Commission seeks to revive enlargement with new package

European Commissioner in charge of neighborhood and enlargement policy, Hungarian, Oliver Varhelyi during a press conference to present EU enlargement package 2020 in Brussels, Belgium, 06 October 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The European Commission published its long-awaited enlargement package on Tuesday (6 October) in a fresh attempt to revive the stalled process with promises of more substantial economic assistance in exchange for reforms. The package included country-specific reports on the progress of the six Western Balkans countries and Turkey.

The overall tone of the Commission’s documents was more positive than during the EU’s “enlargement summit” earlier in May, which had sent mixed signals by omitting the word enlargement altogether.

The country reports came together with a Commission investment plan for the Western Balkans region, which Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi warned need to be accompanied by concrete results in key reforms.

Road and rail at centre of EU investment plan for Western Balkans

Alongside the annual country-specific enlargement reports on all EU hopefuls, the European Commission presented on Tuesday (6 October) an investment plan for the Western Balkans, which it hopes will bring investment to the region, spur greening and enhance regional cooperation.

“We have very clear rules in the new methodology. You will see that we tend to carry out the economic part hand in hand with reforms. “If we see a setback or a stalemate in reforms, it will be impossible to continue financing,” Varhelyi told the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Varhelyi confirmed he would soon visit the Western Balkans and convey to politicians in the region “what they can lose if they do not meet the conditions”.

Candidate countries

Earlier this year, the European Council gave the green light for starting accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, after the enlargement process was effectively frozen last year over France’s veto.

In the reports, the Commission confirmed further progress in the implementation of reforms in the two countries.

North Macedonia, which together with Albania hopes to start accession talks already later this year, has the most positive assessment out of the six.

The Commission acknowledged this year’s elections, which led to another premiership for Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who delivered the domestically divisive name change deal that resolved a long-running dispute with Greece.

However, it warned that “corruption is prevalent in many areas and a more proactive approach from all actors engaged in preventing and fighting corruption needs to be ensured.”

It failed to address the risks linked to what neighbouring country Bulgaria sees as persisting attempts by some circles in Skopje to “falsify” the common history of neighbouring countries.

On Albania, the Commission pointed towards progress in judicial reforms and the fight against corruption, but warned that “the political dialogue in the country needs to be improved” and that “the political environment in Albania continued to be marked by intense polarisation.”

One requirement for the opening of accession negotiations was a fully functional Constitutional Court. So far, the Court has only four of its nine members but needs at least five to reach a decision-making quorum.

Varhelyi said he sees “engagement to nominate the missing vacancies” and will address the matter during a visit to Tirana this week.

The Commission criticized Montenegro, a frontrunner which started EU accession negotiations in 2012 and edged ever closer to joining the bloc this summer, after opening the final policy area chapter — competition — over its lack of progress on freedom of expression.

The report stated that “although there has been progress on the media legislation, this has been overshadowed by arrests and proceedings against editors of online portals and citizens for the content they posted or shared online in the course of 2020.”

The Commission noted that “the growing volume of region-wide disinformation further polarized the society in the aftermath of the adoption of the law on freedom of religion and during the electoral campaign.”

The Commission criticised Serbia over its parliamentary elections held in June, marred by an opposition boycott.

“The newly constituted Serbian parliament is marked by the overwhelming majority of the ruling coalition and the absence of a viable opposition, a situation which is not conducive to political pluralism in the country,” the report noted.

“While contestants were able to campaign and fundamental freedoms were respected, voter choice was limited by the governing party’s overwhelming advantage and the promotion of government policies by most major media outlets,” it added.

The Commission acknowledged the resumption of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue this summer but cautioned that especially Belgrade “needs to make further substantial efforts and contribute to reaching a comprehensive legally binding agreement with Kosovo,” the report states.

Potential candidates

On Bosnia-Herzegovina, still not an official EU candidate, the Commission criticized Sarajevo for the political deadlock since the start of this year.

“No progress was made in improving the electoral framework in line with European standards and ensuring transparency of political party financing,” the document reads.

It added that “corruption remained widespread”, with “all levels of government showing signs of political capture directly affecting the daily life of citizens.”

The country report on Kosovo highlighted that “corruption is widespread and remains an issue of serious concern”, and stressed the need for “strong political will to effectively address corruption issues, as well as a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.”

Special case: Turkey

The Commission stated that Turkey has moved further away from democracy, rule of law, and basic rights and had severe setbacks in judicial independence. It said Ankara has made no progress in the fight against corruption, flagging the non-existent separation of powers and serious concerns about the functioning of the economy.

On a positive note, the report said that “Turkey has continued to align with the EU acquis, albeit at a very limited pace and in a fragmented manner”.

It emphasised that Turkey had “played a key role in ensuring effective management of migratory flows along the Eastern Mediterranean route” in implementing the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, a phrase set to raise eyebrows among member states and human rights activists as Ankara has repeatedly used migration as a pressure point against the bloc in the past months.

However, Turkey’s foreign policy “increasingly collided with the EU’s security and foreign policy priorities”, the report said, naming Ankara’s illegal drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

“The EU has repeatedly stressed the need to respect the sovereign rights of EU member states,” the report said

The report urged Turkey to “commit itself unequivocally to good neighbourly relations, international agreements and peaceful settlement of disputes” in accordance with international law.

The comments come only a few days after a crucial EU summit where leaders warned Ankara it could face “immediate” sanctions if it persists with gas exploration in Cypriot waters.

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