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HomeAlbaniaEurope: Conditional ‘Yes’ for Bosnia – Western Balkans Must Accelerate Reforms

Europe: Conditional ‘Yes’ for Bosnia – Western Balkans Must Accelerate Reforms

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The European Commission on Wednesday backed the opening EU accession talks for Bosnia and Herzegovina – but on condition it implements key outstanding reforms.

The conditional recommendation for Bosnia and Herzegovina comes as the Commission recommended a start to EU talks with Ukraine and Moldova at Wednesday’s presentation of EU’s enlargement priorities, at which the progress reports for Western Balkans countries were presented.

“The Commission also recommends opening of EU accession negotiations with Bosnia Herzegovina once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved,” the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said in Brussels.

The recommendation should inform a decision later in December by the EU leaders on whether to actually start formal accession talks with Bosnia.

But this is going to be hard to achieve, as it will take a unanimous vote from all 27 member states in a situation where some member states like the Netherlands are strongly against it.

“We open the door very wide and we invite Bosnia and Herzegovina now to go through this door,” Von der Leyen said, adding that Bosnia has to show activity and results in order to seize the chance.

In its report on Bosnia, the Commission noted that it has made “some progress” in the area of judiciary, “no progress” in the fight against corruption and a “backsliding” in guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

The Commission noted progress in Bosnia’s fight against organised crime, money laundering and terrorism and praised the rapid formation of the state-level government, the Council of Ministers, and the will of political parties there to work towards reforms.

However, it noted that representatives of the Serb-majority entity, Respublika Srpska, had passed a number of unconstitutional laws which are a point of concern.

Since submitting its application for EU membership in February 2016, Bosnia was tasked to fulfill 14 key priorities, including democracy and functionality, rule of law, fundamental rights, and public administration reform.

However, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bosnia was granted conditional candidate status, and eight key reforms that need to be undertaken. But it has so far only implemented five and, in some areas like freedoms and functionality, has since taken steps back.

Praise for commitment, warnings about need for reforms

In the reports issued on the other Western Balkan countries, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo got praise for showing political commitment towards pursuing EU-sought reforms.

But they also got warnings on stalled or partially successful reforms in key areas like the judiciary and rule of law, the fight against corruption and freedom of expression.

On the judiciary and rule of law, North Macedonia was assessed as hovering between no progress and moderate progress.

The report noted a lack of progress in judicial reforms, with the adoption of a new judicial strategy being late and the work of the Judicial Council, a governing body that appoints and dismisses judges, highlighted as a point of concern over harmful political influences.

The same assessment of no progress held for Montenegro, where “the judicial system continued to face a deep institutional crisis, resulting in weak leadership and management, lack of strategic vision and poor planning, affecting the country’s ability to deliver justice”.

Albania has achieved a moderate level of preparation in justice reforms, the report noted.

“The implementation of the justice reform continued, resulting in good progress overall. The appointments to the Constitutional Court have been completed with all nine judges now in office, of whom eight with full nine-year mandate,” the report said.

However, “the efficiency of the judicial system and access to justice continued to be affected by the long timescale of proceedings, increased workload and high backlog of cases, which remains particularly high in appeal and first instance courts”, it added.

The report on Kosovo states that the country notched up some legislative achievements on justice.

However, “more needs to be done on justice reforms and the rule of law”, especially in the Serb-majority north of the country, which has been troubled by constant tensions throughout the reporting period.

“The need remains to strengthen existing tools safeguarding the integrity, accountability, independence and efficiency of the justice system,” especially in implementing legislation adopted last year on anti-corruption and criminal confiscation, the report on Kosovo said.

The report on Serbia notes that the country has started to implement key reforms such as the “2022 constitutional amendments to strengthen the independence of the judiciary” but added: “Further work and political commitment are also needed to implement reforms in the area of rule of law”.

An assessment that corruption is still prevalent in many areas of society was prevalent in the Western Balkans country reports.

Serbia and Montenegro, which already started EU accession talks, got this assessment, as did North Macedonia and Albania, which the EC hopes will launch negotiations by the end of this year.

On Serbia, the report notes: “There is a need for strong political will to effectively address corruption issues, and a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.”

The Commission noted a slight increase in the number of new investigations and final convictions in high-level corruption cases, but also that the number of new indictments fell.

There were no cases of final confiscation of assets, for which a track record is required. Serbia also needs to adopt a national anti-corruption strategy and an accompanying action plan.

On organised crime, the Commission noted that Serbia has well-established cooperation with CEPOL, Eurojust, Europol and INTERPOL, notably on weapons trafficking, drugs trafficking, and the fight against high-profile organised crime groups.

However, it added: “Proactive criminal investigations and the systematic tracking of money flows, especially in cases of inexplicable wealth, are still not common practice.”

On Montenegro, the Commission warned that the country has achieved limited progress in the fight against corruption, and still needs to demonstrate a stringent and unambiguous criminal justice response to this phenomenon.

“Corruption, including high-level corruption, remains an issue of concern and is prevalent in many areas, including in-state structures… Limited progress was achieved in preventing corruption,” the Montenegro report stressed.

The report on North Macedonia noted a surge in the number of high-level corruption-related court cases that are being postponed or retried, resulting in the obsolescence of some of them. It also noted that changes to the Criminal Law that lowered sentences for some crimes had also led to the stopping of some ongoing cases due to obsolescence, and to the blocking of investigations and processing of others.

On the fight against corruption, some progress was noted in Albania. “The Specialized Structure against Corruption and Organised Crime, SPAK, achieved further results, and a new Chief Special Prosecutor was elected in December 2022 after a sound process,” the report said.

There was a similar expression of concern over corruption and organised crime in Kosovo. The EC stressed that “fighting organised crime in the north of Kosovo continues to be challenging”.

On freedom of expression, the Commission also noted concerns.

In Serbia, it praised the new media laws but emphasized that state ownership of media, widely criticized by media professionals in Serbia as a form of state pressure, is not “in line with the EU acquis and European standards”.

The report stressed also that cases of threats, intimidation, hate speech and violence against journalists remain a concern, as does the increase of strategic lawsuits against public participation, SLAPPs, notably “launched by members of national and local authorities, that may produce a chilling effect including self-censorship”.

“Recurrent statements by high-level officials on the daily and investigative work of journalists provide for a challenging environment for the exercise of freedom of expression. The possibility of journalists to report on ongoing criminal proceedings is excessively limited in the legal framework,” the Serbia report added.

The Commission said Montenegro had improved the effective protection of journalists and other media workers but noted that tangible results on old cases of attacks have yet to be achieved. It also warned that there was no effective judicial follow-up of old cases of attacks on journalists.

North Macedonia has marked limited progress in this area, the EC said, adding, however, that many attacks, threats and intimidation against journalists were reported.

The Commission urged more transparency when it comes to advertisements in the media of state institutions and political parties.

Regarding freedom of expression in Albania, the report noted “limited progress”.

“The intersection of business and political interests, the lack of transparency of sources of finance, the concentration of media ownership, intimidation and precarious working conditions continued to hamper media independence, pluralism and the quality of journalism. The atmosphere of verbal and physical attacks, smear campaigns and intimidation lawsuits against journalists has not improved,” it added.

On Kosovo, the Commission concluded that not much progress has been made in freedom of expression, reiterating concerns about “physical attacks and threats, public smear campaigns and hate speech”. It highlighted an even more problematic lack of freedom of expression in the north of Kosovo.

Turkey still ‘moving away from the European Union’

Turkey, a candidate country whose progress has practically stood still since 2018 over concerns about its deteriorating democracy, the EC repeated that while Turkey remains a key partner in some key security economy and energy areas, “it has not reversed the negative trend of moving away from the European Union.”

The report noted that “serious backsliding continued” in the area of judiciary, that structural deficiencies of its judicial system remain, as does political pressure on the judiciary. It noted the country’s refusal to implement rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.

No progress was reported in the fight against corruption, the report noted, adding that institutions lack transparency, there is no comprehensive strategy to tackle corruption and crime, and that there are legal gaps that prevent an improved fight.

On freedom of expression, the Commission again noted continued serious backsliding in Turkey.

“Broad restrictions on the activities of journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and critical voices continued to have a negative effect on the exercise of their freedoms,” the report concluded.

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