BRUSSELS – Council of the European Union adopted conclusions on enlargement and Stabilisation and Association Process on Tuesday, in which the commitment to enlargement was reaffirmed, but concerns were also expressed over many unresolved problems in the fundamental criteria for EU membership.
In the margins of the General Affairs Council, Intergovernmental Conferences with Montenegro and Serbia took place on 13 and 14 December, with Serbia opening Cluster 4 on the Green Deal and Sustainable Connectivity.
The Council stated that it looked forward to the holding of the first intergovernmental conferences with the North Macedonia and with Albania as soon as possible, after the approval of the negotiating frameworks by the Council.
The Conclusions were adopted just a day after the swearing in of the new Government of Bulgaria. New Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told Financial Times that the Government will propose a “very fast” new process that should help Sofia lift its veto and unlock the start of neighbouring North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations.
“We will make an action plan in early January for these working groups to have real results with the aim to move forward in the negotiations,” Petkov said, EURACTIV reported.
When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Council regretted the prolonged political crisis in the country, which has held back further progress on reforms in 2021, and condemned the blockage of the State institutions.
“Rhetoric and initiatives aimed at rolling back reforms and withdrawing from State institutions are unacceptable and endanger the country’s alignment with the EU acquis and the political commitment to EU integration. All political leaders need to engage in dialogue to overcome the stalemate as a matter of priority”, the document reads.
In its conclusions, Council reaffirmed its commitment to enlargement, which, according to the document, remains a key policy of the European Union and a strategic investment in peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability in Europe.
“In line with this, the Council continues to expect partners to take ownership and fully commit to the primacy of democracy, fundamental rights and values and the rule of law, which is in the interest of their people”, the document reads.
In order to further reinvigorate and enhance political dialogue with the region, the Council welcomed the holding of EU-Western Balkans Summits as regular events.
The Council stressed the pressing need for the partners to focus on fundamental reforms to address a number of persisting structural shortcomings in the areas of rule of law, fundamental rights, the strengthening of democratic institutions and public administration reform, as well as on the economic criteria.
“Furthermore, the situation regarding the freedom of expression, media freedom and pluralism remains deeply concerning, with limited or no progress in most cases and in one case even continued serious backsliding. Urgent measures continue to be required to safeguard these essential pillars of democracy. Threats, intimidation and attacks targeting media, journalists and other media actors must be resolutely addressed”, the document reads.
It was also assessed that the proper functioning and independence of democratic institutions – an essential element of well-functioning democracies and a key condition for EU accession – remained a pressing challenge.
“The Council notes that the absence of genuine political will continues to be the main reason for the lack of substantial progress, or even backsliding, on credible and sustainable reforms in this area”, the conclusions read.
The Council noted with concern the many cases where the proper functioning of democratic systems and institutions is hampered or undermined.
“Addressing the reported shortcomings remains of utmost importance, requiring reforms also in related fundamental areas as well as inclusive political dialogue, and providing a stronger role and the freedom to operate for civil society organisations”, it was concluded.
The Council also reiterated the importance of inclusive regional cooperation, in particular the realisation of the Western Balkans Common Regional Market, based on EU rules and standards, which will be crucial for taking full advantage of the potential of the region and of the Economic and Investment Plan.