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Tag: European Enlargement

Everyday I Love You Less and Less: Here’s what you missed at our Western Balkans event

  • December 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

 

 

The Centre for European Progression held a panel discussion on Monday 9th December entitled The EU and the Western Balkans – An End of a Romance? Our panellists shared some vital insights for the future of the EU and for the Western Balkans.

 

CFEP’s CEO István Szekeres began the event with a brief introduction to the topic.

 

The first speaker was one of the few MEPs to hold a Serbian passport, Andor Deli MEP (EPP), a dual national of Hungary and Serbia. For him, the EU accession of the Western Balkan states is personal. He knows people who have been waiting two decades to become part of the European Union.  He spent his younger years in Vojvodina, Northern Serbia, which were marked by travel bans, embargoes, and NATO bombing. These experiences make him want integration even more.

 

For Mr Deli, keeping Serbia on the European path is essential, but the pace of the process is too slow. The October veto has also led to a loss of trust between the EU and the Western Balkan states. However, he sees a chance for a reset and rebuilding of trust with the new Commission. The Western Balkans can serve as a litmus test. If Member States can reach an agreement on that, they may yet be able to tackle thorny policy problems in other areas.

 

Andreas Schieder MEP (S&D), the Chair of the Delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, spoke next. Before becoming an MEP, he was the Chair of the Austrian-Serbian Parliamentary Delegation. For Mr Schieder, the Balkan states are part of Europe and, by extension, should be part of the EU. He believes that the Balkan states must work with other countries to solve their regional problems. In that regard, North Macedonia fulfilled all the conditions. The promise that Western Balkan countries will be rewarded for solving tricky issues no longer works after Macron’s veto.

 

The whole European Parliament, possibly bar the Identity and Democracy group, supported accession talks. Mr Schieder met North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on the same day they found out the answer was No. He learned there is a risk of nationalist grievance-based resurgence surrounding the name change.  After the EU’s decision, early elections in North Macedonia will take place at the end of April. At this point, Mr Schieder noted there was a chance to approve the talks in a March summit. For him, as the talks do not begin immediately, it is possible to reform the enlargement process (as Macron suggested) and open accession talks at once.

 

Alexandra Stiglmayer, of the European Stability Initiative think tank, was the third speaker. She presented a variety of statistics on the Western Balkans and discussed several problems with the accession process. The first was its lengthy nature, which results in painful reforms for a distant future benefit. Another problem relates to the EU institutions. There are over 70 veto possibilities. Member States have to approve progress at each stage (application, official candidacy, negotiations). These vetoes often have little to do with the country’s actions, but with domestic views on enlargement.

 

She also noted that even if certain countries are ahead in the accession process, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their readiness to join the EU. North Macedonia, which has not yet begun negotiations, is ahead of Serbia in Commission assessments. Secondly, Commission reports are also vague and lack concrete details which could guide foreign investors or NGOs. Thirdly, she added that these countries lag far behind the EU average and do not get much help to catch up.

 

She noted the Commission often argues that the Western Balkans do not have the absorption capacity to spend their allocated EU funding. Romania and Slovenia do not spend their entire allocation either, and yet they have seen dramatic improvement. Committed governments, such as North Macedonia, would make use of the money. The monitoring mechanism also needs reforms to include merit-based and detailed key requirements. These would aid comparison between states and remove the potential for political vetoes. Her third, and final, proposal involves pre-accession single market access. This would involve the implementation of 60-70% of the acquis. It could also motivate politicians who otherwise think in electoral cycles.

 

Dr Isabelle Ioannides, a Senior Associate Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, was the final speaker. She was cautiously optimistic about the chances of enlargement to the Western Balkans. It was not just any Member State that blocked the talks: it was France, which holds big sway at EU level and whose preferences cannot be overlooked. However, she noted that experts have had long-term concerns about enlargement policy and that there is a case for reform. These include ineffective development conditionality, double standards, and poor performance in Common Security and Defence Policy missions.

 

The risk, according to Dr Ioannides, is coupling enlargement reform to internal reforms. This could potentially push enlargement off the agenda. Shared responsibility is needed: willingness from below and pressure from above. She remained optimistic as a result of the continued pro-European and pro-enlargement majority in the European Union, and the re-election of MEPs with experience on the Western Balkans. The Commission should be given a chance, although she remains concerned not just about France, but other Member States which have questioned Albania’s readiness (such as Greece). Others still are happy to hide behind France’s veto. In light of the Commission resulting from backroom manoeuvres, she wondered if it would be able to stand up to the Member States on enlargement. For Dr Ioannides, enlargement was never a romance. It is a long-term process of hard work and sacrifice. Western Balkan countries need to understand it is a road of sacrifice, and the EU needs to be more understanding of the sacrifices made.

 

Audience questions touched on Macron’s non-paper ‘Reforming the European Union accession process’, the role of non-EU states in the region, Turkey, Ukraine, and, finally, the future of the region in 2030. Dr Ioannides did not think any of the Western Balkan countries would be members by that date. Ms Stiglmayer was more optimistic, perhaps seeing North Macedonia and Montenegro as members by 2030. For Mr Schieder, 2040 was a more realistic time schedule. By contrast, Mr Deli felt something had to happen by 2030 for the enlargement policy to remain workable.

 

The region’s future may be uncertain, but what is certain is that the EU-Western Balkans debates are here to stay – whether the Member States like it or not.

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Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

Source: Pexels

France’s short term political calculations store up serious trouble for the future of Europe

 

Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a ‘geopolitical Commission’ while setting out her future objectives. Emmanuel Macron may have just killed that vision off before her Commission even begins. His decision to block starting the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania makes it difficult to take the EU seriously as a foreign policy actor in its own right.

In terms of foreign policy, there are two main schools of thought: the liberal internationalist school, and the realist school. A simplified explanation of the difference is that realism is about the importance of state power and interests above all else, liberal internationalism highlights compromise and cooperation as an alternative to pure power politics. Whichever theory you subscribe to, Macron’s action is damaging.

Firstly, liberal internationalism. The EU itself is a key example of this theory: states fight for their different interests in meeting rooms instead of battlefields. For many European states emerging from authoritarian governance, the fledgling European project meant peace, democracy, and prosperity. That is still the case today, with aspiring members having seen the EU’s transformative effect and so willingly making sacrifices and reforms to join the club. North Macedonia and Albania have made radical, dramatic changes to reach this point: the former even changed its name, and the latter has agreed to have all its judges vetted by an independent panel. Both states have normalised their relations with other countries in the region, which is of paramount importance in the Balkans, the “powder keg” of Europe.  As of yet, they have little to show for it.

 

Rewarding other states for ‘good behaviour’ only works if they believe the rewards will materialise. If you are promised cake as a child for doing your chores well and then the cake never comes, why would you keep making the effort? More importantly, your parents would not be able to convince you with incentives ever again. Macron’s decision does not just alienate North Macedonia and Albania. He has also signalled to every other country in the enlargement procedure that their reform efforts may have been in vain. Partners beyond the Western Balkans also have no way of knowing whether any commitments made will survive contact with the Council. Macron has not just seriously jeopardised the EU’s enlargement strategy: he has dealt a blow to the concept of liberal internationalism as a whole. For the  Balkans, that means a potential resurgence of nationalist forces. North Macedonia’s rescheduled elections could end up being the canary in the coal mine. For the EU, that means a serious loss of credibility overall. Liberal internationalism is its lifeblood, and if that theory cannot bear fruit in the real world, the EU cannot be an effective international actor.

From a realist perspective, perhaps France has its own interests that would make such a risk worth it. When questioned by Euractiv, Macron’s close ally Natalie Loiseau MEP cited concerns about Brexit and the resulting EU budgetary gap as needing to be resolved before opening enlargement processes, but claimed that France was still committed to closer relations with the Western Balkans. Unofficially, their motivation lies in the fear of public opposition to enlargement, and an attempt to secure compromise from Germany on other EU-related files. Franco-German transactional deals are a key example of how persistent power politics can be. Although France may have legitimate problems with the enlargement process, reforms could be enacted even when North Macedonia and Albania are in the process of their accession negotiations. In reality, France is seeking a figleaf to cover its naked indulgence in power politics.

However, it’s not just the existing members of the EU who may be drawn to the allure of power politics. Serbia, which has already been drifting off the European path, has taken this latest decision as vindication of that move. President Vucic’s statement to the FT that “We need to take care of ourselves. That’s the only way, that’s the only approach. Everything else would be very irresponsible[.]” is the epitome of power politics. For the Western Balkans, “caring for themselves” involves decisions that will drastically undermine EU influence in the region.

This is where Von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical Commission’ will run into difficulties. Geopolitically, the EU is not the only fish in the sea. There are other places that Western Balkan states can look, as they grow frustrated with unmet promises. China, and its Belt and Road initiative, is only too happy to step into the economic investment gap left by the EU. Again, it is  not only EU foreign policy and enlargement goals that have been sacrificed at the altar of French power plays. China just provides finance without the conditions: it will happily fund energy and transport projects, some of them environmentally damaging, while the EU tries to push in the opposite direction. Turkey is eyeing the region, building its influence not only with the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians, but also the key player in the Balkans, Serbia. Russia – as usual – will react to such developments with thinly disguised glee. Ending the presumption that all roads lead to Europe is Moscow’s key Western Balkan policy aim. It seeks to become one of several ‘managers’ in the region, and so will happily take advantage of the EU’s lack of political will.

What may have seemed like an effective political strategy for France in the short-term will come back to bite it in the future. Even if it ends up securing the internal reforms it has demanded, it will have done so at great cost externally. The EU will face a loss of credibility, and a loss of stability in its neighbourhood. Any future promises it makes to countries in the Western Balkans would be met with a simple “Thank you, but we know the French will sabotage us in the end – we will stick with our reliable new partners in Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara.”

 

It is not France who faces the brunt of the consequences of its actions. The people of the Western Balkans will be put at risk by resurgent nationalism, and the European project will be blamed for failing to meet citizen demands. Together, those two risks are the potential sparks for the next big crisis.

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Uncertainty for North Macedonia

  • July 2019
  • Flamur Gruda

Uncertainty for North Macedonia

 

Disappointment in North Macedonia, which had hoped that its historic agreement with Greece and the friendship treaty with Bulgaria would be rewarded with EU accession talks.

 

Source: Pixabay

 

North Macedonia made a key, meaningful advance towards EU accession by resolving a 27-year-long dispute with Greece over its name. The “Prespa” agreement of June 2018 opened a path to NATO and EU membership talks, which had previously been blocked by Greece.

 

The Western Balkans expected to get the green light to progress their accession ambitions from the EU in June 2019. In reality, the Council of the European Union decided to postpone the decision on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Instead, they decided to reassess the matter in October, with no guarantees. The two aspiring nations may find this a bitter pill to swallow, having been promised accession talks in exchange for undertaking reforms.

The leadership in North Macedonia currently possesses a slim majority in parliament, comprised of both Macedonian and Albanian political parties. One third of North Macedonia’s population belongs to the Albanian minority. The coalition, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Social-Democratic Union, was instrumental in achieving and was able to convince Macedonian citizens of the potential benefits that come with integration. To resolve the name dispute with Greece, Skopje agreed to change the country’s constitution, including the country’s name, despite polls and an invalid referendum reflecting a divided society on the issue.

As well as the historic Prespa agreement with Greece, North Macedonia also signed a friendship treaty with neighbouring Bulgaria in 2017.

Nikolaos Tzifakis, an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Peloponnese, warned that the credibility of EU accession conditionality would be “seriously undermined” if the Council delayed its decision until October. He added that it would “also weaken the legitimacy of Zaev’s coalition government in Skopje that has undertaken considerable political cost with the implementation of the Prespa Agreement.”

External actors in the region like Russia, China, and Turkey could benefit from the political atmosphere and the inaction of the Council to start the accession talks. China, for example, has already begun to implement the ‘Balkan Silk Road’ plan and is currently developing projects in Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and potentially North Macedonia. The plan involves developing ports, roads, railways and other transportation infrastructure in the region, from loans that state owned Chinese banks offer to governments, and carried out largely by Chinese construction companies that seek opportunities to expand into European markets.

In North Macedonia, China is interested in constructing the Kicevo-Ohrid and the Miladinovci-Stip motorways.

In the absence of A bold attempt to engage with the countries in the Western-Balkans, the EU risks an increase in nationalist sentiments in the region. In case the Council does not give a green light in October to start the accession talks, the pro-Western coalition government in North Macedonia could weaken, derailing the slight progress already made.

In the event of failure to maintain the possibility of the region’s eventual EU integration, two other Western-Balkan countries that are now awaiting their candidate status might also become politically unstable. Namely, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which both saw bloody civil wars in the 90s. This would also send a negative message to the other countries that already started the accession negotiations, Montenegro and Serbia (not to mention the already alienated Turkey).

 

 

Written by: Flamur Gruda at the Centre for European Progression

 

 

 

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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

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