The latest European Commission reports suggest most Balkan countries, bar Turkey and Macedonia, are broadly moving in the direction of reform – but big issues over corruption, the rule of law, media freedom and minorities remain.
Johannes Hahn, EU Enlargement Commissioner, stated that “the prospect of EU membership continues to drive transformation and anchor stability” in the Balkans,presenting the European Commission’s annual progress reports on the Western Balkans and Turkey in Brussels on Wednesday.
“Today we … call on the governments of the enlargement countries to embrace the necessary reforms more actively and truly make this their political agenda – not because the EU is asking for it, but because it is in the best interest of their citizens, and Europe as a whole,” Hahn said.
The EU reports said that reforms across the region “are moving forward in most countries”, but at a different pace.
The Commission noted that while most countries have improved their legal frameworks, they still “continue to face problems of efficiency and lack of sufficient independence and accountability of the judiciary”.
While laws protecting fundamental rights are in place, issues remain over their implementation and protection in practice, particularly in Turkey.
“Freedom of expression and media remains a particular concern in most enlargement countries, albeit to different degrees … the lack of progress in this area, already observed over the past two years, has persisted and, in some cases, intensified,” the Commission wrote.
Balkan countries are also urged to better address discrimination and hostility towards vulnerable groups on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity among others.
“The proper functioning of democratic institutions remains a key challenge in a number of countries. The central role of national parliaments for the democracy needs to be embedded in the political culture,” the Commission wrote.
More optimistically, the EU remarked that the economic situation “has gradually improved across the region, with stronger growth, higher investment and more jobs created by the private sector.
“However, all enlargement countries face major structural economic and social challenges, with low efficiency of public administrations and high unemployment rates. Youth unemployment in particular remains worryingly high.
The investment climate is also negatively affected by the continuing weaknesses in the rule of law,” the Commission wrote.
“Serbia has also taken major steps forward, which led to the first four chapters of the EU accession negotiations being opened, including on rule of law and on normalisation of its relations with Kosovo,” Hahn said.
“The overall pace of negotiations will depend in particular on progress in these two areas,” the Enlargement Commissioner added.
The report on Serbia said the country needed to further improve “the inclusiveness, transparency and quality of law-making and effective oversight of the executive” as well as “cooperation between the executive and independent regulatory institutions”.
While noting progress in reform of the public administration, the Commission wrote that Serbia still needs to “professionalise and depoliticise the administration and make recruitment and dismissal procedures more transparent, especially for senior management positions”.
The report said Belgrade must tackle political influence over the judiciary and deliver meaningful results in the fight against corruption that “remains prevalent in many areas.”
The commission said Serbia must improve protection of minorities and of all persons belonging to the most discriminated-against groups.
On the media, the report said Serbia made “no progress to improve conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression.”
“Regarding normalisation of relations with Kosovo, Serbia remained committed to the implementation of the agreements reached in the EU-facilitated dialogue,” it noted.
“Continued efforts are needed to implement the agreements already reached with Kosovo. The steps taken should have a positive and concrete impact on the everyday life of citizens in both Serbia and Kosovo,” the Commission wrote, praising Belgrade’s generally “constructive” approach to countries in the region.
The EU opened the accession talks with Serbia in 2014.
(Balkan Insight, 09.11.2016)
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