BRUSSELS – European Commission has published the 2021 country reports for the six Western Balkans states and Turkey. Here we present the key findings in the country report on Kosovo.
The fundamentals of the accession process
In terms of political criteria, most of the reporting period was marked by political instability in Kosovo. Following early parliamentary elections in February 2021, a new government took office, with an unprecedentedly strong parliamentary majority.
During most of the reporting period, legislative activities were limited due to this political instability, including EU-related reform efforts. The adoption of a second phase of the European Reform Agenda (ERA 2) and its Action Plan, endorsed by the Assembly in October 2021, and a solid government focus, confirmed the positive trend of Kosovo’s renewed commitment to EU-related reforms.
After a Constitutional Court decision of December 2020 invalidated the election of the previous government in June 2020, the Assembly was dissolved and early elections were held in February 2021. Following the landslide victory of an opposition alliance led by the party Vetëvendosje, the new Assembly majority approved a new government in March 2021.
In November 2020, Kosovo’s President in office was indicted and he was arrested on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office. He subsequently resigned from office. The then Assembly Speaker became acting President, in line with the Constitution, before being elected by the new legislature to serve a full presidential term in April 2021.
For a large part of the reporting period, the polarised political atmosphere, the lack of an effective government majority and the lack of a quorum severely affected decision-making in the Assembly. There is a need for the Assembly to improve its regulatory framework, including the rules of procedure. The Assembly remained open during the pandemic, while maintaining health protection measures.
Overall, the legislative elections of February 2021 were well-administered, transparent and competitive, despite several shortcomings. Kosovo’s electoral process remains in need of comprehensive strengthening to address long-standing weaknesses throughout the electoral cycle, as identified in successive EU election observation missions since 2014. Strengthening the legal and institutional framework on campaign and political party financing remains a pending area in need of reform.
The situation in the north of Kosovo remains challenging, in particular in terms of corruption, organised crime, and the conditions for freedom of expression.
There is some level of preparation in the area of public administration reform, but there was no progress on this front during the reporting period, given the frequent government changes. The Law on Public Officials entered into force in June but no significant efforts were made to start its implementation especially with regard to recruitments. The establishment of an effective central recruitment department was delayed. Undue political influence over appointments and dismissals of senior public functionaries and civil servants has been observed in some instances and Kosovo has met only some of its commitments to merit-based criteria. It made no progress in addressing the inequalities in the public sector salary system. The process to streamline agencies has stalled. Legal uncertainty for businesses and individuals persists due to the continued lack of progress on harmonising sectorial legislation with the Law on General Administrative Procedure. A renewed commitment to public administration reform is urgent.
Kosovo is still at an early stage in developing a well-functioning judicial system. The overall administration of justice continues to be slow, inefficient and vulnerable to undue political influence. Some progresswas made during the reporting period. The Functional Review of the Rule of Law Sector resulted in a Rule of Law Strategy and Action Plan, which outlines the main challenges in the rule of law system and was adopted in August 2021. Kosovo rolled out an electronic case‑management system and set up a central criminal records system, however challenges remain. It has made efforts to implement the Law on mediation. The COVID-19 pandemic affected effective case processing and the holding of (and public access to) court hearings in Kosovo. The new government has been considering several options for a process of ‘vetting’ of the judiciary and prosecution. In this context, the potential introduction of a one-off full re-evaluation of all prosecutors and judges is a source of serious concern. Such a process should be considered only as an exceptional measure of last resort, once all existing tools and mechanisms to ensure integrity and fight corruption of judicial officeholders have been exhausted, and should be in line with European and international standards as well as with Venice Commission advice.
Kosovo is at an early stage/has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. During the reporting period, limited progress was made, including on the investigation and prosecution of high-level cases in the track-record. Sustained efforts are needed to achieve more proactive investigations, final court decisions and final confiscation of assets. The Special Prosecution Office was strengthened as the Corruption and Financial Crime Department became operational and it achieved an overall increase in staffing levels. The anti-corruption legal package and the revised Criminal Procedure Code still need to be adopted. The legal framework on confiscation is in force but is not being consistently applied, and the value of finally confiscated assets remains low. Overall, corruption is widespread and remains an issue of serious concern. Despite efforts made, there is a need for strong and continual political will to effectively address systemic corruption risks, as well as a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.
Kosovo is at an early stage in the fight against organised crime. It made limited progress during the reporting period on the investigation and prosecution of organised crime cases. The Special Prosecution Office was strengthened with additional specialised staff and targeted training activities took place. However, the powerful tools envisaged by the Criminal Code and the Law on extended powers of confiscation are yet to be fully utilised by police and prosecutors. Measures are needed to strengthen the prosecution as well as to ensure that there is no political interference in the operational activities of all law enforcement bodies.
In July 2020, Europol and the Kosovo Police concluded a Working Arrangement. The additional agreements necessary to operationalise this cooperation, allowing for access to the Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA) and the exchange of Liaison Officers, were finalised in September 2021.
Progress was made in the fight against terrorism, in line with the objectives set out in the EU-Kosovo implementing arrangement for the Joint Action Plan on counter-terrorism for the Western Balkans, especially with regard to the rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and their families. The Kosovo authorities need to be more effective in their efforts to combat money laundering and the applicable law should be brought in line with EU acquis and with international standards.
The legal framework broadly guarantees the protection of human andfundamental rights in line with European standards. However, additional efforts remain needed to fully implement it and to improve coordination and oversight of fundamental rights policies and legislation. Authorities still depend on donor support and guidance, and need to assume greater ownership. More needs to be done to effectively guarantee the rights of persons belonging to minorities, including Roma and Ashkali and displaced persons, to ensure gender equality in practice, and to advance the protection of cultural heritage. As regards freedom of expression, Kosovo has some level of preparation and benefits from a pluralistic and lively media environment. Concerns remain, however, regarding public smear campaigns, threats and physical attacks on journalists. The lack of financial self-sustainability, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaves the media vulnerable to political and business interests. The public broadcaster also remains vulnerable to political influence and a sustainable solution for its funding still needs to be found.
The Kosovo authorities continued to make progress in managing both regular migration and mixed migration flows in the difficult context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kosovo further increased its accommodation capacity and stepped up preparedness to handle an increased influx of migrants.
As regards the economic criteria, Kosovo has made limited progress and is at an early stage of developing a functioning market economy. The economy plunged into recession in 2020, but this trend was reversed in the first half of 2021. Long-standing structural problems, such as the lack of economic diversification and the dependence on financial flows from the diaspora made Kosovo very vulnerable to the pandemic-related lockdown and travel restrictions. In response to the crisis, the authorities suspended the fiscal rule and adopted two fiscal packages. A strong increase in spending and shrinking tax revenues resulted in a large budget deficit in 2020 but recovery in tax revenue helped achieve a budget surplus in the first half of 2021. The business environment saw little improvement. Private sector development remains constrained by a widespread informal economy, a slow and inefficient judiciary, a high prevalence of corruption and the overall weak rule of law.
Kosovo has made limited progress and is at an early stage in terms of capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces in the EU. Little progress was made on improving the quality of education and addressing skill gaps in the labour market. Kosovo made some progress in improving road infrastructure and increasing investment in renewables, but the coal-based, outdated and unreliable energy supply remains a concern. Kosovo made some progress as regards the digitalisation of the economy. Structural changes are emerging only slowly as the economy remains highly reliant on small and very small firms which cannot compete internationally, while the export structure remains dominated by a few products, such as base metals.
As regards good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation, Kosovo continued to participate in most regional fora. Kosovo maintained overall good relations with Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia. There has been no change in Kosovo’s formal relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and the two maintain a strict visa regime.
Regarding the normalisation of relations with Serbia, the EU-facilitated dialogue continued with high-level meetings on 15 June and 19 July 2021, as well as three chief negotiators’ meetings. During the reporting period both parties appointed new chief negotiators and negotiating teams. Kosovo needs to engage constructively and make further substantial efforts on the implementation of all past agreements and contribute to reaching a comprehensive legally binding normalisation agreement with Serbia. Such an agreement is urgent and crucial so that Kosovo and Serbia can advance on their respective European paths.
As regards alignment with European standards, some progress was made during the reporting period in the areas of public procurement, statistics and financial control. In most of the areas covered by Cluster 2 on internal market, Kosovo has some level of preparation namely the free movement of goods, capital, company law and intellectual property, whereas it is moderately prepared on movement of workers, services and right of establishment, and on financial services. Kosovo is at an early stage of preparation on competition, as well as on consumer policy and health protection. In the reporting period, Kosovo made some progress in all areas except on consumer policy and health protection, where only limited progress was made. In the area of competitiveness and inclusive growth, it made some progress in most areas (customs, taxation, information society and media, enterprise and industrial policy), but made only limited progress on research and education and culture. It made some progress on policy areas related to the Green Agenda and sustainable connectivity, in the energy sector, but only limited progress in the areas of transport, environment and climate change. In the field of resources and agriculture, it made only limited progress on agriculture, food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy. In trade policy, some progress was made in reducing Kosovo’s trade deficit, but Kosovo has not yet ratified the CEFTA additional protocols on trade facilitation and trade in services. Overall, Kosovo needs to improve its administrative capacity and coordination, across all sectors, to achieve effective implementation of the EU acquis.