European Commission; Photo: European Commission

European elections are over, and so is the final round of annual Reports on the Western Balkan countries released by the current Commission. As expected, many similar problems were identified across the region – the sentence Corruption is widespread and remains an issue of concern appears in every individual Report – but the assessment of the general situation still varies depending on the country.

Even though a thorough analysis of the 100-page-long documents released on Wednesday is still pending, the first impressions of them have already been formed – and they are rarely positive.

The hopefuls: North Macedonia and Albania

If there is a country that can be satisfied with the findings of the Commission, it is the one still named the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at the time of publishing last year’s Report.

This year’s document duly highlights “historic steps … to improve good neighbourly relations”, with a special emphasis on the implementation of the Prespa Agreement with Greece. It also commends the conduct of the current government, which has “taken steps to restore checks and balances, and to strengthen democracy and the rule of law” in an inclusive and transparent matter.

The recommendation to the Council to open accession negotiations is not new, but the way in which it was requested is, says Ardita Abazi Imeri, Head of Program for EU acquis and sectorial policies at the European Policy Institute in Skopje.

“This year’s recommendation is quite different, unconditioned with additional criteria and generator of positive spirit nationally and regionally”, she explains.

In her view, positive developments in the past year did not go unnoticed.

“Regionally, progress in the rule of law is best rated. And as for the the level of preparedness, North Macedonia does not lag behind the countries in accession dynamics such as Montenegro and Serbia”, she remarks.

Not everything is going perfectly, of course. North Macedonia still needs further efforts in order to prevent politicization of public administration, ensure independence of the media and decrease the levels of corruption, Report stresses.

Nevertheless, Abazi Imeri believes that the case for opening of accession negotiations in June is convincing.

“The time for opening accession negotiations is now”, she says. “There are no more excuses for the Macedonian side – the Commission’s Report makes it impossible”.

Recipients of positive news: Zoran Zaev and Edi Rama; PHOTO: Flickr

Another country EC has recommended as ready to begin negotiating is Albania. However, political crisis that has engulfed the country in the first half of this year could make Commission’s rational murkier than in the case of North Macedonia.

The importance of the 2019 Report, then, lies in EC’s positive assessment of the main concerns brought forward by EU member states, estimates Ardian Hackaj, Research Director of the Cooperation and Development Institute in Tirana.

“The mentioning of negative effects of the disengagement of main opposition parties in the progress of electoral reform takes some heat off the Albanian government”, he explains, referring to opposition’s decision to boycott the work of parliament and local elections on 30 June.

Indeed, the Report finds mostly positive developments in areas vehemently criticized by the opposition – fight against corruption and organized crime, as well as independence of institutions.

While the justice reform is praised for its “concrete and credible results”, in the fight against organized corruption, Commission notes “good progress” in the adoption of legal context and on policy making, Hackaj points out. The establishment of specialized anti-corruption bodies is underway, while intensification of police operations to dismantle criminal organizations, resulting in multiple arrests and prosecutions, is also mentioned.

The situation described in the Report has attracted polarized reception, reflecting the political divides in the country.

“Less than one day after its publication, its critics are already pointing out its “over-positive” tone”, says Hackaj.

On the other hand, “its supporters argue that, for the reforms to succeed, the Balkan country must be kept closer to EU and firmly engaged through the EU accession talks and the increased scrutiny that they bring”, he explains.

Despite discouraging messages from some EU leaders, both North Macedonia and Albania will have their fingers crossed for European Council’s meeting in June.

The frontrunners, but for how long: Serbia and Montenegro

The only two countries that have so far opened accession negotiations are still closest to EU membership – but the pace of their reforms seems to have slowed, or even started moving in the opposite direction.

This is especially true for Serbia. The state of political criteria in this country has been uncharacteristically harshly criticized by the Report, with some claiming that it was high time.

“The document presents a sobering image of the state of democracy in Serbia. With regards to the functioning of democratic institutions, negative trends and urgent need for improving the state of elections and functioning of the parliament is pointed out”, says Raša Nedeljkov, Programme Director of the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability in Belgrade.

A particularly damning assessment comes in the section about the state of parliamentary debate.

“The ruling coalition’s parliamentary practices led to a deterioration in legislative debate and scrutiny, and significantly undermined the parliament’s oversight of the executive. There is an urgent need to create space for genuine cross-party debate and conditions for the opposition to participate meaningfully in the parliament”, reads the document.

Despite achieving a modest progress in aligning with EU-acquis and economic development, as well as not taking the bulk of the blame for a blocked dialogue with Kosovo, most analysts described the 2019 Report as both extremely disappointing and worrying for Serbia – especially since it did not detect any progress in the freedom of expression and fight against corruption.

Harsher than before: Johannes Hahn

A little bit less harsh, but similar in general tone, is the Report on Montenegro, thinks Dina Bajramspahić, Public Policy Researcher at the Institute Alternative from Podgorica.

“In my opinion, this is the most objective, detailed and precise EC Report on Montenegro in recent years. Furthermore, it is the most critical one, which was very needed since Montenegrin Government is in denial of many problems”, she says.

She points out that this is the first time EC did not recommend opening any new chapters with Montenegro, so the only remaining Chapter will stay unopened. Montenegrin Government was also hoping that EC would push for Montenegro getting the final benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24, which also did not happen.

“I believe that this is due to general dissatisfaction with Montenegrin progress“, Bajramspahić emphasises.

She adds that, despite being a frontrunner country, Montenegro still hosts many problems similar to other Western Balkan countries: weak and politicized institutions, impunity for the corrupted officials and misuse of public funds, state interference into media market and hostile actions towards critically oriented NGOs.

These were all detected by Report, which still recognized some progress in developing functioning market economy and moderate preparedness in the fight against organized crime, judicial system and public administration.

If Serbia and Montenegro do not want to be surpassed by other countries in the region, or stay at the top without moving anywhere, it seems that they will have to work much harder in order to improve their standing with the Commission.

At the early stages: Kosovo and BiH

Still only potential candidate countries, both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are assessed to be „at an early stage” in most of the key areas: justice reform, fight against corruption and organized crime and developing a functioning market economy.

Reports also focused on specific challenges both countries face. For Kosovo, these are, of course, the situation in the North and its decision to impose 100% tariffs on goods from BiH and Serbia.

This approach is criticized by Jeta Krasniqi, Project Manager at the Kosovo Democratic Institute.

“The Report does not offer proper explanations on what early, moderate or even advanced stage development means for a country”, she says, adding that 100% tariffs seem to have overshadowed the progress made by Kosovo in different fields.

Among the positives, the Report mostly mentions legislative reforms in context of fight against corruption and organized crime, but also points at Kosovo’s efforts to manage migrations and reintegrate the families of terrorist fighters.

The document also reiterated the urgent need for the EU achieve full visa liberalization with the country. According to Krasniqi, there is an undeniable impression that it is the only “carrot” available for Kosovo, and she doubts it will be enough.

“For a real step into the European path for Kosovo would entail the recognition of the state of Kosovo by all EU member states, a fact which does not grab the attention of the Commission’s enlargement policy”, she concludes.

Who will enter first, who will enter last?; Photo: EEAS

Another criticism of EU’s policy, this time towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, comes from Bodo Weber, Senior Associate of Democratization Policy Council in Berlin. In his view, EC, which, in addition to the Report, also published an Opinion on BiH’s application for membership, has proven itself to be inconsistent.

“That’s already symbolized in the very publication of the Opinion last Wednesday by the same Commissioner Hahn who only a few weeks ago in his last visit to BiH conditioned the publication with government formation on state and Federation level”, Weber stresses.

The fact that the Opinion does not give recommendation on granting a candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina is, according to Weber, regrettable.

“Commission has shied away from offering a political strategy, one that underpins the heavy reform conditions with clear political messaging, instead of just dropping them like bombs onto BiH politicians and citizens”, he assesses.

As for the measures proposed in the documents, the one that stands out the most is call on Bosnia to change its Constitution.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina will need to reform its institutions to be able to effectively participate in EU decision-making and to fully implement and enforce the acquis”, reads the Opinion.

Weber is skeptical that this would work out successfully. That kind of reform, he explains, is far from what any of the ethnopolitical elites in BiH promote.

“And they were able to promote it over the last decade, because of EU that, due to the lack of political will, practiced faking process and progress instead of countering political elites in their anti-European course”, he concludes.

With their unique challenges in establishing fully functioning democracies, both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina will probably need additional engagement from the new Commission in order to achieve progress on their EU integration paths.