Overcoming the enlargement impasse – some ideas for the Slovenian presidency

The Slovenian presidency of the EU starting on 1 July has placed the state of the enlargement process for the Western Balkans high on its list of priorities. But the process is dangerously in a state of impasse, leaving the states of the Western Balkans and EU alike disappointed and dissatisfied. Fresh ideas are needed. Therefore the Think for Europe Network (TEN) network of leading think tanks of the Western Balkans joins with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Brussels, to advocate a new dynamic of phased membership in the EU, with ideas for progressive functional and institutional integration based on an objective and quantified monitoring methodology.   

Download the paper here.

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The Future of the EU in the Western Balkans… and the Future of the Western Balkans in the EU

The EU perspective toward the Western Balkans has remained undisputed, but especially since it endorsed accession for the region at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Besides Serbia, where Euroscepticism is not a new phenomenon, the rest of the countries from the region have been gazing toward EU accession with strong backing from local populations.

Acknowledging such a fragile situation on the ground, this input paper explores pertinent questions regarding the future of the EU in the Western Balkans and vice versa. After providing a brief overview and analysis of the current state of the enlargement process, the paper will explore how the impact of the recently revised enlargement methodology can be maximised. Moreover, it will discuss opportunities for deepening the ties between the EU and the region, going beyond the formal accession process and procedures. By engaging in out-of-the-box thinking and searching for solutions outside the mainstream bubble, the paper will offer directions for changing the dysfunctional status quo. It should be noted, however, that the purpose of this paper is not to provide final and detailed solutions to the identified problems.

Rather, its purpose is to instigate debate and formulate issues to be subsequently addressed with policy recommendations by Think for Europe – TEN experts participating at the Civil Society & Think Tank Forum organised by the German Aspen Institute in cooperation with Southeast Europe Association.

The publication can be downloaded here.

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The Conference on the Future of Europe: Is the EU still serious about the Balkans?

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.

Download the Paper here.

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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

EC 2020 Report for North Macedonia: Case for launching negotiations strengthened

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.

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How are the Republic of North Macedonia and Frontex Handling the Refugee Crisis?

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”.

Security official holding binoculars

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

Working Arrangement

On January 19th, 2009, Frontex and the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of North Macedonia signed a Working Arrangement, which entered into force on the following day, January 20th, 2009. The objective of this arrangement is to combat illegal migration and related cross-border crime through information exchange, risk analysis, joint training, research and development projects, joint operational activities and participation in pilot projects, under the authority of the Executive Director of Frontex.

The arrangement gives the Republic of North Macedonia access to Frontex’s services for strengthening the capacities for border control through joint operations, training and development. Such activities involve observation of Frontex-coordinated joint operations in EU countries, cooperation and participation in Frontex-coordinated operations on common borders, such as the border with Greece, information exchange, participation in relevant sessions and meetings of the Frontex Risk Analysis Network (FRAN), etc.

Status Agreement

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.

Source: makfax.com.mk

Foreign Border Guard from the EU and other Countries to the Republic of North Macedonia

Since 2015, the Republic of North Macedonia has closely cooperated with certain EU member states and Serbia in an effort to handle the refugee crisis more successfully, after it reached its “peak”. In 2015, the Republic of North Macedonia stressed at European and regional level the necessity of material and logistical support to effectively deal with illegal migration and offer humanitarian support to refugees. Subsequently, an international cooperation of eight countries has been established, including the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.

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

The new accession methodology – A peace agreement between EC and the Member States?

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[1] :

  • 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 truth is that we have done so without funding, even when the EU failed to back us up with political statements. The community of artists in Tirana has been protesting every single day, for over two years, against a highly controversial PPP-project to replace a treasured theatre with private towers. This project was even backed up with specially created laws to legitimize the scheme. At the same time, Albania’s students took the streets for 2 weeks straight without spending a cent of the EU’s money. Similarly, Albanians, Montenegrins, and Serbs took the streets for days rallying against corruption and media censorship without any funding.

Empowering the missing ally

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.

[1] # of mentions excluding the title of the document(s).

Author – Gjergji Vurmo, IDM Program Director

Declining media freedom and biased reporting in Serbia: Prospects for an enhanced EU approach

In the context of the global crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, free, impartial and professional media reporting has become ever more important. This represents an issue in Serbia, considering its ongoing decline in media freedom as confirmed by independent international reports.

The conditions for practising professional journalism have been degraded for years and the Serbian media sector has faced numerous challenges, including political control over the mainstream media, low financial sustainability of media outlets and related high dependence on state funding, as well as a lack of transparency of that funding. Obscure media ownership and privatisation issues are yet another reason for concern. Additionally, the safety of journalists is problematic as the number of pressures, threats and attacks has grown since 2013, but the impunity phenomenon remains present. All these factors lead to a general state of censorship and self-censorship in the media in Serbia.

This report, developed in cooperation with Clingendael institute, presents the most prominent problems that the media sector in Serbia faces today. It argues that the flawed media landscape is the major factor leading to poor and biased reporting on topics related to the EU, the US and Russia. It observes media bias as a phenomenon in which media coverage presents inaccurate, unbalanced and/or unfair views with an intention to affect reader opinions in a particular direction. The analysis places a special focus on what such reporting means for the EU, given its strategic and communication goals for Serbia and the Western Balkans region.

Download the report here.

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Western Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic perspective revived

Five months later and the continent is overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic – by the German Chancellor dubbed as“the biggest challenge since World War II.” This crisis tests the values, norms and partnerships between countries. As all brace for the impact, Western Balkan countries remain subject to regulatory limitations on purchasing much-needed protective equipment from the EU. These export limitations outside the EU caused a truck loaded with ten thousand protective masks destined for Albania to be stopped and turned around at the border with Greece on March 25th.

These tendering regulations were blasted by Serbia’s President during a speech earlier in the month, where he condemned EU’s lack of solidarity with his country. According to Vučić, he had to turn to Beijing for aid in medical supplies and staff, claiming that “without China and our Chinese brothers”, the country is incapable to defend itself from the virus. The test kits sent by China were received with a grand ceremony and billboards in Belgrade were revamped to thank “Brother Xi”.

European Union’s response was swift. On March 20, four MEPs urged the Commission to include Western Balkan countries in the bloc’s medical device authorisation scheme during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary Speakers from the region wrote a letter to the European Commission and the European Parliament Presidents, urging them to include the region into the EU+ export scheme. The topic was also discussed at the last Council meeting.

In the midst of the widespread criticism, a series of positive signals emerged in regard to the European solidarity and the Euro-Atlantic perspective of the Western Balkans. On March 25th, the European Council gave the green light for Albania and North Macedonia to open negotiations talks while the Commission allocated a sizeable financial package to assist each of them to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Some €38 million will go to support the region’s immediate health emergency and an additional €374 million is reallocated to assist with the socio-economic recovery.  

On March 30th, the Commission announced its plan to expand its green lanes within the region which in effect would permit the flow of food and medicine within the region and between it and the EU. On the same day, news came from Washington DC that North Macedonia became the 30th official member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), making it an illustrious month for the region’s euro-Atlantic aspirations.

North Macedonia

Skopje’s pathway to opening negotiation talks with the EU have been severely prolonged, which made it ever-more painful to absorb the conclusions of the European Council meeting in October 2019. A candidate country since 2005, North Macedonia had been recommended by the Commission to open negotiation since 2009. The country’s bid to join NATO had also been put on hold since the 2008 Bucharest Summit, where Greece exercised its veto over the name dispute. The country turned inward, and the reform agenda of integration was switched off.

Fast forward to March 2020 and the country made substantial progress on both fronts. On March 25, 2020, the European Council recommended opening negotiation talks. Two days later the country officially became a fully-fledged member of NATO. This is a substantial achievement for a country that has gone through great lengths to achieve this.

Besides the political decisions taken in March, Western partners have also provided important financial support to North Macedonia to help it cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the request of regional partners, the European Commission announced €4 million and the United States $1.1 million to help the country alleviate its immediate needs for medical supplies. EU pledged another to €62 million that will be redirected from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) to help the country mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus.

Although relatively overshadowed by the pandemic crisis, both decisions have far-reaching ramifications for the political and security future of the country and the region. Negotiation talks with the EU elevate Skopje’s relationship with Brussels to a new status, opens the way for transformative reforms, and more assistance. NATO membership boosts the country’s peace, security and territorial integrity – effectively making it a net contributor to the security of the region and the alliance. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a country that received three peace support missions in the last two decades.

Albania

Tirana’s European perspective was given a boost as well, as it received the backing of the European Council to open negotiation talks. A candidate country since 2014, the country has been recommended to open negotiations by the European Commission since 2016. Unlike North Macedonia, Albania’s recommendation by the Council came attached with additional conditions, to be fulfilled prior to opening chapters. The importance of this outcome should not be overshadowed by the added criteria as Tirana enters into a closer relationship with the EU.

The attached conditions are tangible and non-exhaustive. They include the adoption of the electoral reform in line with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, making political party and campaign finances transparent and seek the continuation of implementation for the judicial reform. Specifically, Tirana is asked to ensure the functionality of the Constitutional Court and the High Court and establish the anti-corruption and organized crime special structures – both involving procedural appointments.

Moreover, the conditioned reforms are necessary, in particularthe electoral reform. So far, the country’s political parties have shown little desire to adopt the recommendations of OSCE/ODIHR. On several occasions, political parties have used tactics to prolong and even manipulate the outcome of such processes. Similarly, it is argued that attempts have taken place to delay the successful implementation of the judicial reform. Due to the conditions laid out by the Member States, the pressure is on political actors to display maturity and stop obstructing reforms.

Attached conditionalities should be seen an opportunity for the government to prove its reform credibility to hesitant Member States. This is especially a welcome boost to those who want to reform the electoral system, preserve freedom of speech, and ensure the successful implementation of the judicial reform. Through these conditions, their efforts become part of the scrutiny by EU and Member States. Ultimately, this provides an opportunity for the country’s political actors to demonstrate maturity before Albanians and European allies, who have in a matter of five months displayed unmatched solidarity and commitment to the country and its people.

Following the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Albania on 26 November 2019, the European bloc rushed in to assist with search and rescue operations. EU’s Civil Protection Mechanismwas activated on request of Albanian government and 11 experts were dispatched to help coordinate the country’s humanitarian response, damage assessment, and rebuilding efforts. On 17 February 2020, the EU organised donor conference “Together for Albanian” recorded over 100 delegations that pledged €1.15 billion in assistance and loans.  The European Commission alone pledged €115 million.

On the same day that the European Council gave Tirana the green light to start negotiation talks, the bloc allocated 4 million euros and to help it cover the immediate needs of the public health system amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As for other Western Balkan countries, the EU has redirected 46.7 million euros from IPA to help support its social and economic recovery. Considering, it should come as no surprise that Tirana has shown solidarity with European countries in return.

Conclusion

These are testing times that severely test institutions, leaders and partnerships resilience. The good thing is that crises have a beginning and an end. While the current focus is to respond to the immediate needs, politicians in Western Balkans, Brussels, Member States and beyond must be mindful of what the future cooperation will look like. Turning on each other will hardly aid immediate solutions, nor will it create a strong basis for the future.

It seems obscure and counterintuitive to emphasize cooperation at a time when social distancing has become mandatory public policy and travel between countries has been shut down. But solidarity is the only way through which this crisis can be overcome. The EU has throughout transcended to be a worthy partner to rely on for the Western Balkans. In spite of the financial assistance, by April 1st, four of the six Western Balkan countries had adopted the proposal on green lanes, effectively lifting the regulations that prevented the flow of medicines to the region.

Western Balkan countries must be mindful who they put their trust into. Even if Vučić’ criticism of the tendering regulations was justified, that is not a worthy language and tone to be used among allies. Lest we forget that the tendering regulations are put in place in part to prevent faulty medical equipment that put the life of citizens and professional medical staff in danger, as Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey have found out the hard way.

*This blog was originally published on ResPublica on 3 April 2020.

Authors: Alfonc Rakaj & Leonie Vrugtman