What Future for EU Enlargement in Pandemic Times?

11th December 2020 – CEP’s programme director, Milena Lazarevic, participated in the online discussion; “What Future for EU Enlargement in Pandemic Times”? organised by the Aspen Institute. The online discussion was also participated by Florian Bieber, a professor for Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Majlinda Bregu, the Secretary-General, Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), Ambassador Susanne Schutz, the Director for South-Eastern Europe and the discussion was moderated by Adelheid Wolfl, South Eastern Europe correspondent for Der Standard, based in Sarajevo.

Excluding the devastating consequences brought on by the pandemic, there are vital political divisions in many countries in Europe and within the European Union (EU). Additionally, we have seen an ambitious German Presidency that was met with a special set of economic, political and social challenges set forth this year.

Assessing the German Presidency thus far, Ambassador Susanne Schutz, emphasised that since the presidency started on the 1st of July, Western Balkans (WB) was high on its agenda, particularly looking at the Council decision for Albania and North Macedonia to commence the negotiations for the EU membership. Thus, there have been positive measures takes regarding the EU Enlargement process in the Western Balkans, even during the pandemic.

Confronted with the possibility of a second wave, the countries in the Western Balkans have suffered a serious economic impact as can be seen by the substantial drop in GDP for many Western Balkan countries. Looking at the economic and political consequences, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera expressed that it has allowed the region and the EU to work together in an unprecedented manner. The EU has introduced the first package of €3.3 billion in April accompanied by the weekly deliveries of health protection equipment and joint procurement initiatives. Calavera also emphasized that due to there being a high possibility of a third wave, the EU has set forth a package on the 6th October, the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP), which is comprised of €9 billion donor grants funding.

Referring to and evaluating the EIP, Milena Lazarevic indicated thatthe plan is unique as it is a single portfolio that is meant for an economic long-term recovery of the region. However, Lazarevic specified that the EIP is part of the the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). Nonetheless, considering that the EIP excludes Turkey, means that the countries in the region will get a much more sizeable monetary support. Furthermore, Lazarevic expressed her doubts on whether the EIP will be enough to close the development gap in the region and the danger it might pose in attracting actors that offer loans at a much more politically convenient rate, which lures the political establishments away from the EU.

Additionally, she drew attention to the necessity of holding political leaders in the region accountable and for it to be done publicly and “not behind closed doors”. Especially this year, the annual EC report mentioned that the government is “[…] breaching its legislation”, which is a serious statement to make. Lastly, in answering the question on the issue of alignment, Lazarevic pointed out that the concern here is not only the influence of Russia, but China as well, which is why Serbia did not follow up on the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) statements.

With the endorsement of the Common Regional Market (CRM) at the Sofia Summit, Majlinda Bregu stated that the region needs to take concrete steps and move forward as one common single market, otherwise it will be impossible to have big investors approaching the region. The market reflects the post-pandemic recovery in the Balkans, that will be economically, highly beneficial. The way to succeed in the establishment of the market is on the politicians and the local stakeholders. When it comes to the short-term assistance to the region the attention will be focused on financing the public health services and ensuring the countries in the region can buy the vaccine for COVID-19. Nonetheless, according to Bregu, all the help from the EU will not be enough to close the financing gap left by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until recently, North Macedonia’s path to EU membership seemed optimistic, until Bulgaria’s VETO, which was attributed to the unresolved historical issues between the two countries. Florian Bieber said that Bulgaria’s VETO is evidence of how fragile the accession process, as it gives an example to other member states to abuse their power. If there is no change in the way the accession process is managed from the EU side delivering membership and not being blocked on multiple points, but also changing the whole perception of the EU region, which is no longer seen as merit-based. This also deflects the transformative power of the EU enlargement process. Can the creation of a WB regional market be an alternative to the EU membership? According to Bieber: “Regional cooperation is great, but it is by no means an alternative to the EU membership because all the indications are that it would economically have a nice but not a dramatic impact.”

Furthermore, he highlighted that the enlargement process is a way to fix the issues within the rule of law and democracy and if it becomes a game of waiting for 20 years in the eyes of the citizens, then it will discourage the leaders in the region to engage in serious reforms in rule of law. The issue of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue is that any permanent settlement between the two countries requires a strong incentive, which is the EU membership. However, even if the two countries agree to full normalisation of relations, it might not stop an EU member state to intervene and halt the accession process.

In conclusion, for the enlargement process to be successful, it is expected of the WB countries to exhibit cooperation, specifically in creating the regional common market- which would make the region more susceptible to much larger EU investments. Arguably, the credibility of the EU enlargement process has suffered, when looking at the case of Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The danger is that even if the membership criteria are met, the possibility of a countries’ accession being blocked is real. Moreover, the politicization between the EU and WB relations can be seen through the EU’s hesitation to publicly rebuke the countries’ democracy and rule of law problems. How will the EU move forward in returning the faith of the accession process to the citizens of the WB countries? Will the creation of the common regional market be successful? These are the questions the EU and WB countries will have to answer in the coming years.

Breaking the impasse: Exploiting new opportunities to strengthen EU-Western Balkans relations

This discussion paper argues that successful economic and democratic transformation of the Western Balkans depends not only on a more coherent political engagement of the EU and its member states with the region, but also on a more effective use of the full range of tools within the enlargement policy toolbox. The revised methodology for accession negotiations and the recently announced Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) have the potential to revive the region’s sluggish EU integration process. For these instruments to succeed, it would be essential to show that they help drive the process forward. This will only be the case if negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia are launched, i.e. the first Inter-governmental Conferences (IGCs) are held during the German presidency of the Council of the EU. In this way, the EU and its member states will show their actual commitment to the process and also likely incentivise the other countries in the region to speed up their domestic transformation processes in view of EU accession.

Download the paper here.

Breaking-the-impasse_Think-for-Europe_TEN-1

Social media created the opportunity for free expression, but at the same tame opened a space for spreading hatred and misinformation

3 December 2020 – Social media have exponentially increased opportunities for free expression, but they have also opened up new challenges. They enabled easier communication locally and globally, connected users and enabled them to promote and achieve common goals. On the other hand, social media have opened up space for the spread of hate speech and misinformation. Creating and implementing appropriate policies to address these challenges has become a topic of transnational importance.

These were some of the topics discussed at the event “Freedom of expression on the Internet –  Common Challenge for the EU and North Macedonia” which took place on December 10 through the ZOOM platform and at Europe House, organized by the European Policy Institute – Skopje. With this event, EPI also celebrated the International Human Rights Day.

Watch the video here.

The speakers on the panel discussion were Alexandar Melamed – Delegation of the European Union to North Macedonia, Mladen Chadikovski – Association of Journalists of Macedonia, Meelika Hirmo – SALTO Participation & Information Resource Center from Estonia and Elida Zylbeari –  Metamorphozis Foundation, as well as the students Darko Berovski and Jehona Palloshi. The discussion was moderated by EPIs Project Assistant, Ardita Vejseli.

The students Darko Berovski and Jehona Palloshi presented the negative and positive sides of the Internet, as conclusions from the online discussions with young people aged 18 to 24, which EPI organized and held on December 3, 2020.

Berovski presented the positive aspects of the Internet, such as access to a large amount of information that people did not know before; learning new languages; easier communication with other people around the world, something that would be impossible without the Internet; allowing small businesses to advertise their work and make it easier to get information from important events. Palloshi, on the other hand, presented the negative aspects of the Internet such as Internet addiction and the negative impact on mental health; comparing people with others which negatively affects their self-perception; misuse of personal data in various ways, spreading hate speech, virtual violence and abuse of freedom of expression; spreading political propaganda; reduced restrictions on what is posted online.

Alexandar Melamed from the Delegation of the European Union in North Macedonia pointed out that in all debates in the EU on the measures to be taken to address the problems, there was a debate on how not to violate freedom of expression through the regulation. The EU’s incentive is increasingly focused on promoting self-regulation rather than further legal regulation. He also presented the efforts and activities the EU has undertaken over the years, such as the launch of the EU Internet Forum in 2015 which provides a voluntary framework for the industry to cooperate in deleting terrorist content; signing of the Code of Conduct in 2016 with the 4 largest companies (Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube) used to delete illegal content on the Internet which violates the laws of the EU or member states;  the 2018 European Commission recommendation to help IT companies develop tools to address the challenges of freedom of expression in particular, and the EU Action Plan against disinformation, which includes a platform for a rapid alert system.

“When it comes to freedom of expression, in order to protect it as a human right, we need a comprehensive approach, we need all of us, civil society, the authorities, businesses and the IT industry to raise awareness and do its part to protect this right, as a universal right.

Mladen Chadikovski, from the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, stated that in order to raise the quality of journalism, we should work on mechanisms for self-regulation and thus control fake news on the Internet. In our country, online media are not regulated by a special law, but all their work related to the information narrative they produce is regulated by other laws, such as the Copyright Law and other laws that regulate hate speech. He also presented the database of internet portals, Promedia.mk, which meet certain standards and criteria for the way they report and work. The database is a register of online media with over 130 professional Internet sites.

“If the laws are properly applied, we will have no problem functioning with this additional self-regulation that we are promoting.”

Elida Zylbeari, from the Metamorphosis Foundation, highlighted some of the projects that this organization implements in order to reduce fake news, increase media education and critical thinking of citizens, such as CriThink and Vistinomer and noted that this “war” continues to this day because, according to her, fake news and hate speech are a threat to human rights.  Especially in times of crisis such as the coronavirus crisis, fake news that have no credible sources and are written by dubious authors who do not follow the journalistic code of ethics are dangerous to society. She also explained the methodology used to verify announcements and news. The so-called fact-checkers examine in detail from the logic of the text, the author, whether and which sources are used to the images used.

“Journalists should adhere to the principles of journalism because without those principles one cannot be a good journalist. We need to verify the facts, and emphasize the bad work of the institutions, because our weapon as journalists, but also of the citizens, is to be vocal about our rights.”

Mеelika Hirmo, from the SALTO Participation & Information Resource Center in Estonia, said that non-formal education and activism were paralleled by freedom of the media, freedom of expression and education. The key is balance and a combination of tools – understanding the reality and situation of the country because if a measure, law or regulation worked in one country, this does not mean that it will work in another country without knowing the problem and the appropriate answer. In the European context, formal and non-formal education has been shown to play a major role, but attention should also be paid to educators and teachers themselves, not just citizens and young people. Educators and teachers need to be educated to what the new issues are, what the new platforms are, and they need to know the issues well enough to contribute appropriately to greater media literacy.

“The main question is how to regulate, what to regulate and why to regulate. Because when we want to promote content that is verified, unbiased and confirmed,  Facebook rejects this content, but at the same time you can see false information still spreading around. It is a challenge when countries or social media tehmselves start to “ban” content that is balanced and does not promote hate speech. They just use key words, automatized it and this can create more problems than it solves them”

The panelists also referred to freedom of expression as a human right. It was emphasized that media and information literacy are important in a democratic society, they do not only include knowledge, but also active participation, creating content that will make an important change in society, and young people play a key role here through those skills, the realization of their right and their active participation in civil society can contribute to the development of democracy. Furthermore, more attention should be paid to the extent that states and governments regulate this area so that no further and unnecessarily restrictions can be made to free speech, especially for journalists.

The event was organized as part of the project “Make Future Together: EU and Western Balkans from  Youth Perspective”, conducted by 6 think tanks from the Western Balkans (Think for Europe Network – TEN), together with the Institute for International Affairs from Italy, The Bronislaw Geremek Foundation from Poland and the European Policy Centre (EPC) from Belgium. The project is funded by the European Commission, through the Europe for Citizens program.

Restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet: censorship or necessity

18 November 2020 – Freedom of expression on the Internet must have some limits, as does freedom of speech, said participants in today’s online panel Freedom of expression on the Internet: A common challenge for Serbia and the EU, organised by European Policy Centre (CEP).

The panel consisted of Paul-Henri Presset, Head of Information, Communication and Media at the EU Delegation to Serbia, Paul Butcher, a political analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, Viktor Marković, one of the editors of the njuz.net, Nevena Krivokapić Martinović, lawyer and coordinator for freedom of expression and online media at the SHARE Foundation,  as well as a youth representative Irina Radosavljević. The discussion was moderated by the programme manager and senior researcher at CEP, Sena Marić.

Irina Radosavljević conveyed the conclusions from the consultations with youth that CEP held the day before this event, and where it gathered 20 young people aged 16 to 24 from all over Serbia.

Most young people, she said, believe that the best solution for regulating speech on the Internet would be the formation of a new independent body specialised for regulating the problematic content on social media platforms such as hate speech and fake news and that REM (Regulatory authority for electronic media in Serbia) should be included in the work of that body. But also, parents need to be informed as much as possible on this topic, she believes.

Establishing a legal framework is something that the SHARE Foundation is also committed to. “And people should definitely be more informed about these topics, especially parents – most parents are not even aware of what is happening on social networks. Media literacy is something that should be mandatory in schools, so through that, both parents and teachers will be more aware of potential problems,” said Krivokapić Martinović. She also mentioned that the owners of large platforms are among the richest people in the world, as well as that they have enormous power to influence world events. “One of the good ways in which EU regulations have helped ordinary citizens protect themselves is the GDPR,” said Krivokapić Martinović. She added that SHARE is in favour of passing a new Law on Public Information and Media, which would recognise and thus regulate social media platforms, although they are not “media” in the traditional sense of the word.

Viktor Marković, an editor of the website which deliberately makes “fake news” and reacts to real events with satire, noted that older people are most often “victims” of fake news and that it is necessary to talk more about the problem. “I think that education is the most important thing here. Regulation by the state or an international organisation is not the solution, I think things would get worse then. The problem is that people who have no experience are ready to believe in everything, and it is necessary to educate them to check the source before they believe in something and share it further. We, for example, do not believe in any news at first glance and we always check the sources well, because several times we have reacted with satirical fake news to the news that was actually – fake,” he said.

The way people communicate on the Internet is a relatively new way of communicating and we are still not aware of all the negative sides, Presset believes.

“The European Union is working to identify problems and reduce negative practices seen online – fake news, breaches of privacy, cyberbullying…,” he said.

He also mentioned that none of these things are new – only the environment in which it takes place has changed, that is, it is no longer live.

“Article 10 of the European Declaration of Human Rights talks about restrictions on freedoms, when, for example, security is at stake. Freedom of speech, therefore, has been restricted for a long time, in a way – now we are only trying to apply that in another environment. The EU has a responsibility not to control the internet, but to protect human rights.”

Paul Butcher said that we must not forget that social media platforms have many advantages and that there is a reason why we spend so much time on them. “The question is how to establish borders – what is just humour, as in the example of njuz.net in Serbia, and what is false guidance of people.” He noted that, despite the fact that the EU encouraged the platforms to be more responsible, it did not give enough results.

“So, it is necessary to regulate the Internet with a framework in which there will be clear guidelines on what we can and cannot do. Platforms would be required to sign that document,” Butcher suggests.

“The Western Balkans and Serbia are in an even more vulnerable position than the EU, because media literacy is lower than in other parts of Europe, and the political situation is such that, unfortunately, it affects the flourishing phenomenon of fake news and the spread of misinformation, “Bucher said.

“Unfortunately, no one is immune to this phenomenon – and now, during the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen how fake news can also endanger public health, and not just affect political attitudes,” he said.

Watch the video from the event here.

This event is part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, implemented by a network of think tanks from 6 countries in the region (Think for Europe Network – TEN) together with International Affairs Institute in Rome, Bronislaw Geremek Foundation in Warsaw and European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels. The project is funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) through the Europe for Citizens program.

Are social networks actually connecting us? Youth consultations

17 November 2020 – As a part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, European Policy Centre (CEP) organised nation-wide youth consultations in order to find out the youth’s perspective on internet freedoms and regulations of online content. Throughout the two hours, the youth gave their opinions and provided significant input based on their personal experiences and attitudes.

Consultations brought together 12 motivated youth representatives, aged between 16 and 24 from different cities and municipalities in Serbia. In order to facilitate these consultations, Zoom platform was used, which allowed for the connection of this diverse group and their exchange of ideas.

Discussion began in a group setting where the participants reflected on their use of the internet and social networks. Throughout the discussion, the youth concluded that they spend majority of their time with their phone in their hands. Moreover, they realised that during the COVID-19 pandemic, they relied upon technology and the internet and their social media profiles in order to function, keep in contact with their peers and family, but also to gather important information. Therefore, three best and most important aspects when it comes to navigating the online world is the availability of information, ability to use the platforms for activism and to share one’s opinion with others. On the other hand, alongside with these positives, youth indicated the existence of several negative aspects of the internet – fake news and disinformation, data privacy, the possibility of addiction and the worrying effects on mental health.

Second part of discussion focused on finding ways and mechanisms in which these negative aspects can be mitigated and who would be entrusted with such a serious task. Results and conclusions indicated that the youth does not trust national-level institutions due to a fear that someone’s interests will be represented, rather than remaining objective and neutral. On the other hand, the participants recognized the importance of self-regulation of big social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter with their fact-checking mechanisms. Additionally, they acknowledged the importance of working on our own media literacy skills in order to mitigate the above mentioned issues. Participants recommended including civil society organizations in the system of formal and informal education and approaching the issue on a holistic level where everyone could be included – from marginalized groups, parents, states to multilateral organizations such as the European Union. One of the conclusions also indicated that a creation of an independent regulatory body for the freedom of expression on the internet could somewhat contribute to the resolution of the issues.

Irina Radosavljević, one of the participants from the consultations, earned an opportunity to present these findings obtained during the consultations at a panel filled with experts in the field. She also got the opportunity to ask important questions posed by her peers – does anyone have the power to control individual expression online and who would that be.

The second day of “Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen?”

12 November 2020 – The two-day activity of the Foreign Policy Initiative BH Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen? as a part of the project Make Future Together: The EU and the Western Balkans from Youth Perspective, which consisted of yesterday’s focus group with young people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina and today’s panel discussion that included experts and youth representatives from yesterday’s event with the goal to raise awareness of the Internet and the socio-political engagement of young people towards a wider audience, and to provide concrete solutions.

Over the last few years, the scope and use of digital tools such as social media has expanded significantly in many areas of our daily lives. One of them is the political sphere, where citizens get involved in discussions and debates and gather information about political events. The aim of the event is to explore the practices and attitude of young people on this issue, in order to determine how social media can be used as a tool to strengthen democracy. Topics discussed were internet freedom, misinformation and fake news.

Today, representatives of young people who discussed at yesterday’s event, had the opportunity to present their views, opinions and conclusions about social networks and the Internet in general, as a means for their daily activities. By talking to people who work directly in this field, such as Irhana Čajdin from Group 9 and Emir Zulejhić from the Raskrinkavanje.ba portal, they came to new insights into practices concerning young people online. Of course, on behalf of the Delegation of the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vladimir Pandurevic, Head of the Civil Society Program, EIDHR, also addressed us, emphasizing that active cooperation with young people is what makes such projects successful.

Some of the conclusions from yesterday’s discussion include “two sides of the same coin” (that is, the Internet), where young people singled out the following: positive sides include information gathering, online social activism and connecting with family and friends, whereas fake news, bad influence on the mental state of users, and hate speech depict the negative sides. In addition, young people dedicated their discussions to proposing possible solutions, highlighting the reporting of negative content, continuous education of young people, and indicating the use of beauty filters in published photos.

Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen? is a part of the project Make Future Together: The EU and the Western Balkans from Youth Perspective which is implemented by the Foreign Policy Initiative BH in cooperation with other members of the regional Think For Europe Network (TEN), the Institute for International Relations in Rome, the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation Center in Warsaw and the Centre for European Policy in Brussels. The project is funded by the European Union as a part of their Europe for Citizens program.

The first day is over – Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen?

11 November 2020 – Today, our member from Sarajevo, the Foreign Policy Initiative BH (VPI BH) held a virtual roundtable discussion with a group of young people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a part of the event: Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen?

Together with this young group of participants, we explored their practices and attitudes related to citizen involvement in discussions and debates, as well as information gathering on political developments on the Internet. In this way, we have identified ways in which social media can be used as a tool to strengthen democracies. In general, the main focus was on the topics of internet freedom, misinformation and fake news.

On the second day, young people will present their ideas and perceptions to the public, and together with experts in the field of media literacy, as well as those who work together with young people, further discuss these topics.

Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen? Is a part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, implemented by the Foreign Policy Initiative in cooperation with other members of the regional Think For Europe Network (TEN), the Institute for International Relations in Rome, the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation Center in Warsaw and the Centre for European Policy in Brussels. The project is funded by the European Union as a part of their Europe for Citizens programme.

European Commission: Montenegro Remained Average

As in the previous five years, based on the methodology of the European Commission, IA transformed the report’ assessments into numbers in order to see scores in a simpler way, and compare the situation with previous years. Although this is the first report of the new commissioner Várhelyi and his team, it does not differ significantly from the previous one.

Assessments given by Commission are: “backsliding” (1), “no progress” (2), “some/limited progress” (3), “good progress” (4) and “very good progress’’ (5). We assigned them numbers from 1-5 and got the grades that we will compare in the coming days with the grades that our neighbor-countries got, and make a regional cross-section.

New report from the European Commission (EC) shows that Montenegro continued to have moderate results in the European integration process. This year, as well as last year, we did not receive any excellent grade, but we did not receive any “backsliding” grade, which means there were no 5s and no 1s. The lack of ”fives” also explains the slowness in closing the chapters.

The average assessment for Montenegro is 3,18 – which is slightly better than last year when the total score for all chapters was 3,09. However, this grade Montenegro also had in 2016, so that after four years it has only returned to the previous level. The 3,18 score is maximum that Montenegro has ever reached since the introduction of this scoring system.

The better assessment compared to the one from last year implies from the fact that seven chapters received a very good grade this year, although, twenty-five chapters remained at the middle level, ie. 75% of chapters have a triple.

Worst of all rated chapters is Chapter 14 ,,Transport policy’’. This chapter received a lower grade than last year and it is also the only chapter of 33 that received assessment of two.

When it comes to chapters related to the rule of law, Chapter 23 is noticeably in worse position than Chapter 24. Namely, although both chapters received an average assessment three, metaphorically speaking, Chapter 23 has a weak three, and Chapter 24 a strong three score. This implies from the three sub criteria assessed in these chapters, so Chapter 23 has two assessment of “limited progress’’ and one of “no progress’’, while Chapter 24 has three ratings of “some progress’’.

Out of 25 chapters that received score three, 8 received a “weak” three and 17 a “strong” three score.

Good progress with the assessment ”four” has been noted in the following seven chapters: chapter 6 ,,Company law’’, chapter 9 ,, Financial services’’, chapter 11 ,,Agriculture and rural development’’, chapter 12 ,,Food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy’’, chapter 16 ,,Taxation’’, chapter 19 ,, Social Policy and employment’’ and chapter 25 ,,Science and Research’’.

This confirmed IA’s opinion on the worrying stagnation, especially bearing in mind that we have entered the ninth year of accession negotiations with the EU. Same problems are being rewritten from year to year, without major progress. The report is very comprehensive and in addition to a precise description of the situation, a qualitative analysis of the problem, it contains clear guidelines and recommendations that the new government should adhere to very strictly, if we want the next report to be better.

 

EVENT: Common Regional Market for the Western Balkans – a road to a genuinely integrated region

📅 Wednesday, 4 November 2020

⏲️ 10.00 – 11.30

Deeper economic integration of the region seems indispensable for the Western Balkans to recover from the COVID-19 crises, become more competitive on the global market and attract foreign investments. Some estimates say that regional economic integration in the Western Balkans could generate up to 2.5% of GDP growth should the level of integration reach the level of EFTA, and even 6.7% of GDP growth, if it reaches the EU level of integration. Building on the successes of the Regional Economic Area, the Common Regional Market aims to connect the Western Balkans’ economies through free movement of people, goods, services and capital; create regional digital, industrial, investment and innovation space, and green agenda. As such, it would further align the region with the EU’s single market rules and instigate the region’s authorities to engage in comprehensive regional cooperation.

In light of the expected endorsement of the Common Regional Market by the leaders of the EU and the Western Balkans at the November 10th Summit in Sofia, this panel discission aims to bring together the experts from the Regional Cooperation Council with the region’s civil society in an open discussion about the way forward towards the Common Regional Market.

To take part in these consultations, please register here. Only registered participants will receive a link for the event!

AGENDA:

AGENDA:

10.00-10.05 Welcome note – Dr. Simonida Kacarska, Director, European Policy Institute, Skopje (EPI)

10.05-10.20 Introduction on the Common Regional Market: Majlinda Bregu, Secretary-General, Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)10.20-

10.35 Initial reactions by representatives of the Think for Europe Network: Njomza Arifi, Group for Legal and Political Studies, Pristina (GLPS), Ranka Miljenovic, CEP, Anida Sabanovic, Foreign Policy Initiative, Sarajevo (FPI BH)10.35-11.30 Open moderated discussion with civil society representatives from the Region. Responses will be provided by RCC experts, including Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova, Pranvera Kastrati, Bojana Zoric, and others.

Moderator: Dr. Simonida Kacarska, EPI 

Albania’s progress on EU conditions is telling of the government’s European ambitions

The European Commission’s 2020 Report on Albania continues to echo concerns on the overall scope of democratic deficit and polarized political environment; those same concerns shared by the European Council in March this year and part of the 15 criteria that Albania needs to fulfil in order to start EU accession talks. 

Albania submitted its formal application for EU Membership in April 2009. Nevertheless, the prospect of starting negotiations talks hit a 6-year plateau, as persistent lack of political consensus, continuous calls for “free and fair” elections, as well the Commission’s vocal concerns over “selective justice and corruption” were jeopardising its progress. 

Ultimately, the Member States and European Union are vindicated from potential delays as the criteria have been unanimously defined. The Albanian government will have none to blame but its own lack of results, should the first intergovernmental conference be postponed after the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The necessity for democratic consolidation

Albania continues to show insufficient progress in fulfilling the recommendations given by the monitoring mission OSCE/ODIHR on ensuring free and fair elections, with the integrity of the electoral process, eliminating the longstanding problem of misuse of administrative resources and voter pressure being at the top of the agenda.

Unfortunately, the 2019 Local Elections were again accompanied with hostility, as the opposition refused to participate, accusing the governing party of lack of electoral transparency and voter buying. In the midst of political chaos, the Albanian citizens, who once more did not have the opportunity to experience a “free” election by not having much of a choice in the voting candidate, boycotted the election through a substantial number of blank votes and an overall low voter turnout of just 21.6%. This election, much to the fate of the 2015 elections, was followed by reoccurring protests organised by the opposition party, oftentimes violent and directed to the state institutions that ignited the political turmoil and unrest in the country.

The same polarised climate held Albania back in the advancing of the Electoral Reform, which aimed to reduce the encountered “technical” issues such as voter registration, counting of votes, and electoral administration for quite some time. After considerate lack of communication and cooperation between the main parties, with the opposition oftentimes boycotting the agreements the reform passed on June 5th 2020. Although a step in the right direction, the reform was yet unable to meet the majority of the requirements made by OSCE/ODIHR.

Corruption in the judicial branch

While the Albanian parliament has passed several reforms and implemented laws that aimed to eradicate corruption in the state apparatus and administration, the country has dropped 23 places in 3 years in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. With a score of 35 out of 100 points, Albania is one of the most corrupted countries in the region, whose average ranks at a total of 66 points. This casts serious doubts on whether the policy implementations have yielded any concrete effects on the progress on the country’s struggles with a conflict of interest, abuse of state resources and insufficient disclosure. Particularly, as these are also witnessed through the Judicial Reform, whose slow-paced progress of the vetting of judges and prosecutors is a credit to the complex nature of each individual case related to the aforementioned issues. As a result of the large number of vacancies, the country’s judicial branch has been left crippled, with the High Court only regaining its quorum as of late and the Constitutional Court still missing five members in order to restart operating.

With a one-party led parliament and a frozen judicial branch, the risk of power abuse grows worryingly, as the rule of law is left defenceless and the country’s democratic legitimacy is at stake.

Ensuring a depoliticised media environment

The Venice Commission continues to voice its concern over the hostile media climate of Albania, which is gravely affected by the intertwinement of personal interests and political affiliations, resulting in self- censorship. The current Media Law, also referred to as the “anti-defamation” package, will deteriorate the situation further by undermining the freedom and authority of the press. The law, which passed in the Albanian parliament at the end of 2019 but was returned by the President for the same reasons mentioned by the Venice Commission, is said to tackle and reduce fake news and defamatory content, by creating a state administrative body that can judge the news content and fine online platforms. In doing so, it puts the media under the control of the Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA), whose members are appointed by the government, whilst the pressure and execution of exorbitant monetary fines can easily lead to the insolvency of online media outlets.

Foreign organisations such as the OSCE Presence, the European Federation of Journalists and many others have raised their concerns over the law package, which the government is still trying to pass in the parliament, causing Albania to drop two places on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. These policies come after a long history of verbal attacks towards critical journalists, by politicians both in power and in opposition, in a country that is still struggling to establish editorial independence. The amendments are currently under the revision of the expertise of the Venice Commission and will be re-discussed later this year.

The way forward

As Albania enters the 11th year in its journey to EU Membership, it has become clear that the only way for the country to progress is by solving its internal disputes. With a newly reformed European integration process, Brussel’s request for insurance of a consolidated democracy from its candidate states has become even more evident. The country’s deeply polarised political climate and continuous lack of cooperation between the two main parties not only delays policy implementations but it also hinders political stability and reforms. One the other hand, the media, being the main actors in the “anti-defamation” law package, have been excluded from the dialogue and are currently under the threat of imposed censorship and state control as opposed to the possibility of self- regulation. Yet Albania’s most pressing matter continues to be the necessity of the reinstitution of the power balances, through the immediate filling of the vacancies in the Constitutional Court as well as progressing with the implementation of the Judicial reform and fight against corruption, as has done in the past three years.

The timing of the start for accession talks can now only be determined by the government’s willingness to foster open dialogue and work towards ensuring a more stabilised political environment.

By Fiona Papajani, Institute for Democracy and Mediation – IDM Tirana Autumn Intern 2020