In 2016, the EU’s attention has focused on addressing the following political stability and security factors: continuing to facilitate normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, mitigating stability risks from political polarisation in Kosovo and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, fostering Bosnia and Herzegovina’s functional statehood and socio-economic development, consolidating Serbia’s EU orientation and further strengthening reform and the rule of law in Albania and Montenegro. The EU remains committed to the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The EU will also continue to stress in the dialogue with the relevant Western Balkans countries its expectations to further deepen cooperation on foreign policy issues and progressive alignment with the EU’s foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, such as restrictive measures.
The normalisation process between Belgrade and Pristina (EU facilitated dialogue) must continue in good faith through 2016 and beyond, and all Dialogue agreements must be implemented by both sides. Meetings of the High-Level Dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, facilitated by the HR/VP, are expected to continue. Following elections in Serbia and Kosovo, there is a new momentum in the process. Further progress in the implementation of all Dialogue agreements remains essential for advancing their European perspective.
In Kosovo, although the opposition has lost its former unity, significant polarisation with potential for a recurrence of occasional violence from the opposition will be a continued risk in 2016. The mandate of the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) has been extended until June 2018. The SAA between the EU and Kosovo entered into force on 1 April 2016 and the first SA Council will be held before the end of 2016.
Kosovo made significant progress in fulfilling the requirements of the visa liberalisation roadmap, which led to a formal proposal by the Commission in May 2016 to transfer Kosovo to the Schengen visa-free list, on the understanding that by the day of the adoption of this proposal by the European Parliament and the Council, Kosovo will have ratified the border/boundary agreement with Montenegro and strengthened its track record in the fight against organised crime and corruption. The EU recalls that the two remaining benchmarks must be met. The EU also recalls that, as for other beneficiaries of visa liberalisation, a safeguard clause may apply in the event of non-respect of relevant conditions.
Following the opening of the first two negotiating chapters with Serbia in December 2015, it will be important to address rule of law issues in the accession negotiations. The two chapters concerned (23 – Judiciary and Fundamental rights and 24 – Justice, freedom and security) were opened in July 2016, which should inter alia encourage the establishment of a track record in these areas. The EU encourages Serbia to take this positive momentum forward and to intensify legislative reforms and their effective implementation in the key areas of judicial reform, fight against corruption and organised crime, and freedom of expression and the media. Particular attention needs to be paid to the full respect of fundamental rights, including protection of the most vulnerable groups, particularly the Roma, as well as to the effective implementation of legislation on the protection of minorities, the non-discriminatory treatment of national minorities throughout Serbia, including in the areas of education, use of minority languages, access to media and religious services in minority languages, and tackling discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
After early general elections in April 2016, in which Prime Minister Vucic won a clear endorsement for the policy of pursuing EU integration, the new government needs to focus on key reforms. It will also be important that Serbia maintains a constructive attitude towards all its neighbours and remains positively engaged in regional cooperation initiatives. The EU will continue to call on Serbia to progressively align with the EU Common Foreign and Security policy in line with the Negotiating Framework.
In September 2016, the Council invited the Commission’s Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina‘s EU membership application. Continued and effective implementation of the Reform Agenda and its Action Plan, focused on the socio-economic, rule of law and public administration reform, is vital. EU will pay particular attention to the implementation of the Sejdic-Finci ruling.
The Protocol on adaptation of the SAA to take into account Croatia’s accession to the EU has been initialled in July 2016. The coordination mechanism on EU affairs, established in August 2016, will have to function effectively so that the SA Committee and SA Council meetings planned can deliver their work, also in view of the Commission opinion process related to the EU membership application. A new IMF arrangement was signed in September2016. A UNSC vote on renewing the mandate of the European Union military operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR/ALTHEA) is due in November 2016. BiH is also aiming to advance on its NATO membership aspirations.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia remains fragile with early general elections (agreed on under the June/July 2015 EU-facilitated political agreement between the four main parties to take place in early 2016) after being postponed twice, now set for 11 December 2016. However, the government will need to address the systemic rule of law issues exposed by the revelation of illegal surveillance of public figures. Failure to address these concerns could cause further political instability and public unrest. The trial of the Kumanovo suspects on terrorism charges will continue. The EU expects the country to address good neighbourly relations with Greece and Bulgaria, in line with Council conclusions of December 2015, and to translate into practice the relevant commitment by the main political party leaders under the 2 June agreement. The EU will continue following the situation closely and will remain committed to the EU accession process of former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In Montenegro, government and mainstream opposition parties agreed on a power-sharing arrangement in spring 2016 with the aim of holding credible general elections in October 2016, demonstrating the country’s political maturity. After the opening of another two chapters in June, Montenegro continued progress on rule of law, including by establishing a solid track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime, is essential for the opening and closing of the remaining accession negotiation chapters. NATO members signed the Accession Protocol for Montenegro in May 2016 and ratification is underway. The country’s Euro-Atlantic integration will have a positive impact on stability in the wider region.
Albania has continued to make a steady progress in addressing the five key priorities (public administration reform, judiciary, fight against corruption, fight against organised crime, human rights – including the protection of minorities and the implementation of property rights ) identified for the opening of accession negotiations. Their sustained, comprehensive and inclusive implementation has to be ensured. Key legislation for a comprehensive reform to strengthen the independence and accountability of the judicial system was adopted by the Albanian parliament in summer 2016, and it should be possible for the country to begin serious implementation steps during the year. Further efforts in these key priorities will be required.
To help address remaining migration issues on the Western Balkans route, close coordination and cooperation with the countries of the region will need to continue throughout 2016, including follow up of assistance provided to manage borders, improve reception capacities and fight smuggling networks. Contingency planning regarding alternative migration routes will need to be in place in the rest of the Western Balkan countries and continuous monitoring in particular through EU Agencies is a priority in order to curtail possible further developments of the smuggling businesses in the region.
Inclusive regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations will remain essential for the stability and the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Continued efforts to facilitate inclusiveness will remain necessary in 2016 especially regarding regional rule of law initiatives/fora. The 1st June South East Europe Cooperation Process Summit in Sofia and the 4 July 2016 Paris conference under the Berlin Process (Western Balkans Summit) discussed pressing political issues and advance transport and energy connectivity within the region and with the EU. The Paris conference also focused on youth initiatives, such as the Positive agenda for the youth of Western Balkans launched in 2015 within Brdo-Brijuni process. The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)’s 2017-2019 programme, which was endorsed in June 2016, will further emphasise fundamentals such as the rule of law, economic governance and public administration reform to ensure greater integration across Western Balkan and other RCC members. The EU will continue to support the initiatives and structures which reinforce inclusive regional cooperation in South Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.
The EU has identified the Western Balkans as a priority region for external action on counterterrorism. EEAS and Commission services will enhance cooperation between EU agencies and relevant Western Balkan authorities on counter-terrorism/countering violent extremism, focusing on coordination efforts through the Western Balkan Counter-Terrorism Initiative initiated by Slovenia. The EEAS, Commission services and other stakeholders will prepare a 2017-19 regional assistance project on counter-terrorism, organised crime and border security under the Instrument for Preaccession Assistance.
 This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC resolution 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.