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European Commission country reports need more consistency in assessing democratic institutions

By European Policy Centre (CEP) (Strahinja Subotic, Programme Manager and Senior Researcher & Milos Pavkovic, Researcher)

The European Commission’s country reports on the state of play of reforms in (potential) candidate countries are vital for assessing their commitment to EU integration. These reports also influence the EU Council’s decisions on opening clusters or closing negotiation chapters. However, there is a growing rift between these two EU institutions. It has become common for the Council to differ from the Commission’s assessments, particularly when it evaluates a country’s progress positively and recommends advancing its accession process. While some Council inaction may result from a single member state’s misuse, overall, member states continue to mistrust the Commission’s approach to monitoring and assessing reforms. This is compounded by the fear that the Commission’s reports tend to be overly optimistic compared to what is observed during separate scoping missions by member states.

Civil society organisations in the region have also repeatedly called for more consistent and evidence-based Commission findings to make the reports more objective, comparative, and accurate. To address these issues and enhance the credibility of its reports, the Commission must improve its approach to tracking reforms, particularly in the subarea of the Functioning of democratic institutions.

In an effort to provide clarity, the Commission has traditionally labelled the level of preparedness for each assessed chapter, ranging from “early stage of preparation” up to the “well advanced” level. Yet, the latest CEP analysis highlights the Commission’s reluctance to apply such categorisation when evaluating the functioning of democratic institutions (FoDI). It also points out the necessity to address this issue by the next Enlargement Package comes out, particularly considering that the 2020 Revised enlargement methodology has identified the FoDI as one of the key sub-areas of the Fundamentals (Cluster 1).

The subsequent conclusion drawn is that varying degrees of (in)consistency exist among the reports, moderately impeding their comparability and effectiveness. As the progress in the FoDI can determine the overall pace of a candidate’s negotiation process, in conjunction with other essential areas covered by chapters 23 and 24, the continuation of the current practice of inadequate assessment in this sub-area risks further undermining the credibility of the Commission’s country reports.

Assessing the (in)consistency levels in the subarea of Functioning of Democratic Institutions

In its country reports for (potential) candidates, the European Commission observes the state of play of democratic institutions within Cluster 1 – Fundamentals. This compartment of reports consists of five sub-chapters: Elections, Parliament, Governance, Civil Society and Civilian Oversight of Security Forces. After detecting and analysing all policy elements in the FoDI subarea, the aforementioned paper found a 61% consistency rate across the region if only explicitly mentioned policy elements are accounted for. This rate was just a single percentage point away from being categorised as a moderate level of consistency. However, the rating notably improves to a 73% consistency rate, when implicitly and partially covered elements are included, and the justifiably missing elements are omitted from the calculation. The Commission, thus, has ample space to improve the consistency levels in its FoDI reporting by systematically addressing policy elements with greater explicitness and comprehensiveness throughout all sub-chapters.

When it comes to the specificities of individual sub-chapters, there are different lessons to be drawn. “Civil Society” recorded the highest levels of consistency (good to advanced), while the “Parliament” and “Elections” achieved a good level of consistency as well. Consistency levels in Governance showed a notable level of variation, having a mix of a moderate level and a lower threshold of a good level of consistency. This sub-chapter suffers severely from country-level inconsistencies, with percentages ranging from 31% (for Serbia) to 93% (for Albania).

Given the sub-chapter’s complexity and broad-ranging impact, it is of utmost importance to raise its consistency, akin to the previously mentioned sub-chapters. Lastly, “Civilian oversight of security forces” is the most problematic sub-chapter with the lowest levels of consistency (some level of consistency) as half of the country reports do not cover it at all. In short, the findings affirm that, with the right level of attention and precision, the Commission’s assessment of the FoDI can further increase in consistency and, thus, in comparability and overall quality.

Making the Commission’s Reports Credible Again

Having in mind all previously said, several recommendations are proposed by CEP for the Commission to enhance its reporting in the area of the FoDI.

During the next reporting cycle, the Commission should actively prioritise, among other things, addressing the observed inconsistencies highlighted in this paper. This includes the necessary efforts to make the papers more comparable, by addressing same/similar policy elements (wherever and whenever possible) and to do so as explicitly as possible. Doing so would not only improve the overall consistency rates but also mitigate the conspicuous inter-report disparities across various sub-chapters.

Several elements contribute to reader confusion when scrutinising the country reports, warranting remediation.

First, the absence of certain policy elements in country reports raises ambiguity regarding whether they have been evaluated at all by the Commission or intentionally excluded from reporting due to the absence of issues. Instead, the Commission should adopt a more comprehensive approach, recognising both the backsliding and progress when applicable.

Second, numerous policy elements are only implicitly or partially covered by the Commission, while others are, in some places, misplaced. This inconsistency disrupts the uniformity and expected structure of the reports, potentially resulting in confusion, a limited grasp of the subject matter, and a diminished capacity to extract meaningful insights from them. Considering the paramount importance of the FoDI for citizens, the assessment should be both professional and reader-friendly.

Lastly, it is evident that not all sub-chapters are given equal importance by the Commission; however, efforts should be made to achieve equilibrium to prevent the perception of certain sections being addressed merely as part of a technical exercise.

By taking care of the aforementioned concerns, the end goal should be to start providing membership preparedness assessments for the FoDI area, as is the case of the other two sub-areas within the Fundamentals (the PAR and the Economic Criteria).

Doing so would not only enhance the overall coherence and consistency of the country reports but also serve as a vital means for the Commission to communicate that this area holds equal importance to membership as other fundamental areas.

It would also send a distinct and clear message to all stakeholders regarding the actual state of play in the analysed country. Moreover, this would also allow for all parts of the report to become quantifiable and systematically evaluated, a point long emphasised by the civil society organisations from the Western Balkans.

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