26th Oct 2021

EU keeps door open to Balkan countries

The EU on Tuesday (6 November) issued a series of reports assessing progress made by the six Western Balkan countries hoping to join the bloc in which it made some strong criticism about the lack of reforms but was careful to balance it with some political incentives.

It criticises Serbia for a "slow-down in the overall pace of reform" and judges it as not yet fully cooperating with the International Crime Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

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  • Enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn presented the annual assessment of EU hopefuls on Tuesday (Photo: European Commission)

However, EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn announced that on Wednesday (7 November) he would initial a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) – constituting a first step towards eventual EU membership – with Belgrade.

While stopping short of actually signing the SAA – which will only take place once Serbia is judged as fully cooperating with the war crimes court, the move is seen as a politically important nod to Serbia.

It is also expected to boost Serbian efforts to hand over the remaining war crimes suspects to The Hague.

So far it has handed over 20 out of the 24 fugitives wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal, but four remain at large – among them former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, who has been indicted on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Commissioner Rehn stressed that Serbia had now reached a "real turning point" and urged it "to go the last mile and achieve full cooperation" with the court.

Balancing criticism and praise

The same approach of balancing criticism and praise was evident in the other Balkan countries' reports.

Albania, which signed its SAA in June 2006, has made some progress as regards democracy and the rule of law, but still has to do a lot concerning the fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary, its report reads.

Montenegro has achieved a lot after seceding from Serbia in May 2006, notably concerning the process of institution building. It also signed an SAA last month and is hoping to lodge an official application for EU membership in the first half of 2008.

But Europe's newest state is still lagging behind in other fields, such as the fight against corruption.

In Macedonia, some progress has been achieved in the fight against corruption, but more efforts are needed. In addition, Brussels encourages Skopje to improve the political climate and the dialogue between the parties in order to speed up reforms.

Asked whether Macedonia can still hope to open EU talks next year, Mr Rehn said that he is "not a forecaster" and that in the end, it all depends on the countries themselves and on the reforms they undertake.

Despite the remaining issues, the enlargement chief expressed hopes that all of the countries of the Western Balkan region would be in possession of a completed SAA by the end of next year.

"I expect that in 2008 conditions will be fulfilled and thus we will be able to complete Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) with all countries in the region", he said.

So far, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the only two countries from the Western Balkans – namely Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Albania – not to have signed an SAA.

Challenges remain

The commissioner also underlined some "major challenges" and risks the region has had to face recently and which are still unsolved – agreeing on the future status of Kosovo; reaching political stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and reinforcing democracy in Serbia.

Touching on the Kosovo issue, Mr Rehn stopped short of linking Serbia's EU integration and the process of negotiating the future status of the breakaway province.

Some analysts have suggested recently that the EU might try to "trade" closer ties with Serbia in exchange for Belgrade giving up its claim on Kosovo, but Mr Rehn denied considering such an option.

The international community is hoping to reach a negotiated solution for Kosovo by 10 December.


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