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News 10 Oct 12

EU Enlargement Strategy Pinpoints Balkan Challenges

European Commission’s Enlargement Strategy states that most Western Balkan countries face many challenges and recommended further steps in the accession process.

Gordana Andric
BIRN
Belgrade

The Enlargement Strategy, presented on Wednesday in Brussels, highlights good governance, administrative capacity, unemployment, regional cooperation and reconciliation, economic reform and social inclusion as major challenges facing the region.

“In a context of economic stagnation, there are risks of a lurch towards populism and resistance to essential reforms,” writes the report.

The document says that Western Balkan countries must ensure independent, impartial and accountable judicial systems that function efficiently.

It highlights corruption and organised crime as major problems in most of the countries concerned.

“Corruption remains prevalent in most enlargement countries. Corruption undermines the rule of law, impacts negatively on the business environment and national budgets and affects citizens' everyday life in areas such as healthcare and education,” the document says.

The Commission states that the countries must increase efforts to improve their public administrations at all levels.

The document points out that freedom of expression remains a serious concern in a number of countries, while civil, political, social, and economic and minority rights were pointed out as key issues.

“These fundamental rights are broadly guaranteed in law but issues concerning implementation persist in many cases. In some cases legislative gaps remain,” writes the report.

Here are the conclusions and recommendations in the strategy for the Balkan countries.

Montenegro:
The political criteria continue to be sufficiently met. The opening of accession negotiations in June 2012 reflected its continued progress on key reforms. The screening process has begun and is expected to finish in summer 2013.

The accession negotiations integrate the new approach for the chapters on judiciary and fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security, thereby reinforcing the focus on the rule of law.

During the negotiations Montenegro will need to further develop a track record in this area with the aim of irreversible reform implementation, in particular with respect to the fight against organised crime and corruption, including at high-level.

Macedonia:
The political criteria continue to be sufficiently met. The government has put the EU agenda at the centre of its activity. The High Level Accession Dialogue with the Commission served as a catalyst for accelerating reforms and has contributed to substantial progress in a number of key policy areas.

The reform momentum needs to be sustained in all areas in particular to ensure implementation. Focus on the rule of law, including as regards freedom of expression, and on inter-ethnic relations and reconciliation needs to be maintained.

The Commission recommends for a fourth time that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The Commission believes that moving the accession process of this country to its next stage is necessary in order to consolidate the pace and sustainability of reforms, mitigating the risk of any reversal in this process, as well as to strengthen inter-ethnic relations. It will also bolster the credibility of the EU and act as an encouragement to reform efforts elsewhere in the region.

The Commission underlines that maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential.

A decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations would contribute to creating the conditions conducive to finding such a solution.

In this respect, the Commission is ready to present without delay a proposal for a negotiating framework, which also takes into account the need to solve the name issue at an early stage of accession negotiations. In this regard, account will be taken of previous frameworks and notably the principles of the new approach endorsed by the Council in December 2011.

The above approach requires intense political engagement from all sides in advance of the European Council.

Serbia:

The European Council of March 2012 granted Serbia the status of candidate country. Serbia continues on its way to sufficiently fulfilling the political criteria and the conditions of the Stabilisation and Association process.

Serbia needs however to pay particular attention to the rule of law, notably the judiciary where recent setbacks underline the need for renewed commitment to pursue reforms, and ensure its independence, impartiality and efficiency, also taking into account the recent rulings of the Constitutional Court.

Also in light of recent events, special attention must be paid to the rights of vulnerable groups and to the independence of key institutions such as the Central Bank. Serbia should also continue to constructively engage in regional cooperation and strengthen relations with neighbouring countries.

The momentum of reforms needs to be re-invigorated and further progress made towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations with Kosovo. Two recent developments in this regard are Serbia’s signature of the IBM technical protocol and clarification of Serbia’s interpretation of the agreement on regional cooperation and representation of Kosovo, which, based on initial implementation, is no longer hampering the inclusiveness of regional cooperation.

In line with the conclusions endorsed by the European Council of 9 December 2011 on the conditions for opening accession negotiations with Serbia, the Commission will present a report as soon as it will have assessed that Serbia has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria, in particular the key priority of taking steps towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations with Kosovo.

The Commission calls on Serbia to implement in good faith all agreements reached to date and to engage constructively on the full range of issues with the facilitation of the EU.

A visible and sustainable improvement in relations between Serbia and Kosovo is needed so that both can continue on their respective paths towards the EU, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts.

This process should gradually result in the full normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo with the prospect of both able to fully exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities within the EU.

Addressing the problems in northern Kosovo, while respecting the territorial integrity of Kosovo and the particular needs of the local population, will be an essential element of this process.

The Commission underlines that the steps leading to the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina should also be addressed in the context of the framework for the conduct of future accession negotiations with Serbia. The Commission underlines the importance of this comprehensive approach being pursued with determination by the parties with the full support of the EU.

Albania:

Improved dialogue between government and opposition has allowed Albania to make good progress towards fulfilling the political criteria for membership of the EU.  Albania has met four of the key priorities, namely those concerning the proper functioning of parliament, the adoption of pending laws requiring reinforced majority, the appointment of the ombudsman and the hearing and voting processes for key institutions and the modification of the legislative framework for elections.

Albania is well on its way towards meeting the two key priorities regarding public administration reform and improving the treatment of detainees.

Progress against the remaining key priorities included some significant steps, notably the adoption of the law on administrative courts, lifting of immunities for high-level public officials and judges, increase of seizures of criminal assets, the adoption of a comprehensive strategy on property reform, and amendments to the criminal code strengthening sanctions for domestic violence.

In view of this progress, the Commission recommends that the Council should grant Albania the status of a candidate country subject to completion of key measures in the areas of judicial and public administration reform and revision of the parliamentary rules of procedure.

The Commission will report to the Council as soon as the necessary progress has been achieved. In its report, the Commission will also take into account the commitment demonstrated by Albania to fight corruption and organised crime, including by pro-active investigations and prosecutions of such cases.

In order for the Commission to recommend the opening of accession negotiations, it would need to see sustained implementation of commitments already undertaken and completion of the remaining key priorities which have not been met in full.

A particular focus is required on: conducting elections in line with European and international standards; strengthening the independence, efficiency and accountability of judicial institutions; determined efforts in the fight against corruption and organised crime, including pro-active investigations and prosecution; effective measures to reinforce the protection of human rights and anti- discrimination policies; and, implementation of property rights.

The successful conduct of Parliamentary elections in 2013 will be a crucial test of cross-party commitment to the new electoral reform and a pre-condition for any recommendation to open negotiations. Sustainable political dialogue and continued efforts in all the areas covered by the key priorities will remain essential to implement reform and secure Albania’s EU future.

Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Limited progress has been made towards meeting the political criteria and achieving more functional, coordinated and sustainable institutional structures. Within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Process, Bosnia and Herzegovina continued to engage constructively with the EU on a Structured Dialogue on Justice.

The High level Dialogue on the Accession Process launched in June is the key forum for engagement on requirements for the EU integration process. In this respect, the Commission regrets that the results so far remain below expectations.

A shared vision among the political representatives on the overall direction and future of the country and its institutional set-up remains absent.

Meeting the conditions for the entry into force of the SAA and for a credible EU membership application remains a matter of priority, as does the establishment of an effective coordination mechanism between various levels of government so that the country can speak with one voice on EU matters. The Commission will continue to engage with the authorities of the country.

However, the country’s leaders need to demonstrate the political will to reach consensus and to realise with concrete actions the EU aspirations of the country and its citizens.

Following the decoupling of the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) mandate from the Office of the High Representative, the EU has, through its enhanced presence, taken the lead in a number of areas to assist the authorities to implement the objectives of the EU agenda. In this regard, the EU will continue to strengthen its support for the country’s institutions.

Kosovo:

In parallel to this Communication, the Commission has adopted a Communication on a Feasibility Study for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo.

This study confirms that an SAA can be concluded between the EU and Kosovo in a situation where EU Member States maintain different views on status.

The Commission will propose negotiating directives for an SAA once Kosovo has made progress in meeting a number of short term priorities. It is essential that Kosovo continues implementing in good faith all agreements reached between Belgrade and Pristina to date and that it engages constructively on the full range of issues with the facilitation of the EU.

A visible and sustainable improvement in relations between Kosovo and Serbia is needed so that both can continue on their respective paths towards the EU, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts.

Addressing the problems in northern Kosovo, while respecting the particular needs of the local population, will be an essential element of this process.

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