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News 10 Nov 15

Corruption, Justice Top Agenda in Commission Report

The courts, corruption and organized crime remain the EU’s main concerns in the Western Balkans, the Commission’s latest progress report shows.

BIRN Team
BIRN
Brussels, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje, Tirana, Podgorica, Pristina
 

The European Commission released on Tuesday its long-awaited progress report for the Countries of the Western Balkans.

While stressing that progress has been made in the past year, key reforms still need to adopted concerning the fight against corruption and organized crime, rule of law, protection of human rights, consolidation of democratic institutions and freedom of speech.

Presenting the annual Enlargement Package in Brussels on Tuesday, Commissioner Johannes Hahn declared that “progress has been made in the Western Balkans during the last year.

“Enlargement remains on top of the EU agenda for the region”, Hahn said, adding that “the recent refugee crisis in the Balkans demonstrates the strategic importance of continuing this process and fostering regional cooperation”.

Albania: Judicial system still the main problem

In its report about Albania, the Commission said that the judicial system remains the main problem.

Judicial reform is one of the five conditions that Albania has to fulfill in order to gain candidate status.

The report highlighted “substantial shortcomings in the judicial system… regarding independence and accountability of judges and prosecutors”.

The Commission sees reform in this field as a crucial step.

Although the report acknowledges that measures have been taken to tackle corruption, the EU seeks a more substantial track record of investigations, prosecutions, and convictions at all levels, including the high officials.

The report recognizes Albania's work in the destruction of vast fields of cannabis. However, it requires more effort in the financial investigations, anti-money laundering measures and asset confiscation.

On the economy, the report considers that Albania has made some improvements at the macroeconomic level, though the high level of unemployment - 17.5 per cent - and informal employment is a problem.

On the other hand, the environment of the freedom of expression is considered conducive, though better implementation of the legislation is advised.

Albania’s role in the Balkans is seen as positive in helping to maintain good neighborly relations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: back on reform track

The Commission says the country “is back on the reform track and has started to address the outstanding priorities on its EU accession path".

The report calls for “stronger cooperation between the State-level, Entity-level and Brcko District parliaments", in view of “the major socioeconomic challenges that remain to be tackled”.

The Commission notes that the Dayton constitution “established a complex institutional architecture that remains inefficient” and which “breaches the European Convention on Human Rights”, quoting the 2009 Sejdic-Finci ruling.

The report urges Bosnia to improve the independence and efficiency of the courts.

Regarding corruption, the report says the legal and institutional framework “remains weak and inadequate”. Better cooperation between all its institutional levels is required to fight organized crime.

The report adds that Bosnia is still at an early stage regarding protection of human rights and minorities, notably the Roma and the LGBTIQ community. “The conditions for the exercise of freedom of expressions have deteriorated,” it adds.

Bosnia is also told to take urgent measures to reduce unemployment, especially amongst the youth, diminish the role of the state in the economy and develop an energy and a transport strategy.

The report finally calls on the authorities “to complete the processing and the publication of the results of the 2013 census” which has been delayed.

Kosovo: corruption is the big issue

The Commission report emphasizes the growing polarization between the government and the opposition, the continued politicization of public administration and political interference in the judiciary.

It notes that the country is only in the “early stages” of preparing a real fight against corruption and organized crime.

“There has been increased polarisation between government and opposition. Members of the opposition have been involved in incidents of violence against the government, criticising it for its recent decision on the Specialist Chambers, the dialogue agreement with Belgrade, and the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro,” the report says.

The word “corruption” is frequently mentioned - 66 times in the report.

‘Kosovo is at an early stage of preparations in the fight against corruption. A comprehensive and strategic approach is necessary to ensure real results,” the report states, adding that “the rare investigations into high-level corruption have so far not resulted in final convictions”.

More positively, the government has increased its focus on public administration reforms, which have “reached a level of preparation.

“The continued politicisation of the public administration, however, is a major concern. Accountability needs to improve across the administration through proper oversight,” the report states.

Political interference in the judiciary is criticized.

“Further efforts are required to ensure independence in law and in practice, to prevent and fight corruption within the judiciary, to recruit and train more qualified staff and to allocate adequate resources,” report says.

The report praises Kosovo for undertaking a political dialogue with Serbia, and notes that the authorities have underlined their commitment to meet all criteria needed for EU visa liberalisation.

Macedonia: at a critical juncture

Macedonia’s accession process is “at a critical juncture”, the Commission says, noting that a recommendation for start to EU accession talks is now conditioned on complete implementation of the EU-brokered summer crisis agreement.

This means that Brussels will additionally evaluate Macedonia after the April 24 general elections, on the basis of whether all reform priorities contained in the crisis agreement were met and whether the polls were free and fair.

“In the light of the progress made so far in the implementation of the June/July political agreement, the Commission is prepared to extend its recommendation to open accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” it explains.

“This shall, however, be conditional on the continued implementation of the June/July political agreement and substantial progress in the implementation of the urgent reform priorities. This issue shall be addressed again after the elections.”

The commission refers to the illegal wiretapping scandal that has caused political turmoil as the “most severe political crisis” the country has seen since the 2001 conflict with ethnic Albanian insurgents.

"Intercepted communications, apparently involving senior government officials, suggest breaches of fundamental rights, interference with judicial independence, media freedom and elections, as well as corruption,” the Commission notes.

Ongoing reforms are part of the EU-brokered political deal reached this summer, aimed at ending the crisis.

They include the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to investigate wiretapping cases, appointment of temporary ministers from the opposition ranks to oversee the April elections, changes in the electoral rules, improvements in media freedom as well as the resignation of Prime Minister Gruevski 100 days before the polls.

Another point of concern for the Commission is the “fragile” situation between the Macedonians and Albanians and the fact that the dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s name has still not been solved.

“Maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential,” the Commission writes.

The newly introduced conditionality, which is a step backwards for Macedonia's EU aspirations, comes after six positive recommendations to launch accession talks in a row.

As regards economic criteria, Macedonia is at a good level of preparation in developing a functioning market economy, the Commission notes, noting some backsliding, however, about public finance management and the debt.

The Commission says Macedonia has a relatively good level of alignment with the EU acquis. More focus is needed on administrative capacity and effective implementation, however.

Montenegro: making progress to meet the crtiteria

Montenegro has “continued to make progress as regards the political and economic criteria, and has improved its ability to take on the obligations of EU membership” the report said.

“Montenegro made good progress in improving the legislative framework for the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption,” it adds.

However, it “needs to make further progress in strengthening the institutional framework and in establishing a solid track record in the fight against corruption and organized crime”.

The report recalls that “the invitation to join NATO remained a key foreign policy priority” for the country.

Turning to the recent protests organised by the opposition, the report says it expects “all incidents of violence and allegations of excessive use of force during these events will be duly investigated”.

The Commission calls on all the political parties “to re-engage in a constructive political dialogue in the parliament”.

The report says that the judicial system “is moderately prepared” and welcomes the adoption of the reform approved in February, which will “pave the way to increase its professionalism and independence”.

However, the courts have “achieved only limited results” in the fight against high-level corruption. "The country is moderately prepared in the fight against organised crime”, the report says.

On the economy, the Commission praises Montenegro for its ability to “maintain macroeconomic stability” and for its “moderate preparation to develop a functioning market economy”.

On the media, the report notes “concerns about freedom of expression, although attacks on the media decreased”. It also notes that “some activists were targeted on a personal basis by the local media” during the reporting period.

Serbia: more work needed on justice and corruption

The Commission says Serbia made progress in most areas, especially in relations with Kosovo, but stresses than more needs to be done in fighting corruption, curbing political influence in the judiciary and ensuring media freedom.

The report says Serbia played a constructive role in the region by successful managing the migration crisis and by continuing the process of normalization with Kosovo.

Co-operation between the authorities and independent regulatory bodies and the Ombudsman has increased but should be improved, the report says.

The use of urgent procedures in parliament should be curtailed. Constitutional reforms will be needed for alignment with EU standards in some areas.

Serbia has made some preparations in preventing and fighting corruption, which is still widespread, however.

The anti-corruption effort “has yet to yield significant results” and the institutional setup is not yet functioning as a credible deterrent, the report says.

Turning to judicial reforms, Serbia made certain steps but more progress is needed in tackling political influence.

The quality and efficiency of the judiciary and access to justice are hampered by "an uneven distribution of workload, a burdensome case backlog and the lack of a free legal aid system”, the report states.

More also needs to be done in ensuring the conditions for the full exercise of media freedom and the freedom of expression.

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