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    Enlargement package: business as usual?

    Commissioner Johannes Hahn presenting the enlargement package

    The European Commission adopted last week (9 November) its annual enlargement package of country reports on the candidate countries and its enlargement policy or strategy. The reports assess where the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey stand in implementing key political and economic reforms, and what needs to be done to address the remaining challenges before they can join the European Union.

    The reports were in the past called progress reports since they dealt with to what extent the countries had made any progress in preparing themselves for EU membership. They still do but the reports nowadays avoid any political assessments. In 2015, the Commission introduced a number of changes to the reporting methodology. The aim was to improve the assessments as well as the usability of the package as a source of information and guidance for all stakeholders.

    What has not changed is a feeling of déjà vu. This year’s reports repeat more or less the same problems and challenges as in previous reports and all candidate countries are far away from being ready to become member states. The enlargement process goes back and forth, with setbacks and only limited progress in key areas such as the rule of law, democracy, public administration reform, freedom of expression and the fight against corruption.

    In fact, there has been considerable backsliding in the path towards EU, especially in Turkey during the state of emergency which entered into force after the failed military coup in July, but also in some countries in the Western Balkans where the parliament has been boycotted by the opposition parties and a divisive political culture remains. It can be questioned whether these countries meet basic political criteria for continuing or starting accession negotiations.

    But the negative development did not deter the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, from expressing some optimism when he presented the Enlargement Package, a least as regards Western Balkans:

    The prospect of EU membership continues to drive transformation and anchor stability in the countries of Southeast Europe, and a credible enlargement process remains an irreplaceable tool to strengthen these countries and help them carry out political and economic reforms.” Giventhe complex nature of the necessary reforms, it is a long-term process and structural shortcomings persist, notably in the key areas of rule of law and the economy”, the Commission states.

    Hahn continued. “Today we reiterate the EU’s continued support for these efforts and call on the governments of the enlargement countries to embrace the necessary reforms more actively and truly make this their political agenda – not because the EU is asking for it, but because it is in the best interest of their citizens, and Europe as a whole”.

    Western Balkans countries are moving forward

    It remains to be seen if Hahn’s words will encourage the candidate countries to continue on the reform path or fall on deaf ears. In Western Balkans, some progress has been made during the last year and the countries need to build on that and use the momentum to implement new legislation, meet remaining benchmarks and overcome political crises.

    The Commission lauds the elections in Serbia (last April) and Montenegro (last October), the only Western Balkans countries where formal accession negotiations have started. In Montenegro the parliamentary elections were conducted under a revised legal framework and a voter turnout of 73 %. Serbia held elections at national, provincial and local levels in a calm atmosphere.

    Negotiations might also start with other countries in the region. The Commission recommends that member states consider opening accession negotiations with Albania, this subject to credible and tangible progress in the implementation of the judicial reform that was recently adopted by the parliament.

    The Commission is also prepared to extend its recommendation from 2009 to open accession negotiations with Macedonia. This shall, however, be conditional on progress with overcoming the political crisis in the country, notably the holding of credible parliamentary elections, scheduled for December this year, and progress in the implementation of reform priorities. Negotiations have been blocked by Greece because of the name issue but in recent years the obstacles were self-inflicted.

    Bosnia and Herzegovina has delivered on the priorities stemming from its reform process. On this basis, the Council has tasked the Commission to prepare an opinion on its membership application, a first important step in the accession process that may lead to a recommendation to start negotiations.

    Kosovo has also taken some major steps in its relations with EU. In April 2016, the EU-Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) entered into force. It also only needs to meet two remaining benchmarks to finalize the visa liberalisation roadmap: to ratify a border agreement with Montenegro and continue to strengthen its track record in the fight against organised crime and corruption.

    Turkey is moving away from EU

    Hahn was very candid about Turkey: “We are gravely concerned about the degradation of the rule of law and democracy unfolding in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. In its own interest, Turkey urgently needs to stop moving away from the EU.”  

    Talking to the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Commissioner added that it is Turkey that has chosen to move away from the EU. “We are measuring Turkey against the highest standards because it’s a candidate country. The ball is now in the Turkish court. They must say what they want.”

    On the positive side, the Commission underlines that Turkey remains a key partner for the European Union. It also highlights the close and constructive cooperation, until now, with Turkey to end irregular immigration to EU. The Commission also understands that “given the seriousness of the threat against the democratic institutions, a swift reaction to that threat was legitimate”.

    Nevertheless, “the broad scale and collective nature of measures taken since the coup attempt raise a number of very serious questions.” EU has called on the Turkish authorities, “given the subsequent scale and collective nature of measures taken since the coup attempt, to observe the highest standards in respecting the rule of law and fundamental rights, in line with Turkey’s international commitments and status as a candidate country.

    Instead, the crackdown has continued since the failed coup and been broadened to pro-Kurdish and other opposition voices. The measures has affected the whole spectrum of society, with a particular impact on the judiciary, police, gendarmerie, military, civil service, local authorities, academia, teachers, lawyers, the media and the business community.

    Overall, according to the figures in the country report on Turkey, as of the end of September 2016, some 40 000 people had been detained and more than 31 000 remain under arrest, including 81 journalists. 129 000 public employees remain either suspended (66 000) or have been dismissed (63 000).

    Over 4 000 institutions and private companies were shut down, their assets seized or transferred to public institutions. Additional 10 000 civil servants were dismissed by decrees under the state of emergency at the end of October and further media outlets closed and journalists detained. 

    Besides destabilizing and polarizing Turkish society, these measures have also a negative impact on Turkey’s capacity to carry out the reforms required in the accession process. “The impact of the high number of recent dismissals on the professionalism and efficiency of the public administration remains to be assessed.”

    In view of the serious situation in Turkey, Commissioner Johannes Hahn was asked by both members of the European Parliament and journalists if not the negotiations with Turkey should be frozen or suspended.

    “We should stay in contact with Turkey,” he replied. “There are indeed concerns about the negotiations. That’s why we have prepared a thorough factual analysis of the situation in Turkey. But it’s up to the European Council to draw the political conclusions.”

    M. Apelblat

    The Brussels Times