BRUSSELS – European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi presented today the annual 2023 Enlargement Package to the members of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET). His main focus, when it came to Western Balkan candidates, was on Bosnia and Herzegovina, for which the European Commission recommended opening accession talks conditioned on the “necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria”.
Várhelyi also informed the Committee that the screening process with Albania and North Macedonia was running smoothly while adding that the goal for Albania is to open the First Cluster on Fundamentals by the end of the year. He expressed hope that all parties in North Macedonia would move forward with the constitutional changes and urged Kosovo and Serbia to implement the normalization agreement and its annex.
Following his presentation of the state of play in the new candidate countries, Ukraine and Moldova, Várhelyi said that the Commission also recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved, on which the Commission will report to the Council by March 2024. He said that last year’s candidate status brought much-needed dynamism.
“New governments have been set up swiftly after the elections at all levels, and they have started to deliver on the reforms. The public commitment of political parties to the strategic goal of European integration brought positive results. The Council of Ministers endorsed a set of draft laws, notably on integrity in the justice system, torture prevention by designating the ombudsman as a national preventive mechanism, the law on foreigners, and the freedom to access information. These were adopted by the parliament”, Várhelyi said.
He also pointed out that Bosnia and Herzegovina significantly improved its alignment with EU foreign policy. The country has also adopted the strategy on anti-money laundering, action plans on migration and terrorism, and the implementation of the national war crimes processing strategy.
Turning to Albania and North Macedonia, Várhelyi said that the process of screening is progressing smoothly with both countries and the authorities have shown a high level of commitment.
“In Albania, the implementation of the comprehensive justice system reform continued and the vetting process is advancing at a very satisfactory pace. The Special Structure Against Corruption and Organized Crime, the so-called SPAC, achieved further results on the ground. Full alignment with common foreign and security policy was a strong signal of the country’s strategic choice of EU accession. Our objective is to open the First Cluster on the Fundamentals still before the end of the year with Albania” the Commissioner said.
In North Macedonia, the authorities have continued to demonstrate and declare publicly their commitment to advancing on the EU path, Várhelyi said.
“Now the accession negotiations process has begun, the pace of EU-related reforms needs to pick up. Some changes to the Criminal Code affecting a large number of high-level corruption cases have raised concerns. Strengthening trust in the justice system and addressing corruption, including through a solid track record in the investigation, prosecution, and final conviction of high-level corruption cases is of key importance”, he said.
He also pointed out that the parliament and government are committed to launch and achieve as a matter of priority, the relevant constitutional changes.
“We hope all parties will support it to move forward. This is a sovereign decision of North Macedonia and its sovereign commitment, which will further strengthen fundamental rights”, Várhelyi said.
Turning to Montenegro, Várhelyi said that, while progress on EU accession reforms has largely stalled, the newly appointed government must now focus on EU-related reforms and ensure that the country’s democratic institutions and judiciary become once more fully functional.
“Meeting the interim benchmarks set in the rule of law Chapters 23 and 24 will be key to achieving further progress in the negotiations. No further chapters will be provisionally closed before this milestone is reached”, the Commissioner said.
On the issue of the Kosovo-Serbia normalisation process, he said that both sides are urged to implement the agreement on the path to normalization and its annex, as well as other previous agreements reached in the EU-facilitated dialogue without any further delay or precondition. This includes the establishment of the Association or Community of Serb Majority Municipalities.
“Kosovo has progressed in legislative work and adopted an important electoral reform. Kosovo continued to align with the EU on condemnation of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and to adopt restrictive measures”, Várhelyi said.
He added that the situation in the north of Kosovo has been affected by several crises, with the latest one being the attack against Kosovo police on 24 September.
Due to the lack of decisive steps to de-escalate since June, the EU has been implementing measures vis a vis Kosovo, which also impact financial support.
“These measures are temporary and they are dependent on the steps taken to de-escalate the tensions in the north of Kosovo. Finally, we look forward to the 1 January next year when visa liberalization for Kosovo will enter into effect”, Várhelyi said.
Finally, he pointed out that Serbia had started implementing the 2022 constitutional amendments to strengthen the independence of the judiciary.
“It also adopted important media laws in October 2023 before the dissolution of the parliament, our assessment in the last two reports that Serbia has fulfilled the opening benchmarks of cluster three competitiveness and inclusive growth remains valid. The Commission supports Serbia’s ambition to open new accession clusters on the basis of continuing reform progress”, Várhelyi said.
The Commission, he concluded, also acknowledges good cooperation with Serbia on the prevention of sanction circumventions, while the key issue of alignment with the Common Foreign and Security Policy, including sanctions against Russia, remains a concern.