BRUSSELS -- EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi says the 27-member bloc will make its own assessment on the democratic values of candidate countries in the Western Balkans amid criticism of backsliding in the region as it pushes for accession.
Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL on May 7, Varhelyi said a report from democracy watchdog Freedom House that downgraded Serbia and Montenegro as "hybrid regimes" was “an interesting contribution” to the discussion, but added that the European Commission was well aware of the situation on the ground as it conducts the EU enlargement process.
"The commission has its own assessment when it comes to the rule of law, democracy for the Western Balkan countries, including those with which we are conducting accession negotiations. And we will be looking at this situation when we come forward with the report on Serbia and Montenegro," he said, adding that an enlargement report was due in June in which the EU would be looking at the situation in the two countries.
Serbia and Montenegro, along with Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, are pushing for the EU to speed up its accession process.
Montenegro and Serbia are the only two of the six to have started accession negotiations with Brussels, even though the pace of talks has slowed as some EU members complained about persistent signs of a lack of democratic norms and rampant corruption in the region.
In a report released on May 6, Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy monitor, warned of a "stunning democratic breakdown" across Central Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia as many leaders in the region attempt to do away with any remaining checks on their power.
Serbia and Montenegro were singled out in the Balkans and were downgraded from the category of democracies to the classification of transitional government/hybrid regimes, the report said.
When asked if he thinks the report shed a bad light on the EU enlargement process by having the pair as front-runners, Varhelyi said that “I think that it is not for Freedom House to run the enlargement process."
"The [European] Commission is responsible for the enlargement process and we will come up with a very serious, thorough, and well-based assessment on both countries," he added.
Leaders of the European Union reaffirmed their "unequivocal support" for the six Western Balkan states to eventually become members of the bloc at a summit on May 6.
But the summit avoided advancing membership talks and instead focused on the socioeconomic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed about 140,000 people on the continent, eroded economic growth, and suppressed any appetite EU leaders have for enlargement.
Serbia and Montenegro still need to negotiate 35 different policy fields, or accession chapters, in order to bring their legislation in line with the EU acquis -- the accumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions that form the body of the law governing the 27-member bloc.
So far, Montenegro has managed to close three chapters and Serbia two.
Albania and North Macedonia, which after a delay last year were given the green light in March to formally start membership negotiations, are still waiting for a concrete start date.
Kosovo and Bosnia are still trying to earn candidate status.