On 6th October 2020, the European Commission adopted the “Communication on EU enlargement policy and the 2020 Enlargement Package”, the report in which the European Commission assesses the implementation of fundamental reforms in the Western Balkans and Turkey.
The EU Commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement policies, Mr. Olivér Várhelyi, emphasized the improvement of the relationships between the European Union and the Western Balkans’ Candidate Countries: Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo (the last two are still considered as potential candidate countries).
To give enlargement new momentum, especially after the last year stop, the Commission is therefore putting in place new economic resources after the emergency package of over 3 billion Euros launched last June to help the Western Balkans overcome the COVID-19 crisis and other economic resources are planned to be released.
The implementation of the Economic Plan for the Western Balkans will be financed by a combination of EU grants and loans from international financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
These funds are closely linked to visible results in the field of reforms: in case of doubts or dissatisfaction on Brussels’ part, the planned investments can be blocked. This clause needed to be inserted in the report because, despite some encouraging signs, there still are many problems in the region, especially about the judicial system, corruption, organized crime, public administration, and media freedom.
On top of the EU Commission priorities for the planned investments there is the modernization of the road and rail infrastructures in the area, now obsolete and often incomplete, to connect all the capitals of the Balkans and revive the flow of people and goods, the reduction of energy emissions and the introduction of “clean” energy source to replace coal and hydrocarbons, to incentive investments in the private sector, to increase competitiveness and innovation, especially of small and medium-sized enterprises, and digitization.
The report also analyzed the progress and limits of every country:
Serbia has been criticized at a political level for the management of the last elections that took place in June. After an extremely contested campaign marked by the virtual boycott made by the opposition, this election session led to a new parliament dominated by the Progressive Party of the Serbian President, Mr. Aleksandar Vučić.
Freedom of information is also under the spotlight, because it is threatened by media concentration, lack of transparency on ownership, the crushing of TVs on government positions, but also threats, intimidation, and violence against journalists.
Montenegro has been criticized for the climate of violent polarization during the electoral campaign that led to the vote at the end of August, but the organization of the elections was judged in substantially positive terms, especially since, for the first time in the last thirty years, the country has witnessed a change in government, with the defeat of the “eternal” President, Mr. Milo Đukanović. While progress is being registered in many sectors, the situation of media freedom remains problematic in Montenegro as well.
North Macedonia has been praised for having continued to strengthen democracy and rule of law and for the transparency of the operations of the Skopje Parliament. The political elections in July were well organized and gave place to a real competition between the political parties. Also in the sectors of media freedom, regional cooperation, fundamental rights, the fight against corruption and organized crime, and reform of the administration and judicial system, the performance of North Macedonia and of Social Democratic Prime Minister, Mr. Zoran Zaev has been considered substantially positive by the European Commission.
Albania is heavily criticized in this report for the substantial polarization of political life, the boycott of local elections by the opposition, the Parliament at reduced regime, and attempted (failed) impeachment of the President, Mr. Ilir Rexhep Meta. The judgment on this country is partially softened thanks to the agreement on electoral reform reached last June. The assessment on the other sectors is moderately positive, even if the reform of the judicial system, currently under a serious process of re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors, still has a long way to go.
About Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU Commission talks about a difficult political situation: it named BiH as a dysfunctional country, with a blocked Parliament, a nation that needed fourteen months of negotiations to reach a government, with a constitution that is considered incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and with difficult on the inclusion of civil society in the dialogue with institutions. The only positive notes come from the reforms in the economy and the active role in regional cooperation.
Also for Kosovo, the past year has brought little progress on the path towards the European Union. The country has gone through a long series of political upheavals: early elections, the difficult creation of a government that then sank in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the indictment of President, Mr. Hashim Thaçi, for war crimes. The only reforms that had been released are limited to the economic sector and the fight against corruption and crime.
In the special chapter of relations with Serbia, marked in the last weeks by the economic normalization agreement signed under the aegis of US President, Mr. Donald Trump, the EU Commission welcomes the resumption of the dialogue, closing with words that have now become a true mantra for the European Union: “to move forward on the path of integration, Kosovo and Serbia must reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement”.
In the Turkish chapter, the EU Commissioner Várhelyi admitted that “Turkey’s (EU) accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill” because of the negative developments in rule of law, fundamental rights and the judiciary system.
In the report, the EU Commission confirms that the underlying facts leading to this assessment still hold, despite the government’s repeated commitment to the objective of EU accession. Dialogue and cooperation with Turkey have continued, in particular on addressing challenges related to migration, despite concerns over the events at the Greek-Turkish border in March 2020. The report also outlines how Turkey’s foreign policy increasingly collided with the EU priorities under the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The report underlines that the only countries that can continue with success the talks on the EU Membership are Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia. Those countries have made the major improvements, despite the Covid-19 that hit all the countries of the Balkan area.
Turkey, on the other hand, is acting contrary to the values of the European Union and this will led to a suspension of negotiations and a cooling of the diplomatic relations.