EU Commission: uneven progress in the Balkan countries, serious concerns regarding Turkey

Thu 9 Oct 2014

EU Commission: uneven progress in the Balkan countries, serious concerns regarding Turkey
Yesterday, outgoing European Union (EU) Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle presented the European Commission’s (EC) assessment of the progress made over the past year by the countries that wish to join the Union in the Western Balkans and by Turkey. The so-called Progress Reports explain the advances made so far by Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina,  Kosovo and Turkey in among others the areas of the economic governance, the rule of law and public administration reform. In addition, they set forth the challenges that lie ahead on the countries’ European integration paths. While Serbia is taking steps in the right direction, Macedonia is “backsliding,” Bosnia-Herzegovina is “at a standstill” and the EC voiced “serious concerns” regarding Turkey. 


Montenegro has taken further steps in accession negotiations. Twelve chapters have been opened so far, of which two have been provisionally closed. Implementation of rule of law reforms has started. Tangible results on the ground are now needed, especially in the area of legislative reforms, and will be key to determining the overall pace of the accession negotiations. Podgorica needs to make sure that cases of corruption, including high-profile cases, were thoroughly investigated and where appropriate, the perpetrators prosecuted.


The opening of accession negotiations is a turning point in the EU's relations with Serbia. Now Serbia needs to continue delivering on its reform priorities in a sustained manner as the pace of negotiations will depend on progress in key areas, notably on the rule of law, public administration and the normalisation process with neighbouring Kosovo. New momentum needs to be generated in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina in order to tackle key outstanding issues and open a new phase in the normalisation of relations.


The EU accession process with Macedonia is currently at an impasse. Action is needed to reverse the recent backsliding, notably in the areas of freedom of expression and of the media and the independence of the judiciary. There is an urgent need to find a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue with Greece. Government and opposition should take steps to restore political dialogue in the parliament. “The absence of most opposition MPs from parliament hampered its work on adopting new reforms, and its ability to provide the necessary checks and balances on the activities of government,” the report said. The EC found the degree of the politicisation of government at both the central and the local level a cause for concern.


Albania was granted candidate status in June as recognition for its reform efforts and progress made in meeting the required conditionality. The country needs to build on and consolidate the reform momentum and focus its efforts on tackling its EU-integration challenges in a sustainable and inclusive way. Both government and opposition need to ensure political debate takes place primarily in parliament. At present, political divisions are hampering the functioning of the parliament, as the main opposition Democratic Party has been boycotting the country’s legislative assembly since July. On the economy, the report stated that Albania had maintained macroeconomic stability but still faces significant challenges.


Bosnia and Herzegovina - still a potential candidate country - remains at a standstill on its European integration path. After the October general elections, it will be essential for the country to tackle urgent socio-economic reforms and to progress on its European agenda. The EC also noted a lack of political will on the side of the government to address the necessary reforms. In addition, the report remarked that Bosnia made limited or no progress in adopting EU-related laws, fighting corruption, judicial reform or improving the functionality and efficiency of all levels of government. The EU further noted that “continued use of divisive rhetoric by some political representatives and questioning of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capacity to function as a country had a negative impact on cooperation between the [two] Entities and the functioning of the State.”


The initialling of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Kosovo - also still a potential candidate country - in July is a major milestone in EU-Kosovo relations. Now Kosovo needs to deliver on key reforms, in particular the rule of law. Füle urged Kosovo to move forward and quickly form a new government, which has been on hold since the June elections. This new government needs to live up to Kosovo's EU prospects. It should engage in an inclusive dialogue to deliver on its EU-reform agenda, including building a track record in the area of rule of law, strengthening public economic administration as well as economic governance.


Implementation of certain reform commitments by Turkey has continued, such as the 2013 democratisation package, and steps have been taken towards a settlement of the Kurdish issue. However, there have also been grounds for serious concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary and the protection of fundamental freedoms. Active and credible accession negotiations provide the most suitable framework for exploiting the full potential of EU-Turkey relations. Opening negotiations on the relevant chapters on rule of law and fundamental rights would provide a roadmap for reforms in these key areas.

How to assess the EU’s Progress Reports 

EU Progress Reports tool for reform

The yearly assessment made by Brussels can act as a significant tool for reform and as a powerful incentive for change. Serbia, for example, organised its first Gay Pride in three years on 28 September of this year in part due to substantial pressure from the Union. In return, Belgrade is judged more positively by the EU in terms of human rights.

A noteworthy characteristic of the Union’s Progress Reports and the concerned Commissioner’s attitude is their positive character. The EC is highly critical of the (potential) candidate countries and does not shy away from for example calling Macedonia “backsliding” or describing relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina as currently at a “stalemate.” However, the phrasing is never negative or discouraging. Instead, the Commission always frames its demands as “needing further reform” or “requiring new momentum.” Furthermore, making progress on the road to Brussels should not be regarded as a competition, as done so by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. After the release of the Progress Reports, he stated that he was pleased to note that the European Commission report on Serbia was better than the reports on Serbia’s neighbours. “[Our] report is better from all other reports in the region. If nothing else we are the best. However, we want to work harder and better,” he said. The EC’s assessment however is done on an individual basis and is not influenced by the neighbours’ (lack of) progress. 

EU Progress Reports misused for political purposes

Even though the EC’s Progress Reports are in general quite straightforward and not open to interpretation, sometimes they are misused for political purposes by governments in the countries concerned. Pro-government media in Macedonia, for example, solely highlighted the nation’s positive economic developments, while Skopje is the candidate country most criticised by the Commission. 

Sources: Balkan Insight (1), (2), (3), European Commission Progress Reports, European Forum, B92 (1), (2), Todayszaman