The European Parliament elections are over and it is notable that the issue of enlargement was barely tackled during the campaign and debate that preceded the elections. However, the accession process of Western Balkan countries to the European Union remains an important question, especially after the publishing of the 2019 Enlargement Package by the European Commission. The package contains the Reports, including assessment of the current situation and guidelines for future, for each of the candidate and potential candidate countries.
Unfortunately, the situation is quite dissatisfying when it comes to progress made by the Western Balkan countries in general. However, the tone of the Report varies from country to country. Serbia and Montenegro, the front-runners for joining the EU, received harsh criticism from the Commission, primarily on the issue of the state of democratic institutions in these countries, freedom of expression and corruption. Truth be told, the issue of corruption remains a widespread problem in all of the Western Balkan countries, with that issue being included in every single report.
On a more positive note, the efforts by North Macedonia have been recognized and praised by the Commission, especially when it comes to foreign relations. The Commission highlights the importance of implementation of the Prespa Agreement, which solved a 27-year-long dispute that country had with its neighbor state, Greece. The progress North Macedonia has made during the past year, especially in the rule of law, has also been noticed by the EU. Another country whose progress has been noted by the Commission is Albania. Positive development has been detected in the areas of “fight against corruption and organized crime, as well as independence of institutions.” Both North Macedonia and Albania have been recommended as ready to begin negotiations.
When it comes to potential candidate countries, both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo* are estimated to be “at an early stage”. The main problem with Kosovo* is the situation in the North and imposition of 100% tariffs on trade with Serbia and B&H, while the main problem with Bosnia and Herzegovina is the reform of the political system that needs to be done, including a change in the Constitution proposed in the Report.
All in all, the European Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy of February 2018 has proved to be an effective guideline for reforms and improvements in the accession process of the Western Balkan countries. The EU confirmed that it remains committed to the enlargement strategy, but urged Balkan countries to improve in a series of fields, noting that “more serious, comprehensive and convincing reforms are required in crucial areas, notably on the rule of law, including the fight against corruption and organized crime, on economic reforms and competitiveness, regional cooperation and reconciliation.” The European Council summit in June is set to address the issues of enlargement, with Serbia expecting to open two new chapters.
Front-runners: Serbia and Montenegro
When it comes to the EC’s Report on Serbia, it is revealed that some, however limited progress has been made in certain areas, such as public administration, fight against corruption and organized crime. However, the Report expresses a strong concern when it comes to the state of democracy in Serbia. There is a notable lack of cross-party debate, thanks to the ruling coalition’s parliamentary practices which undermined the integrity and role of the parliament, eventually leading to the opposition parties’ decision to boycott parliament since early 2019. Moreover, Serbia is urged to tackle the issue of freedom of expression, which is in a quite poor state at the moment, together with the rights of minorities and other persons facing discrimination.
Montenegro has a lot in common with Serbia when it comes to major issues outlined by the Report – lack of political dialogue, high level of corruption and poor state of freedom of expression. It is said to have made some progress in certain areas such as developing a functioning market economy, public administration and protection of fundamental rights.
However, it is safe to conclude that, while limited progress has been made, a whole lot more needs to be done in order to stay on the path of European integration for both Serbia and Montenegro, but also for the rest of the Western Balkans countries.