This time, European Western Balkans, spoke with Jean-Eric Paquet, Director for Western Balkans in the Directorate General for Enlargement. Mr. Paquet began his career in the European Commission in 1993 in the Directorate-General for Transport, in the International Relations area, and later as assistant to Robert Coleman, Transport Director General. Mr. Paquet was respectively EU Ambassador in the Islamic republic of Mauritania between 2004 and 2007. From 2007 he has been developing the Trans-European Transport Network policy. From mandate of previous Commission, Mr. Paquet works in Directorate General for Enlargement.
European Western Balkans: Thank you for your time, Mr. Paquet. For the introduction we would like to know what are the relations of DG to potential and candidate countries and how do you cooperate with Commissioner Hahn?
Jean-Eric Paquet: It is a pleasure to be able to engage with you and thank you for your questions.
The EU’s relations with the candidate countries and potential candidates are covered by the respective Stabilisation and Association Agreements. The agreements are adapted to the specific situation of each partner country and, while establishing a free trade area between the EU and the country concerned, they also identify common political and economic objectives and encourage regional co-operation. In the context of accession to the European Union, the agreement serves as the basis for implementation of the accession process. DG NEAR has all-round very good relations with the candidate countries and potential candidates through different channels. This includes regular meetings and political dialogue with the countries’ authorities in the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Council and Committees, through the EU Delegations on the ground as well as through links with Civil Society organisations such as NGOs and business organisations. In addition, through the Instrument for Pre-accession assistance, the Commission is the first financial donor for these countries when it comes to grants in order to assist candidates and potential candidates meeting the EU accession criteria.
EWB: Now we will try to ask you several questions about almost every country you cover. First of all, how would you evaluate the Macedonian high level dialogue and what are the results of this process? What is the present situation? Will changes in the government and new elections change something in this process?
Overall, since it was put in place in 2012, the High-Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD) has been an important tool in driving key reforms in the country. However, the protracted political crisis in the country and the increasing polarisation has had an adverse effect on the HLAD process with no meetings held since 2013. Serious challenges which the Commission has raised previously have been underscored by the latest political crisis and need to be addressed urgently.
The agreement of 15 July between political parties opens up the possibility for an inclusive HLAD meeting in late September that would encompass not only government and opposition, but also civil society. But a lot of work needs to be done before then on implementing the political agreement and the Commission’s “Urgent Reform Priorities”.
These “Urgent Reform Priorities” address the systemic rule of law issues that have arisen from the wiretaps, including interference in the independence of the judiciary and the media and indications of electoral fraud. The HLAD meeting would serve to review any relevant progress on this. However, I would remind you that HLAD was brought into play to bridge a certain gap to opening accession negotiations with the country. HLAD cannot replace accession negotiations and the positive dynamic that negotiations bring about.
EWB: Are there differences between Macedonian and Albanian HLD?
JEP: They are specific to the priorities of each country. High-Level dialogues have been convened in the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Process and represent a flexible instrument to gather political consensus and advance technical and political work on countries’ EU related reform agendas.
EWB: Serbian authorities calculate with dates for opening first chapters from the last September. What are your thoughts on the European integration process of Serbia and its waiting for opening first chapters?
JEP: I can only repeat what Commissioner Hahn already made clear in your columns a few months ago. We welcome Serbian authorities’ ambitious target date, which we see as a sign of their strong dedication. But from our perspective, there is no set timeframe for the opening of specific chapters or for their closing. This depends primarily on Serbia and its pace of implementing the necessary reforms. Quality is more important than speed and a well prepared country is more likely to reap the full benefits of EU membership.
Concretely, to move towards the opening of first chapters, parallel and sustainable progress, in particular in the Dialogue with Pristina and rule of law issues, is needed. This is a requirement coming from our negotiating framework, which provides that the three chapters dealing with these issues – chapters 23, 24, and 35, should be tackled early in the process. On all three chapters, Serbia has made a lot of progress. I am confident that solid progress on Serbian action plans on rule of law chapters 23 and 24 will allow discussion with Member States to start after the summer. On chapter 35, I welcome Serbia’s commitment to engaging in a process that we know is not easy. An agreement was reached on 29 June between Prime Ministers Vucic and Mustafa on the text of two important agreements: on principles of the establishment of the Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo and on the implementation arrangements in the field of telecoms. This is a positive development. It is now essential that an agreement on the formalisation of the two texts is reached as soon as possible so that we can move forward and open a first chapter, hopefully still this year.
EWB: What do you think about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Assembly of Republika Srpska asked for referendum on competencies? Do you think this will change situation in BiH? In which way? What SAA will bring to BiH?
JEP: Bosnia and Herzegovina has the potential to make significant progress on its EU accession path, as demonstrated by the recent adoption of the comprehensive Reform Agenda. This is a welcome step which shows that the country can effectively deliver on its citizens’ ambitions and take the necessary steps to advance towards the EU. The meaningful implementation of this Reform Agenda will pave the way for the country to be able to submit a credible EU membership application. The implementation of this Reform Agenda which tackles the citizens’ socio-economic concerns should be the main focus of the BiH authorities, leaders and parties, with other political distractions. And I include here the potential Republika Srpska’s referendum on the state judiciary. Such a referendum would challenge the cohesion, sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Holding a referendum risks also undermining closer integration with the EU, which all political leaders, including entity President Dodik, have committed to in February 2015. It is a distraction from the real social and economic problems which people of Bosnia and Herzegovina face on a daily basis. This includes stabilising the economy and creating new jobs, particularly for young people, improving rule of law and tackling corruption.
As regards the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), its entry into force last 1 June is taking the EU-BiH relation to a new level. More intensive institutional relations are being established and we will have the first Stabilisation and Association Council in the autumn. The SAA will establish a free trade area between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EU; it will make healthier, safer goods available to citizens; and it could boost the attractiveness of this country to domestic and foreign investors. 72% of BiH’s exports already go to the EU market of 500 million Europeans. Implementing the SAA and harmonising BiH legislation with the EU standards and norms will be a major task for the BiH authorities in the months and years to come and the EU will continue to support BiH in this endeavour.
EWB: How would you describe the political situation in Kosovo after negative decisions of the Assembly of Kosovo about special court on ex-guerrillas? Could Kosovo face some consequences in near future because of that?
JEP: On 26 June, the Kosovo assembly failed to reach the required majority necessary to adopt the Constitutional Amendments that would have paved the way for the establishment of the Specialist Chambers. We, the European Commission, were disappointed with this outcome, as were many other international partners of Kosovo.
Kosovo has committed itself to set up the Specialist Chambers in its exchange of letters with the former High Representative Catherine Ashton in April 2014, which was adopted by the Kosovo Assembly then. Failing to fulfil the commitments now would not only endanger Kosovo’s credibility in the international community. It would also be a missed opportunity to determine responsibility for individual criminal wrongdoing during and after the conflict. This was communicated clearly to Kosovo on different levels by EU officials.
We are aware that this is a sensitive and controversial issue in Kosovo and that achieving political consensus around it is certainly not an easy task. However, we are encouraged by recent statements from senior political actors in Kosovo, reaffirming their commitment to establish the Specialist Chambers. The European Commission will continue to follow this process very closely.
EWB: How would you elaborate the situation on media freedom in Western Balkans (especially in Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia)?
JEP: Media freedom is a non-negotiable fundamental right and a key condition for candidate countries and potential candidates that must be fulfilled ahead of membership. COM will particularly monitor the developments on media freedom and freedom of expression and issue country specific recommendations in the upcoming Enlargement package, including the country reports, to be published on 14 October 2015. At the same time, the Commission organises on a biannual basis a major event relating to freedom of expression and media in the Western Balkans and Turkey – the Speak-Up! conference. This year’s edition will take place on 4 November 2015. The conference will focus inter alia on media literacy, professional and ethical standards in mainstream media, social media, the policy/assistance relating to media freedom as well as the lack of solidarity among journalists that exposes them to political and economic pressures, prevents formation of effective self-regulation and leads to poor labour conditions in media outlets.
Concerning the countries you refer to, the Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about the deteriorating conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression in Serbia and lack of transparency regarding media ownership. We will continue to discuss these matters with the Serbian authorities and expect that concrete improvements will follow.
As concerns Montenegro, we have taken note that attacks against the media have decreased in the past twelve months, and the investigations and prosecutions of cases of violence against media continue. However, it is of the utmost importance that all old and recent cases of violence against the media are resolved, including the 2004 murder of Dan Editor-in-Chief Dusko Jovanovic. The recommendations of the ad hoc media commission need to be fully implemented.
As to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, despite a relatively good legal framework, the situation on the ground has worsened. Journalists continue to report in a climate of self-censorship and strong polarisation. The wiretaps have revealed that conversations of journalists in the country had been under extensive and unlawful surveillance for several years. The wiretaps also confirm the Commission’s earlier concerns of state control over the media. The Commission has included these serious issues in its “Urgent Reform Priorities” and the political actors have committed to implementing these. Much needs to be done to improve the situation.
EWB: Are Western Balkans countries successful in using IPA funds? Are they using the whole potential? Do you have any comparable information?
JEP: With over EUR 11 billion of funding, in grants, committed from 2007 to 2013, IPA has already contributed significantly to reforms in the enlargement countries, including in key areas such as the judiciary, anti-corruption, the fight against organised crime or public administration reform . At the same time, the funds help the EU reach its own objectives for a sustainable economic recovery, the environment and climate change, transport, or energy supply.
In 2014, the new Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA II) was launched, building on some of the lessons learned from IPA I. Through IPA II (2014-2020), the EU will provide EUR 11.7 billion to support candidate countries and potential candidates in their preparations for accession as well as regional and cross-border cooperation. In line with the enlargement strategy, IPA II focuses on addressing the “fundamentals first”: democracy, the rule of law as well as economic competitiveness and growth, all of which remain considerable challenges in the Western Balkans.
The Commission will continue to monitor, assess and review performance during the entire funding period, including on the basis of the annual progress reports as well as through a comprehensive monitoring mechanism established under IPA II. For the latter, strategic indicators agreed with the beneficiary governments will be used to assess if and to what extent the expected results of the assistance have been achieved. These strategic indicators focus on key intervention sectors common to all IPA beneficiaries and will improve comparability. A mid-term review of the implementation of IPA II will be carried out in 2017 with a view to taking stock of developments and adjusting the instrument if deemed necessary.
EWB: What are your stands about the most successful country in enlargement process form Western Balkans – Montenegro?
JEP: Concerning Montenegro, let me just say that, for this country, the EU has been implementing its new approach on the rule of law, since the opening of accession negotiations in 2012.
This envisages that progress in the accession negotiations will be accompanied by progress on the rule of law. To-date, Montenegro has opened 20 negotiating chapters and has provisionally closed two. At the same time, it has made progress on rule of law issues, especially where the adoption of legislation is concerned. Now Montenegro needs to deliver tangible results, including through the development of a solid track record in the area of corruption and organised crime.
EWB: Mr. Paquet thank you for your detailed answers and your time. We wish you success in your work in Directorate of European Commission and primarily in the field of European integration of the Western Balkans countries.
Authors: Nikola S. Ristić and N. T. Štiplija