In a regional review for BIRN, the European Commission says it is working on a new strategy for the Balkans and urges the countries to embrace the chance to further their European perspectives.
The spokesperson of the European Commission, Maja Kocijancic, says 2018 could be the year of opportunity for Western Balkan countries to take irreversible steps on their EU integration path.
However, Kocijancic told BIRN that, to achieve this goal, the countries concerned must make reforms, in particular on the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights, a priority.
“The EU will not compromise on the accession criteria. Any serious progress is conditional upon effective reforms,” she explained.
Although most countries have made progress towards EU membership, Kocijancic added that many reforms remain outstanding, especially in the area of the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights.
The countries of the region are at different stages.
Montenegro and Serbia have started EU membership talks, while Macedonia and Albania have obtained candidate country status.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are further behind but seen as potential candidates for EU membership at some point.
The EU retains a direct supporting role in Bosnia, through the EUFOR/Althea military-led mission. Between 2003 and 2012, the EU deployed a police mission in Bosnia, too.
In Kosovo, the EU still deploys EULEX, a mission designed to support the Kosovo courts in upholding the rule of law.
Kocijanic said the EU was now working on a new framework for the whole region.
“To sustain the positive momentum overall, as well as to better address common challenges, the Commission finds it necessary to provide a separate, dedicated framework for supporting all the countries of the Western Balkans on their path to EU membership,” she said.
In this context, she said the Commission is working on a strategy that will be adopted in February 2018.
In addition, in April 2018, it will present its regular Enlargement report, which will include detailed reports on the enlargement countries.
“These will take stock of progress in the countries towards meeting the obligations of membership and will assess the level of their preparedness to join the EU,” Kocijancic noted.
The Balkan region is also high on the EU agenda because three Balkan EU member states, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, will hold the European Council presidency in 2018 and 2019 during the important Brexit negotiations.
While Kocijancic did not reveal what EU Commission documents will say exactly about each country in 2018, BIRN has received country inputs and reviews from the EU official.
The EU believes Albania has shown steady progress on all five key priorities required to move forward in the EU integration process – public administration reform, judicial reform, fighting organised crime, fighting corruption, and human rights.
“It is now implementing justice reform and in particular the vetting of judges and prosecutors. This process is monitored by an International Monitoring Operation led by the European Commission,” Kocijancic said.
The input underlined that, as the EU President Jean-Claude Juncker pointed out recently: “If the reform path is continued, the Commission intends to recommend the opening of accession negotiations for the country within the next six months”.
Bosnia and Herzegovina:
On Bosnia, the Commission is currently preparing an Opinion on its application for EU membership.
“We look forward to receiving the answers to the comprehensive questionnaire Commissioner Johannes Hahn handed over to country authorities in December 2016. And we also expect Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities to deliver on their signed commitment to undertake all needed reforms to advance the country towards the EU,” the EU official noted.
“It is time for the country leaders and politicians to overcome ethnic divisions and to work together for the benefit of all citizens.”
Kocijancic said the EU expects Kosovo “to fully engage on its EU agenda: to push forward long overdue reforms, especially on the rule of law and economic development, as set out in the European Reform Agenda” .
Progress on the EU-led dialogue with Serbia, working towards a comprehensive normalisation of relations, she added, will be crucial for Kosovo to move forward on its European path.
“We encourage the government to meet the remaining requirements on visa liberalisation, to deliver on the legitimate expectations of citizens,” she said.
The EU expects Montenegro to remain committed to its strategic goal of EU integration, and to accelerate and implement necessary reforms, in particular in the rule of law, which will continue to determine the overall pace of negotiations.
“As the most advanced country in accession negotiations, it will be important for Montenegro to bring down tensions and re-engage political debate in the parliament, where it belongs,” the EU said.
Progress on the Dialogue with Kosovo, working towards a comprehensive normalisation of relations, are deemed crucial for Serbia to move ahead in its EU accession process.
Serbia is described as making good progress, with 12 negotiation chapters opened, and two of them provisionally closed.
“The EU is committed to maintain this momentum and open several new chapters in 2018. It is up to Serbia to set the pace of negotiations, particularly by making real, substantive progress on the rule of law”.
Regarding Macedonia, the EU said it expects the government and opposition “to continue to implement their political [Przino] agreement and the Urgent Reform Priorities, getting their country back on its EU path, so that the Commission can recommend the opening of accession negotiations”.
The EU official added that Brussels expects the government to continue to strengthen relations with its neighbours.