The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak on citizens’ usage of electronic access to administrative services has been limited in the Western Balkans. The Brief analyzes potential reasons for this and reflects on cross-national variations.
If the EU does not count the Balkan countries among the stakeholders who should participate, in some form, in the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), then one has to wonder whether the Union is still serious about the European perspective of the region.
The EU should allow political leaders and citizens from the Balkan countries to join the activities and discussions held in the context of the CoFoE on a consultative basis, along the representative and citizens’ dimensions of the process, respectively. In doing so, the EU would build on the precedent of the European Convention of the early 2000s.
The EU has nothing to lose and everything to win by deepening and refining its relationship with the Balkan countries, by allowing the region to feel included in its plans for the future of the EU. The Union would use the interdependence with the Balkans to good advantage, strengthening natural alliances with its neighbours and consolidating its political vicinity. Deliberating over joint responses to specific common challenges addressed by the Conference would help the Balkan countries continue to build experience and know-how in preparation for their eventual EU membership. Allowing the Balkans to witness and contribute to this initiative would also foster a sense of togetherness and partnership that has been lacking from the long, drawn-out formal accession process. More, rather than less, EU-Balkans cooperation and coordination will build trust and loyalty.
In the end, even without a formal invitation to accompany the CoFoE process, the Balkan countries should organise themselves at the political and societal levels to follow the Conference and mirror its activities with similar initiatives. The Regional Cooperation Council could help organise and coordinate a network of Balkan politicians tasked by their governments to follow and participate in the Conference. In parallel, civil society networks in the region should build on their already existing cooperation and look for funds to organise ‘Balkan Citizens’ Consultations’, which can accompany the CoFoE process as it unfolds. Such a broad mobilisation would prove the Balkan countries’ strong will to approach the EU and a certain dose of political maturity.
But the Union should know better than to just wait to be impressed by the Balkans. The EU is one CoFoE invitation away from leaping forward into the future, together with its strong partners and closest neighbours, as Commission President von der Leyen referred to the Balkans in her State of the Union address.
This discussion paper is developed in cooperation with the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre (EPC), and is thus also published at epc.eu.
Public perceptions from four out of six countries in the Western Balkans suggest that state administration has become more citizen oriented in the past two years. Citizens throughout the region are increasingly aware of electronic access to administrative services, even though the COVID-19 pandemic has had a limited impact on using this type of access. Interesting country-level variations are noted in different aspects of the survey.
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.
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
Analysis of the European Commission Report on the Republic of North Macedonia from 6 October 2020.
This report is the first one following the political decision of the EU for the start of negotiations with our country from May 2020.
The findings on North Macedonia in these documents are particularly important in order to maintain and strengthen the case for actual start of negotiations with the holding of the first inter-governmental conference by the end of this year – according to the plan of the German Presidency.
In this analysis, the European Policy Institute – EPI Skopje focus on the key aspects of the Enlargement Strategy which are related to North Macedonia as well as on the specific report for our country.
In 2015, EU member states deployed police units to North Macedonia’s border with Greece to assist in handling the refugee crisis. The cooperation has been effective but has lacked transparency.
The so-called “Balkan Route” has been one of the main paths for migrants and refugees to Western Europe. The migrants who arrived in Greece in 2015 had a direct influence on this route with their intention to reach the closest borders of EU member states through the Republic of North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia. In 2015, 764,033 illegal entries of migrants were detected in the Balkans in an attempt to cross the Serbian border with Hungary to further continue their journey to the developed countries. The numbers attest to fact that the challenges of the Balkan migration route cannot be overcome solely by the efforts of one individual country or an EU member state, but through a “joint cross-border approach based on cooperation”.
Consequently, in May 2015, the European Commission established the European Agenda on Migration to address the challenges relating to illegal migration, borders, asylum and legal migration. Due to EU’s inability to resolve the migrant issue through national policies and activities of individual EU member states, on October 25th, 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker invited the leaders of Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Republic of North Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia to meet in Brussels. The meeting resulted in a “17-point plan of action”, which includes measures for tackling the migration crisis by guiding the operation of the EU agencies towards establishing a system for exchange of information and strengthening the Frontex Western Balkans Risk Analysis Network, with enhanced reporting from all participants.
Cooperation between the Republic of North Macedonia and Frontex
In July 2018, EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Macedonian Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski signed a Status Agreement that would allow Frontex to deploy units to Macedonia. The agreement will enable Frontex to carry out joint operations in and together with Macedonia in the event of serious or pressing migration issues. The draft version of this agreement will allow a team of a Frontex member state to carry out activities on the territory of the Republic of North Macedonia under the leadership and in the company of our competent authorities. Nonetheless, this clause stipulates that Frontex representatives may communicate their views through they coordination officer to the representatives of the Macedonian police authorities.
In that event, the national authorities need to consider any such views and fully adhere to them. However, this provision may cause inconsistencies in the implementation if the views under consideration are not in accordance with the appropriate (effective) national legislative framework of our country. Hence, there is a potential risk of possible illegal actions. Due to the lack of public awareness of this issue, there is a need for wider public debate until the ratification of the Agreement in order to improve its content.
Foreign Border Guard from the EU and other Countries to the Republic of North Macedonia
The purpose of the cooperation is to provide Macedonian border police with assistance from foreign police officers in patrolling the south border with Greece and in performing their daily duties. Furthermore, the cooperation involves joint training, information exchange and coordination. One hundred and sixty six (166) foreign police officers guarded the Macedonian border at the expense of the EU. The number of foreign police officers has gradually increased, and new contingents arrived in the country in 2019.
Even though Article 5 of the Law on State Border Protection stipulates that border control falls within the competence of the Ministry of Interior and that the police departments of the Ministry carry out border control activities, Article 59 of the same law provides for foreign police presence. Namely, this article stipulates that, based on a ratified international agreement, police officers from other countries may perform activities related to border control and other matters related to international police cooperation. On the territory of the Republic of North Macedonia, foreign police officers may use technical equipment and vehicles with symbols, wear uniforms, carry weapons and other means of coercion, under the conditions and in a manner determined by an international agreement.
In this regard, Macedonia concluded with Serbia, Hungary and Austria a Memorandum of Understanding, which is different from the usual agreements signed between countries. The key distinction between this Memorandum and other agreements is that in case of dispute other agreements can be executed through the judicial authorities, whereas this Memorandum of Understanding cannot be. More importantly, the Assembly of the Republic of North Macedonia has not ratified the signed memorandum. It was never published in the Official Gazette, which makes it only a declarative document. Nonetheless, that did not stop foreign police contingents from coming to our borders in the period from 2015 to 2019.
Need for Transparency
The 2015 refugee crisis challenged the stability of the EU’s internal and external border control. The Balkan countries played a key role in the management and control of EU’s external borders, supported by substantial financial and technical resources provided by the EU, its agencies and EU member states. Despite strengthening police capacities and establishing a good practice for cooperation with foreign police authorities, one cannot but emphasize the lack of transparency in the processes.
The Memorandum of Understanding signed with foreign police authorities has not been made public, the instrument was not ratified by the Assembly and the exact number of foreign police officers deployed to the Republic of North Macedonia is not available on the websites of the competent authorities. This is a result of the country’s flexible approach to the cooperation with other countries in dealing with the refugee crisis.
Media coverage and statements from the Ministry of Interior are the only sources of information on the situation at the borderlines. Furthermore, the political, financial and other obligations arising from the Frontex Status Agreement should be discussed publicly with all stakeholders, including representatives of relevant institutions, academia and experts, in order to improve the country’s position on the issue. Finally, after the ratification of the agreement, its implementation needs to be monitored.
Author: Ismail Kamberi, Researcher, European Policy Institute – EPI Skopje
There were times in the Western Balkan (WB) countries, maybe some fifteen years ago, when local politicians, media and civil society were carefully reading the European Commission’s (EC) progress reports. It was a time in which the public was eager to hear from civil society and media as per what exactly was the EU’s assessment of the country’s progress. Progress reports were considered technical rather than political documents: an expert opinion by an objective and trusted “judge”. At that time, civil society organizations (CSOs) were pushing the EC to use unbiased language and include an assessment scale, so that we could better track the progress and explain it to the public. Eventually, the EC did so by introducing scales for progress and subsequently for the level of preparedness for each chapter.
Faced with the prospect of more direct language that would expose their resistance to progress and even autocratic tendency, WB leaders started channeling other sources within the European Union (EU) to question the credibility of EC reports. First in line was the group of sister parties in the European Parliament. Depending on the political affiliation of the WB government, WB leaders would ensure the citizens hear Members of the European Parliament (MEP) commenting on positive aspects of the EC report. However, as the opposition parties started doing the same with MEPs from their political spectrum, this channel was soon exposed in the eyes of WB public. The next in line were Member States’ officials and the narrative that “the EU is complex (…) Member States have different interests (…) and that it is not us, but the EU that is failing”. It has not been difficult to find senior officials in the Member States articulating the narrative of a faulty EU over the past decade. Indeed, the EU is complex and has diverging interests at times, which has made it easier to sell a half-true narrative to the public as a fully true one.
As WB leaders succeeded to undermine the trustworthiness of EC reports in the eyes of the domestic public, they also cast doubt among the Member States. And truth be told – who can blame them? When the EC claimed good progress in Albania for the fight against corruption, the country was sinking at TI’s Corruption perceptions index with a record drop of 23 places between 2016 and 2019. Similarly, while Vučić was attacking the free press and closing media in Serbia the then Enlargement Commissioner Hahn was seeking proof of media censorship. These developments challenged the objectivity of the Commission specifically and the EU more generally and caused EC reports to be seen as biased and political by many audiences in the WBs and the Member States. Consequently, the EU’s credibility is standing on shaky ground, both at home and in the WB region.
The new methodology
The new accession methodology is a good, but insufficient attempt towards restoring EU’s credibility in the WB region. The document resembles more a “peace agreement” between EC and EU Member States, rather than a roadmap for a credible and accelerated accession for WB countries. Although its purpose is to reinvigorate the accession process and build a credible EU perspective for the WBs, much of its content is about reassuring the voice of Member States in the enlargement process. It is less about the role of WB citizens and civil society in the accession process. A simple word-count in the document underscores this conclusion. While explaining the new methodology, the 8-page document mentions :
The Member States / 18 times
European Commission / 14 times
Western Balkans / 10 times
Enlargement / 6 times
Conditionality / 4 times
WB citizens / 3 times
(EU) Membership / twice
Civil society / only once.
A peace agreement between EC and the Member States is not a bad thing per se. WB citizens are in dire need of a credible EU to speak with one voice on issues that matter to them. We haven’t seen much of this recently, which has led to great disillusionment and lack of hope.
The mutual trust between EC and the Member States is a good development, for as long as it aims to restore the EU’s credibility and reinvigorates the Commission’s annual reports as an objective expert evaluation of WBs progress – free of political games. In doing so, the EU should not trade stability for democracy. EU and EC reports should be equally vocal and straightforward, not only when Member States’ interests are threatened (illegal migration, organized crime, terrorism, etc.) but also when WB citizens’ priorities are at stake (corruption, state capture, decline of democracy, shrinking civic space, and deteriorated freedom of expression).
To deliver on this expectation, the new methodology must carefully read the causes and the symptoms of stagnation in the WBs. Most importantly, it should not ignore the most reliable partner and ally of the EU in the region: citizens, civil society and independent media.
Needless to say, the EU has to work with governments and political actors in the WB, but it should align with the ambition of citizens. It should not shy away from their voice just to please fake reformers in the government or opposition. It should strengthen the people’s role, and the voice of independent media and civil society to keep governments accountable.
Unfortunately, the document largely ignores the WB civil society and the role we should play in the accession and democratization reforms. We are mentioned only once in the methodology with the purpose of being assured that EU funds will continue supporting our work, even when the EU decides to punish WB governments for lack of progress.
The new methodology for EU enlargement fails to capitalize on a huge potential for change in the WBs. This change requires a credible EU speaking openly with one voice against state capture, corruption, shrinking freedom of expression and civic space, threatened independent media and democratic values. More than funding, WB civil society needs to be reassured about its role under the new accession methodology.
There is still time to improve the document and make the new approach more effective and reliable. It will increase chances for real change and the impact of the novelties introduced in the methodology. There are many positive elements in the new methodology such as:
The inclusion of Chapter 5 and Chapter 32 under the Fundamentals cluster;
Stronger link with the economic reform program;
Regular EU-Western Balkans summits and intensified ministerial contacts;
Clear and tangible incentives of direct interest to citizens, such as “phasing-in” to individual EU policies, increased funding and more investments.
Other positive aspects of the document have triggered interests by Member States and WB leaders. However, the main challenge ahead is to make the new methodology more credible and attractive to WB citizens and their civil society.
This will require something less expensive than EU funds, but far more impactful. It will require partnering with the ambition of WB citizens, entrusting them a role in the accession process, and empowering civil society, media, and other agents of change against captured political class in our countries. That is the only sustained way to help ourselves at home and to help address the EU’s own concerns such as illegal migration, security, and organized crime.
 # of mentions excluding the title of the document(s).
Slowly but surely, citizens and the economy of the European Union are beginning to feel the direct and negative repercussions of an increasingly present disregard for breaches of rule of law across member states. The concept of rule of law (which includes elements such as the principle of legality, legal certainty, separation of powers, the prohibition of arbitrary executive power, and the presence of a functional judicial system) is therefore no longer abstract and reserved for discussions within the expert community. In fact, the greatest and most palpable of the EU’s achievements – the single market, the Schengen Zone, and the Eurozone – cannot function if the stability of rule of law is endangered in any member state. At the same time, the existing EU protection mechanisms for the rule of law have so far been redundant. This causes growing frustration within the EU, to the point that some intellectuals openly condition their support for the EU with results in this area. The importance of rule of law, therefore, takes on a practical dimension alongside the normative.
From the standpoint of an advocate for the European project in Serbia also bitter about the hypocritical attitude of key EU actors towards political elites in Serbia and the Western Balkans, I perceive such a development as an opportunity to create a pan-European alliance for defending rule of law, bearing in mind that neither the EU’s future nor our region’s accession process, have much hope without brave and ambitious steps in this area.
Simply put, future enlargements will not happen, as long as a functional system for protecting rule of law is not established within the EU. Many member states will not permit new entrants if the only somewhat effective system of conditionality exists during accession negotiations (i.e. prior to membership). If there is no concrete progress in preventing breaches to rule of law, either on the EU’s side or by the candidate countries, the revised approach to the accession process of the Western Balkans (the “new methodology”) will also be limited in its application. How, for example, would one permit the phased accession of candidates to sectoral policies of the EU, such as within the single market cluster, knowing that the functioning of the single market is dependent on the proper application of rule of law?
To prepare for the difficult times ahead, the citizens of Europe need new guiding ideas and goals, which would give them a purpose and reawaken their spirits. A pan-European alliance for defending rule of law would have its stronghold in the citizens, as well as of political and economic actors of member states and EU aspirants, brought together both by normative ideals and pragmatic interests. Aware of the risks to the existing level of economic integration and legal security, or simply out of a wish to live in a better-organised society, this bloc has immense potential to gather a wide array of supporters and, with adequate political representation, to become a challenger to the status quo.
Beyond growing public endorsement, this alliance would be armed with existing initiatives and policy proposals at the EU level, which promise to start a revolution of sorts within the existing legal framework. Other than the infringement procedure which is launched by the European Commission (EC), and the preliminary rulings by the European Court of Justice, which could both be used more confidently in the future, a proposal for a Regulation on the protection of the Union’s budget in cases of generalised deficiencies as regards the rule of law in the member states, also deserves substantial attention. The goal of this regulation is to condition access to EU financial resources on adherence to rule of law, giving unprecedented authority to the European Commission. Among others, this regulation would turn the EC into a sort of Venice Commission for the EU budget, authorised to implement measures in cases of limited rule of law, in close cooperation with the European Public Prosecution Office and the European Anti-Fraud Office. The Council of the EU would also reach decisions by reverse qualified majority voting, intended to make it difficult for member states to block EC proposals, thus speeding up the decision-making process.
Eventually, the pan-European alliance would pressure political representatives and foster political will, in order to push forward various measures for the protection of rule of law within the framework of the EU as well as in the context of the Western Balkans’ accession process. Of course, this alliance would necessarily have to introduce sensitive issues to the public along the way, such as Europe’s demographic picture and policies, and (ir)regular migrations, which potential allies and supporters within the EU and the Western Balkans are perhaps not yet ready to face. Nevertheless, is it worth sacrificing the greatest achievements of the EU for the sake of defending the “gates of Europe” and its purported “Christian identity”, by mutually tolerating open breaches of rule of law? It most certainly is not, and now is the right moment to stop running from these issues out of a fear of populism and to instead shake up the status quo with a fresh perspective.
Sena Marić, Programme Manager and Senior Researcher, European Policy Centre – CEP
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has prepared a large financial package for the Western Balkans. This infographic untangles what it consists of and how is it distributed among the regional partners.
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