The European Commission, in its annual reports on Western Balkan states’ progress towards EU membership, offered the prospect of candidate status for Bosnia and urged all countries to press ahead with reforms despite internal political crises.
The European Union’s executive arm offered encouragement and criticism on Wednesday to Balkan countries aspiring to membership of the bloc, holding out the prospect of candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina but criticising elements of governance in Montenegro and Albania.
The biggest news was the offer of candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the wake of general elections, conditional on a raft of reforms, including judicial amendments and a law on conflicts of interest.
“This is the offer to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it comes with big expectations,” said Olivér Várhelyi, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement.
Before opening accession talks, the country will have to fulfil numerous conditions and undergo major reforms.
It will also have to address the protection of media freedoms and the media workers, as well prosecutions for the intimidation of and attacks on journalists.
Now, it is on the politicians to follow up on this,” Várhelyi added.
Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic welcomed the Commission’s decision, describing it as “historic”, the Associated Press reported.
“This sends a strong message to the citizens [of Bosnia], one we have been hoping to get even earlier, that our future is as a member of the (EU) family,” Turkovic wrote on Twitter.
In its progress report on Montenegro, the Commission warned about the lack of political dialogue and the failure of governments and parliament to demonstrate in practice their engagement with the EU’s reform agenda.
But it welcomed some moves against organized crime. “Some key figures in organised crime groups were arrested and another record of drug seizures was reached,” the report said.
The report urged Montenegro to improve the legal framework for the protection of journalists and increase efforts to counter disinformation and limit the effects of online harassment and hate speech.
In its report on Albania, the Commission said that parliamentary life was affected by the crisis within the opposition Democratic Party. It also raised questions about the establishment of some agencies established around the prime minister’s office “without a comprehensive steering framework and without a systematic attention to oversight and reporting lines”.
It urged more work in the fight against corruption and organised crime, and also said that Brussels sees freedom of speech as a continuing issue.
“No progress was made in the reporting period. The intersection of business and political interests continued to hamper media independence and the quality of journalism,” the report said.
In its report on North Macedonia, the Commission praised the formal start of accession talks with the EU in July 2022 as a “historic moment”.
Assessing the political situation, it said that North Macedonia “continued its efforts to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, despite some challenges”.
Reflecting on the ongoing opposition blockades of parliament, the report noted that the legislature’s work was marred by “political polarisation” which had delayed the adoption of many key pieces of legislation.
On Kosovo, the report noted that the country has seen political stability but criticised parliament for not maximising the majority that the government has to approve laws.
The Commission also called on Kosovo to “constructively engage” in dialogue with Serbia and make substantial efforts to implement all the agreements reached during the course of the EU-facilitated process.
It also asked Kosovo to pursue judicial reforms, describing the sector as “slow, inefficient and vulnerable to undue influence”.
On Serbia, the Commission said that the early parliamentary elections this year resulted in a more pluralistic parliament.
But it noted that the political and media landscapes remained polarised and continued to be dominated by the Serbian Progressive Party and President Aleksandar Vucic.
“Offensive language continued to be used against political opponents, both in parliament and during the electoral campaign,” the report added.
The report noted that Serbia has made “some level of preparation” when it comes to its judicial system and in the fight against corruption and organised crime, but saw no progress in improving the situation for freedom of expression.
“Cases of threats and violence against journalists remain a concern and the overall environment for the exercise of freedom of expression without hindrance still needs to be further strengthened in practice,” it said.
It also noted that after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbia “did not align with the EU restrictive measures against Russia”.
“Serbia is expected, as a matter of priority, to fulfill its commitment and progressively align with the EU… in line with EU-Serbia negotiating framework,” it said.
In its report on Turkey, the Commission again criticised democratic backsliding in the country.
“There are serious deficiencies in the functioning of Turkey’s democratic institutions,” the report said.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also had severe effects on civil society, the report underlined.
“Serious backsliding regarding civil society issues continued. Civil society organisations faced increased pressure and their space to operate freely continued to reduce, limiting their freedoms of expression, association and assembly,” the report said.