relations with Kosovo,” Hahn said.

“The overall pace of negotiations will depend in particular on progress in these two areas,” the Enlargement Commissioner added.

The report on Serbia said the country needed to further improve “the inclusiveness, transparency and quality of law-making and effective oversight of the executive” as well as “cooperation between the executive and independent regulatory institutions”.

While noting progress in reform of the public administration, the Commission wrote that Serbia still needs to “professionalise and depoliticise the administration and make recruitment and dismissal procedures more transparent, especially for senior management positions”.

The report said Belgrade must tackle political influence over the judiciary and deliver meaningful results in the fight against corruption that “remains prevalent in many areas.”

The commission said Serbia must improve protection of minorities and of all persons belonging to the most discriminated-against groups.

On the media, the report said Serbia made “no progress to improve conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression.”

“Regarding normalisation of relations with Kosovo, Serbia remained committed to the implementation of the agreements reached in the EU-facilitated dialogue,” it noted.

“Continued efforts are needed to implement the agreements already reached with Kosovo. The steps taken should have a positive and concrete impact on the everyday life of citizens in both Serbia and Kosovo,” the Commission wrote, praising Belgrade’s generally “constructive” approach to countries in the region.

The EU opened the accession talks with Serbia in 2014.

Turkey – post-coup crackdown undermining EU ambitions

Speaking about Turkey, Johannes Hahn stated that “the coup attempt of 15 July was an attack on democracy per se” and that the EU had been among the first to condemn it.

“However, the large scale and collective nature of measures taken over the last months raise very serious concerns. Turkey, as a candidate country, must fulfill the highest standards in the rule of law and fundamental rights, to which it committed itself and on which there cannot be any compromises,” he said.

It its report the Commission noted the degradation of the rule of law and fundamental rights situation in the country, adding that dismissals and arrests conducted since the failed coup attempt had affected “the whole spectrum of society.”

“There were reports of serious human rights violations, including alleged widespread ill-treatment and torture of detainees. The crackdown has continued since and has been broadened to pro-Kurdish and other opposition voices with a very serious impact on freedom of expression,” Hahn said.

Ankara’s actions “seem to be increasingly incompatible with Turkey's official desire to become a member of the European Union”, he added.

“The backsliding affects the roots of Turkey's political and economic success of the last decade,” he continued.

“It is time Ankara tells us what they really want. This is a test for their credibility, but also for that of the EU,” Hahn said.

The EU report further wrote that Turkey “saw a continued very serious deterioration in the security situation,” as manifested in several terrorist attacks.

However, the Commission also wrote that “serious allegations of human rights violations and disproportionate use of force by the security forces in the south-east were increasingly reported” and that “anti-terror measures need to be proportionate and must respect human rights.”

The Commission also reported that NGO representatives, “including human rights defenders, have been detained and there were credible claims of intimidation.

Progress made in public administration reform has been shaken by the post-coup measures whose effects are yet to be assessed, while the independence of judiciary has been compromised in the past year.

“Judges and prosecutors continued to be removed from their profession and in some cases were arrested…  this situation worsened further after the July coup attempt, following which one fifth of the judges and prosecutors were dismissed and saw their assets frozen, “ the Commission wrote.

Hahn recalled that before the failed coup, the EU and Turkey had been on a path towards visa liberalization and Turkey had opened two more chapters in its EU accession talks in November 2015 and June 2016.

“This work shows how broad and positive our relationship could actually be if Ankara overcame its current issues,” Hahn stated.

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