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Bucharest Calling: – “Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue”

  • July 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Bucharest Calling: – “Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue”

The Centre For European Progression goes to Bucharest

Source: Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue

We recently had the chance to go to Bucharest, where we met up with our partners from across Europe. NGOs from Italy, Bulgaria, Malta, Romania, Finland, Austria, Portugal and Estonia, as well as CFEP from Belgium, are all represented in the TRAIN – Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue project.

This project comes under Key Action 3 of the Erasmus+ Programme, and seeks to use the Structured Dialogue method to develop recommendations on migrant integration policies following input from young people.

To cut through the Euro-jargon, what this means in practice is that there are three Key Actions in the Erasmus+ scheme and all funded projects have to come under one of those umbrellas. Our project falls under number 3 – Support for Policy Reform – as it seeks to gather young people’s views on how to reform integration policy.

 

This is where the Structured Dialogue comes in. The European Commission wants to work with civil society organisations to hear from young people themselves. The Structured Dialogue takes place in cycles of three Council presidencies, lasting 18 months. The current cycle involves the Romanian, Finnish and Croatian presidencies and has a particular theme – ‘Creating opportunities for youth’. Each EU country carries out a national consultation of young people and youth organisations during the 18-month period.  The participating organisations’ role is to provide a more direct link between youth and European policy making, by holding discussions with young people in their respective communities in order to hear their views and experiences surrounding migration and integration.

 

The closing event will be held in Brussels in June 2020, organised by the CFEP. This is when the results of the dialogues will be submitted to the European Commission, in the form of concrete policy recommendations.
Over the last few days, CFEP and our partners met to discuss the Structured Dialogue, the project actions and best practices on integration from our countries. It was particularly interesting to hear about our partners’ experiences. For example, our Finnish partners have a number of members with a refugee background, and our Estonian partners have a dance company as part of their NGO and are working on connecting Estonian and Russian speaking communities. In Austria, our partners have discovered that young people need time and explanations in order to confidently take part in policy discussions. Finally, in Malta, our partners have experienced a disparity in treatment of migrants based on their wealth and their country of origin. Equally, they found it interesting that in Belgium, integration courses are mandatory for most non-EU newcomers.

Source: Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue

Our next steps as a group are to discover more about how these different policies work on the ground, and to develop recommendations for Europe as a whole based on the views and experiences of young people.

If you or your organisation wish to participate in this project, please contact hannah.bettsworth@c4ep.eu.

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West

 

Source: kremlin.ru

“[Russian] money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment.”

 

On the 19th of June, the Martens Centre and the Free Russia Foundation held a report launch on the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West. It is a timely publication, with the recent readmission of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s decision to begin judicial proceedings against named individuals over MH17.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to read Misrule of Law without feeling compelled to act. The report is structured in two sections: the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West, and Russian manipulation of Western policy. Reading the first section, it is psychologically easy to forget that this is non-fiction. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything will be fine right up until the point that it is not. Even then we convince ourselves things will return to normal. It is this phenomenon – normalcy bias – that contributes to plane crash survivors sitting in their seats while fire burns around them.

The human mind wants to believe that these detailed discussions of Kremlin interference are tales of intrigue featuring money-laundering and the mafia. They are, however, all too real. The Russian state has systematically manipulated Western institutions and systems in order to protect its interests. A dedicated Spanish prosecutor spent years investigating the Russian mafia. He produced nearly 500 pages of information on suspected criminal activity by Russian officials. He also faced serious personal risk, only for the Kremlin to protect crime lords from extradition and the National Criminal Court to acquit those who were tried for suspected mafia ties. The Court’s reasoning was that there was ‘insufficient proof’ of their investments in Spain being linked to organised crime. Money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment. In reality, the dockyards fell into avoidable bankruptcy due to money laundering – but not before local and federal German governments had obtained loans worth €240million to support the project.

The argument for Russia’s reinstatement to PACE is that the Council of Europe can constrain Russian behaviour. This is particularly hard to square with the Yukos case. Russia cooperated with an independent international arbitral tribunal and disavowed the whole process when it did not go their way. There is no reason to believe the Kremlin would treat civil society related judgments any differently. The former shareholders of Yukos (who were awarded billions of dollars in compensation for the company’s expropriation) attempted to attach Russian non-diplomatic assets abroad, which led to Russian threats against France and Belgium. Both countries reformed their national laws to, essentially, give Putin a veto over whether creditors could seize Russian property on their territories.

What makes the report so compelling is that these are not even its most concerning cases. Russian front organisation ‘think tanks’ participate in promoting the Kremlin’s narrative abroad. It is well-known that Russia Today and Sputnik are two of the chief producers of disinformation. Misrule of Law’s contribution is to warn its audience that Russian links to populist governments in Europe have reached incredibly worrying levels. Hungary, in particular, has seen its backsliding on democracy and the rule of law accompanied by extensive rapprochement with Russia. It appears to keep the EU/NATO line, but maintains strong bilateral relations with Russia. They jointly identified which GRU officer the Hungarians could expel to be seen to act after the Skripal attack. Italy and Austria retain stronger checks and balances that have prevented them from going that far down the same path, but the seriousness of compromised security and home affairs agencies in EU and/or NATO member states cannot be overstated.

To select a final, particularly worrying trend in relation to the Skripal case: “Whitehall observed a 4,000 percent uptick in pro-Russian propaganda since the abortive assassination, most of it coming from unmanned algorithms or ‘bots’, although other prominent peddlers of disinformation were all-too-real people who’d previously rushed to [the] Kremlin’s defense on Syrian chemical weapons use or MH17 or the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers.” [Misrule of Law, p100]. In other words, the extent of Russian manipulation of the Western debate is such that ordinary people are willing to spread the Kremlin’s narrative: even when it involves accusing the United Kingdom of carrying out the attack to stoke anti-Russian sentiment. Indeed, this echoes the Kremlin’s strategy in the Baltic states to attempt to generate a sense of grievance among ethnic Russians.

That is the key takeaway message from the report. The rights, freedoms and institutions the West holds dear are being used against it by the Kremlin. Not only that, but Western states repeatedly allow it to happen. To revisit the plane crash metaphor, the report’s authors are the flight crew shouting at frozen passengers to get up and act to save themselves. The PACE vote is an example of exactly what not to do. It is not impossible to counteract the Kremlin’s actions, but recognition of the issue is only the first step. It requires continual and repeated commitment to enforcing sanctions and the rule of law. Most importantly, it requires recognition that we can only protect and promote European values if we are willing to stand up for them even when it is politically and financially inconvenient.

Albania’s European Path

  • June 2019
  • Flamur Gruda

Albania’s European Path

Progress being made in strengthening the rule of law, yet the EU is seeking more

 

Source: Pixabay

 

 

Would you rather have a constitutional court that is filled with corrupt judges, or a court that is composed of vetted and trusted officials?  This is the dilemma that Albania faces, on top of the prospect of starting membership talks for EU accession.

 

Albania is a young democracy: its transition from a communist state occurred during the early 90s. The transition to a free market economy and a fully-fledged democracy has been difficult yet promising for the Albanians. The European Union (EU) officially recognized Albania as a potential candidate country to the Union in 2000. In 2009, the Council of the EU asked the European Commission to start an assessment on possible membership. On June 23, 2014, Albania was granted candidate status. In 2018, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission gave a positive assessment for Albania to start full membership negotiations.

 

The Council of the EU, however, did not want to proceed with the negotiations. Notably, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands preferred to wait until June 2019. They hoped to see Tirana implement further reforms – including judicial reform, and especially the fight against organised crime and corruption.

 

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the European Parliament held a conference hosted by MEP Knut Fleckenstein, the EP’s standing rapporteur on Albania.

This conference reminded the relevant stakeholders that Albania had made progress towards integration in justice reform, combatting organised crime, and overall, had seen improvement on the rule of law.

 

Albanian Interior Minister of Albania Sander Lleshaj, Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Artemis Malo, and the Minister of Justice, Etilda Gjonaj, were invited to demonstrate the progress and improvements that the Albanian government had undertaken in order to allow for accession talks to begin.

 

 

What does Tirana have to say about its progress?

Some important steps have been taken by Albania in order to strengthen justice reforms and to consolidate an independent and impartial system.

 

Albania was a known cannabis producer and exporter. In 2016 alone, according to Minister Malo, more than 500,000 plants were seized by Albanian authorities. Albanian special forces, with Italian assistance, have been able to reduce those figures drastically. By 2018, Albanian and Italian surveillance found evidence of only 750 remaining plants to be seized. This represents a dramatic improvement and the success of the observation missions.

FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has launched its first ever deployment outside of an EU member state in Albania. This also represents a strengthening cooperation between Albanian and EU authorities.  Minister Lleshaj highlighted that Albanian authorities stopped more than 20,000 people from crossing the border illegally last year, and this is seen as positive not only for Albania but also for the EU, as migration flows are being halted.

Albanian citizens show very high approval rates in social surveys regarding perception of the EU and willingness to integrate. According to Minister Malo, almost 93% of Albanian citizens support further integration and membership into the EU. This is particularly striking compared to other countries in the region, such as Bosnia and Serbia.

With regard to foreign policy alignment with the EU acquis, Albania has been 100% aligned with EU foreign policy positions. This is staggering when compared to current candidate member Serbia, which is only 51.8% aligned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minister of Justice Etilda Gjonaj; Photo: PS Alb 2019 

 

CFEP: What are the main conditions to ensure accountability and transparency when it comes to the vetting process in the judicial system?

Minister Gjonaj: There are two main levels of transparency, firstly the vetting process has the same jurisdiction as the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court of Albania. If an appeal is needed, then it can go to the ECHR, the European Court of Human Rights for validation. The second mechanism is entrenched in the Albanian Constitution through the IMO (International Monitoring Operation). It is responsible to verify the candidates to make sure they meet all of the requirements. The Ombudsperson is also responsible to verify the criteria.

Albania is also the only country that has been required to have a judicial monitoring program like the IMO from the European Commission.

 The main aim of the vetting process is to guarantee the functioning of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Albania

The vetting process Albania is currently undertaking involves three criteria:

  • Inspection of Assets: all judges and prosecutors in duty are obliged to fill out and deliver an official declaration of assets and all relevant documents justifying their authenticity and lawfulness
  • Background Information: to verify whether the person in question has (or has had) inappropriate contacts with persons involved in organised crime. Intelligence agencies will be responsible for helping the vetting bodies undertake this assessment
  • Proficiency Assessment: to evaluate if the vetting subjects have performed their ethical and professional activities in compliance with the legislation in force. Starting from January 1st, 2006 for subjects who have had more than 3 years of professional experience or, for those with less than 3 years of experience, from the moment in which they started their mandate.

 

 

Albania has undertaken comprehensive justice reforms, such as the vetting process mentioned above, which initially benefited from assistance by the US State Department, the FBI, and the European Commission. The vetting process has been put in place in order to ensure transparency and build trust in the judicial system. Out of a potential 800 candidates, judges and prosecutors, around 148 have gone through the vetting process. To date 118 public officials have been dismissed and another 36 cases are under investigation. This proves that the vetting process is actually working, although slowly. The Albanian government has also doubled the salaries of judges and prosecutors in the justice system to incentivise justice officials to carry out honest and sincere work. Nowadays, justice officials are paid some of the highest salaries in the country. Minister Gjonaj stated that Albania does have the political will to implement justice reforms, as demonstrated through the vetting process.

 

“The implementation of the justice reforms is about sustainability in the long run, and also for the greater benefit of the Albanian citizens, regardless of whether Albania receives an opening date for accession talks this June, or at a later time”, said Minister Gjonaj.

 

One of the main sticking points for Albania has been the nomination of Constitutional Court Judges. Currently there is only one sitting judge that has been able to pass the vetting procedures. All eight other remaining seats are vacant, and this has created a constitutional crisis. Minister Gjonaj said that the vetting procedure would take some time and they are hopeful that the vacancies will be filled by July of this year. Albania is currently moving towards a more transparent judicial system and a high degree of accountability. However, they remain in the transition phase, which is inherently time consuming.

 

 

Has enough progress been made for the Council to give Albania the green light?

 

Both the European Parliament and the European Commission expressed a positive opinion towards Albania’s accession talks in both 2018, and the new report in 2019.

 

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has urged EU members to start the negotiation process with Albania and North Macedonia without further delay. President Juncker of the European Commission has stated: “Albania made considerable progress on this road towards the EU. This is a testament of a determination and strength of the Albanian people”. Juncker also added that “any decision on the opening of the negotiation is based on merit and tangible results in the necessary areas, adding that for the European Commission based on an objective assessment Albania is ready for the next step.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edi Rama & Jean-Claude Juncker; Photo: European Union 2019

 

 

The decision now rests with Member States in the Council. The Dutch Parliament voted 105 out of 150 against the opening of accession talks with Albania. The Dutch Parliament has voted to deploy the ‘ Emergency Brake Mechanism‘ because of concerns about rising criminal activity by Albanian nationals in the country. They passed a motion asking the Dutch government to request that the Commission launches the visa waiver suspension mechanism. This could potentially lead to a suspension of Albanians’ Schengen travel rights.

 

The Albanian government has been working to alleviate the concerns of the Netherlands and the other member states, with respect to combatting organized crime. The progress against organized crime is highlighted throughout High Representative Federica Mogherini’s Report for the Council, and so this is clearly a top priority for the EU.

Inviting Albania into the negotiating process may create an impetus for reforms, which could in turn increase the level of accountability for the state structures.

 

Many challenges still remain for Albania and more needs to be done in order for Albania to join the European Union. The fight against corruption, organized crime, and creating a completely independent judicial system are the main priorities for Albania. Albania has taken heed of the advice given by the Council last year. The Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, during his meeting with President Juncker, noted “the EU should act geo-strategically, geopolitically, and based on the merit of the countries. If the countries deserve it, the EU should not deny it”.

 

 

 

 

Published by: Flamur Gruda at the Centre for European Progression in Brussels

EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

Unlike for the cast of HBO’s Chernobyl, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet.

Ukrainian flag

Source: Pixabay

 

 

 

HBO’s bleak, bureaucratic miniseries Chernobyl has put Ukraine at the top of the cultural agenda. As Ukraine and the EU move into a new stage of their relationship, policymakers on both sides may well empathise with the series’ characters who cooperate to overcome inertia.

 

Indeed, EU-Ukrainian cooperation has been marked by division in recent times. In the economic sphere, European farmers have turned their ire on a Ukrainian chicken breast exporter exploiting a loophole in the EU-Ukraine trade deal. Out of the EU’s desire to preserve a key tool of Ukraine’s European alignment, the resulting agreement largely benefited Ukraine. Members of the European Parliament may provide serious resistance in passing the deal.

Recent elections both in Ukraine and in the EU have given both sides an impetus to reboot their efforts. Although concerns have been raised about newly elected President Zelensky’s populism, it is not the same kind of populism we see in the European Union. Zelensky, for one, is not a pro-Kremlin figure. Putin’s understanding of that fact underlined his offer of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region. A pro-EU and pro-NATO Russophone politician undermines Russia’s narrative that Ukrainian Russophones are loyal to Russia.

 

Zelensky’s political party is ahead in the polls by a substantial margin, before the Parliamentary election in Ukraine scheduled for 21 July. He can expect to have a strong parliamentary majority for reform ahead of the new European Commission coming into office. On the EU’s part, the feared populist revolution failed to materialise. Russia would have enjoyed the emergence of a populist bloc in the European Parliament, large enough to hamstring the EU’s action. In its absence, Ukraine and the EU are free to continue deepening their relationship.

 

This will not be an easy journey. The EU last assessed the implementation of the Association Agreement in November 2018. It noted that progress was being made, particularly in public services – pensions, healthcare and education. Energy is a key area of focus for both sides. Indeed, the Ukrainian Parliament recently ratified amendments to the Association Agreement, laying the groundwork for Ukraine’s integration into the European energy market. The spectre of Nord Stream 2 hangs over these discussions. It has been referred to as ‘Ukraine’s worst nightmare’, and sends conflicting messages about European commitment to energy security and Ukrainian economic development.

 

In addition, reform itself is a difficult path to tread. Challenges persist in anti-corruption measures, economic stabilisation, and the continued conflict and destabilisation efforts by Russia.

 

The Ukrainian public (excluding the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), according to February 2019 polling from the Razumkov Centre, has a negative attitude to the ongoing series of reforms: land, healthcare, pensions, education, judicial reforms, as well as the mass privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The poll also highlighted brain drain from Ukraine as a threat, calling for discussions on partial reimbursement for education spending on emigrants.

 

However, unlike for Chernobyl‘s cast, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet. Global Skills Partnerships are gaining traction in European policy circles to share the benefits of migration between destination and origin countries. For example: two Ukrainians would train at home. One would choose to stay and the other to migrate to the EU. An EU organisation in need of their skills would pay for the migrating student’s training in full, and also pay for half of the remaining student’s. The migrant worker would then commit to work for that organisation for a period of time and pay off the training costs with a fraction of their salary. Both countries gain highly-skilled employees, while their governments do not bear any of the cost – helping to tackle the ‘brain drain’ problem.

Although Ukrainians may have a negative perception of Association Agreement reforms, they remain positive about the European path as a whole. Data from the International Republican Institute, Sociological Group Rating and GfK demonstrate this. When Ukrainians[1] were asked to choose between joining the EU or a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, support for the EU fluctuated between 30 and 40% from November 2011 to February 2014. In March 2014, support for joining the EU shot up to 52% and has had majority backing ever since. Support for the Customs Union has become a minority opinion. The presidential elections have not changed this – support for joining the EU was 57% in May 2019. NATO accession has also gained some popularity after Russian military action on Ukrainian territory began. In May 2019, 49% of Ukrainians stated they would support joining NATO in a referendum.

Support for joining the EU finds majority backing among supporters of all Ukrainian political parties with the potential to win parliamentary seats, bar the pro-Russia Opposition Platform. The picture is similar for NATO. It wins majority support across most party supporters, a plurality among Zelensky’s party supporters, and strong opposition from the Opposition Platform. Although it will not be a straightforward journey, it is one that voters in Ukraine across the political spectrum remain committed to.

 

Overall, the convergence of Ukrainian and EU electoral cycles provides a window of opportunity for both sides to recommit to their cooperation. On the Ukrainian side, the government must use this impetus to continue with structural reform and anti-corruption measures while working with the EU to alleviate citizen concerns. The EU should remain a strong backer of Ukraine’s European pathway and resist the temptation of rapprochement with Russia.

[1] Figures from after April 2014 exclude Crimea. Figures from after September 2014 exclude occupied Donbas.

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