EC calls on candidate countries to focus on fundamental reforms before they can join the EU
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EC calls on candidate countries to focus on fundamental reforms before they can join the EU

Olivér Várhely, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, presenting the 2021 Enlargement Package, 19 October, credit: EU

The European Commission adopted yesterday its 2021 Enlargement Package, providing a detailed assessment of the state of play and the progress made by the Western Balkans and Turkey on their respective paths towards the EU.

The package consists of specific country reports on each candidate country – Turkey and the six candidate countries in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) – and a Communication which summaries EU’s enlargement policy and the findings and recommendations per country.

The package follows the recent EU-Western Balkans summit hosted by the Slovenian presidency. The summit resulted in a political declaration where the EU outlined the conditions for membership and its expectations of the Western Balkans countries. The European perspective and the enlargement process were mentioned in the declaration and have been guiding the Enlargement package.

But now like during the summit, if the Western Balkans countries had hoped to be given a time line and date for when they can join the EU, their hopes were dashed. Basically, they are told to continue implementing fundamental reforms and are given guidance on their priorities ahead.

Judging by an annex in the Communication on indicators – related to the status of democracy, good governance and the rule of law in the candidate countries – this should not come as a surprise to them. According to the indicators, aggregated by international expert organisations, they are all scored as “transitional or hybrid regimes” and “partly free”.

As regards press freedom, rule of law, good governance and the fight against corruption, they are lagging far behind the EU member states.

Turkey finds itself in a special category since the reform process in the country has been backsliding for years and the accession process has effectively come to a standstill and been suspended. EU, however, continues to regard Turkey as a key partner in several areas of joint interest, not the least migration, and is interested in dialogue and cooperation with the country.

For that to be fruitful, EU calls for a sustained de-escalation of Turkey’s hostile activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and for its support to a fair, comprehensive and viable settlement of the Cyprus issue.

“We have to maintain a credible enlargement process,” commented Josep Borrel, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

“This is a two-way street: The new methodology is a merit-based approach. It puts a stronger focus on fundamental reforms, such as rule of law, fundamental freedoms, economy and functioning of democratic institutions. Our partners need to address them, in the interest of their citizens and to advance on the EU path. And they need put aside their differences.”

The Commission admits that the delays in the official launch of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia are having a negative impact on the credibility of the EU. The intention still is to start the negotiations by the end of this year, provided that the bilateral issues between Bulgaria and North Macedonia can be resolved by then.

“Pending bilateral issues between Bulgaria and North Macedonia need to be resolved as a matter of priority,” the Commission underlined. “It is crucial that EU member states conclude the discussions on the Negotiating Frameworks without further delay and that the first intergovernmental conferences with both countries are held as soon as possible and before the end of this year.”

Asked at the press conference what the Commission will do to resolve the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria so that accession negotiations can start in time, Olivér Várhely, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, replied that he is engaged with both parties and has met their leaders.

“On that basis, I hope that we can find a solution so that the Council will give the green light to starting the negotiations,” he said, without going into any details about what solution he has in mind. The country report refers to the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation, signed by the two countries in 2017. It has led to several meetings between the parties but still needs to be implemented in full.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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