With Croatia, set to join the EU in December, tiny Montenegro got the green light today (12 October) to open accession negotiations, the European Commission unveiled in its yearly Enlargement package. The move is seen as a way to keep accession alive as Macedonia and Serbia stumble over conditions.
The Commission granted three countries hope for advancing their status towards accession. However, diplomats conceded that the conditions set for Serbia and Macedonia leave the door open only to Montenegro to further engage in open accession talks (see background).
"In the case of Serbia, the Commission recommends that the Council should grant Serbia the status of candidate country, taking into account progress achieved so far and on the understanding that Serbia re-engages in the dialogue with Kosovo and is moving swiftly to the implementation in good faith of agreements reached to date," reads the Commission's recommendations regarding Serbia.
EurActiv sources admitted that the Kosovo conditionality was put in place to suit Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel has recently delivered the strongest warning so far that Belgrade should swallow its pride over the loss of its former province Kosovo, if it wants to advance toward EU membership. They also said that the political situation in Serbia left little room for maneuver for the pro-European government.
According to analysts, the nationalist political parties in Serbia now have a free hand to use the situation in the north of Kosovo as a very efficient means when dealing with the ruling, so-called "pro-European", coalition.
These parties can now easily incite protests, aggravate the tensions and begin to accuse the government of betraying Serbian interests and losing Kosovo, ahead of the elections scheduled for spring 2012.
In the case of Macedonia, the Commission noted that the name dispute with Greece has hampered negotiations which date back to 2009."The Commission underlines the need for a redoubling of efforts for a solution without further delay […] A solution to the name issue is long overdue," the EU executive states in its 2011-2012 Enlargement Strategy.
The Commission also recalls that "actions and statements that could negatively impact on good neighbourly relations should be avoided".
Macedonia recently infuriated Athens by erecting a huge statue of a 'warrior on horseback' resembling Alexander the Great, in the centre of Skopje. Also, the Macedonian government is likely to fuel tensions with another of its neighbours, Bulgaria. The press reported that the country's Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski himself has helped fund a film called "Third Half Time", which depicts Bulgaria as responsible for the deportation of 7,200 Jews from Macedonia.
In fact, the only hopeful country who can claim it made a step forward is Montenegro. Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said he is proposing to open accession negotiations with Podgorica, as the country had met the requirements previously set. Diplomats told EurActiv Montenegro had shown resolve to combat organised crime, money laundering and smuggling. Reportedly, the authorities in Podgorica have been cooperative and eager to involve the opposition and NGOs in meeting the Commission's benchmarks.
The new EU approach with Montenegro would be to start with chapter 23 and 24, "Judiciary and fundamental rights" and "Justice, freedom and security", from a very early stage. Diplomats told EurActiv that the opening of new chapters would be made conditional to the advance on these chapters, which is a completely new experiment in accession negotiations.
Until recently, Montenegro had the image of a country where corruption reached the very top of the political establishment. The country’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanović, a controversial figure suspected with ties with organised crime, resigned on 21 December 2010, in a move expected to help Montenegro’s EU integration.
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Regarding Albania, diplomats said the political stalemate there did not allow the EU executive to go very far. In spite of the fact that a parliamentary boycott, which has lasted since the June 2009 national elections, appears to be over, the reform process would need time to re-start, they admitted.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the three communities (Serbs, Bosniaks--Bosnian Muslims--and Croats) cannot agree on forming a government or adopting a budget, despite heavy EU lobbying, is causing concern in Brussels. Officially the country wants to join the EU, but doesn't appear to deliver on EU advice.
"Bosnia and Herzegovina have to decide if their European agenda is also their national agenda," a high ranking official told EurActiv.
Kosovo had a nightmarish year with a presidential election declared unconstitutional and its prime minister dubbed as one of the "biggest fish" in organised crime in the country, according to NATO documents leaked to the UK's Guardian newspaper. EU diplomats said they wanted to keep the momentum of the relations by pursuing a visa facilitation effort.
In the case of Turkey, EU officials said they were alarmed by some statements that "went too far", as warnings that the Turkish navy could be used to stop oil and gas exploration around Cyprus. Still, the EU was hoping to maintain a "constructive relationship" by keeping the three open chapters alive, by advancing in the "visa dialogue", by deepening the Customs Union, put in place as early as 1995, and by better interaction in foreign policy.
Overall, the Commission regretted the worsening of media freedom in several enlargement countries and pledged to make efforts to address the problem.
Egemen Bağış, Turkey's minister for European Union affairs and chief negotiator for accession said in a statement "the report seems to be objective and balanced [but] unfortunately it does not reflect the picture as proper as it should be. It seems that EU's camera falls short of catching the rapidly changing image of Turkey."
"In recent years, the report would cover the headlines in Turkish papers. However, nowadays it rarely becomes an issue which [the] public cares [about] and discusses. This is obviously the outcome of the credibility problem of the EU in Turkey due to the double standards of the EU," he said.
The next year will be crucial for Skopje to demonstrate renewed impetus in reforms designed to prepare the country for EU accession but proper recognition should be given to achievements as well as criticisms, the European Parliament's Rapporteur on Macedonia MEP Richard Howitt (S&D, UK) stated.
Howitt told Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle that freedom of the media is a critical issue in the country. He also expressed hopes that events surrounding the country's census must not affect commitment to the multi-ethnic Ohrid Framework Agreement. The ongoing census in Macedonia was halted over ethnic squabbling, media reported.
Commenting on the proposals, Green foreign affairs spokesperson Franziska Brantner said:
"Opening membership negotiations with Serbia at this juncture would have sent a totally wrong signal, with heightened tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. […]
"The Commission has struck the right balance by linking its recommendation for candidate status with a clear message that Serbia must re-engage in the dialogue with Kosovo and implement agreements already reached with Pristina without delay. Serbia must now normalise its relations with Kosovo and achieve concrete progress in this field as a precursor to the opening of accession negotiations. However, there are also other areas that it needs to address and the recent unacceptable cancellation of Belgrade's gay pride parade is a case in point."
Green MEP and chair of the European Parliament's Turkey delegation Hélène Flautre stated:
"While the Commission is going through the motions with its progress report on Turkey, clearly the overriding concern should be standstill in EU-Turkey relations and the fact that the accession process has all but ground to a halt.
"The Commission shares the parliament's concerns in raising the alarm about restrictions on media freedom in Turkey, with journalists facing harassment and threat of imprisonment. […] However, the overriding issue is the stagnation of the membership negotiations. That the negotiating chapters on fundamental rights are being blocked at a time when Turkey is discussing constitutional and judicial reforms is wrongheaded. This is a real threat to the efforts being made in Turkey as regards democratic reform and the EU's ability to positively influence this.
MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten (EPP, Netherlands) said that the main message for Turkey is that it is essential that the country continues its reforms.
"Turkey has recently shown its ability to play a positive role in a turbulent region. It is therefore now, more than ever, time for the EU and Turkey to reinforce each other in the area of foreign policy. More effective cooperation is essential in this respect."
With regards to the progress made by Turkey, Ria Oomen-Ruijten welcomed the efforts and progress in the reform of the judiciary, but voiced concern about the lack of progress in the investigations into alleged coup plans like 'Ergenekon' and 'Sledgehammer'.
Kader Sevinc, representative in Brussels of CHP said that her party, as Turkey’s social-democratic force and main opposition party, has always been a firm defender of EU's enlargement to Turkey.
The Commission report had to better emphasize the Turkish government’s increasing deficiencies in the fields of independence and impartiality of the judiciary power, individual freedoms, freedom of press, women rights, social policy and free and fair market economy, Sevinc stated.
The report fails short of pointing to the EU’s own contradictions in the unjustified blocking of negotiation chapters because of the position of the Republic of Cyprus and of France, she further wrote.
"We expect the European Commission to more firmly defend the European values and principles in dealing with Turkey," Sevinc added.
Tusiad, the largest employers' organization in Turkey, stated that it is "of crucial importance" that the democratic reforms underlined in the European Commission report be carried out in the coming period.
"In this respect, drafting a new Constitution based on social and political compromise is decisive. The process launched through civilian initiative should be carried out in a transparent fashion. Turkey needs a new constitutional order that will better guarantee the rule of law, individual and cultural rights and freedoms, women’s rights and an independent and impartial judicial system that produces results in a reasonable period of time. A new constitutional order that fosters a society based on creativity, entrepreneurship and social responsibility will be a very important opportunity for Turkey," Tusiad stated.