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EU: Western Balkans Single Market Possible In Two-Three Years

EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn (file photo)

BRUSSELS -- The EU's enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, says that a Western Balkans single market can be possible within two or three years if there is political will in the region.

Hahn said that "people have to sense the added value of the European engagement." He added, "I think this is really something where you need political will and then it should be possible within two to three years."

Hahn was speaking ahead of the publication of the annual European Commission enlargement reports that highlight the achievements and shortcomings of countries in the Western Balkans that aim to join the EU.

"Our aim is to stop the brain drain from the region, to give the region a perspective for instance a Balkans single market could be another so to say aim and this would definitely create jobs," Hahn told RFE/RL.

A single market consisting of the free movements of people, goods, services, and capital already exists among the EU's 28 member states but Hahn did not specify how a single market of the EU-aspirant countries of the Balkans would look like.

Montenegro Corruption Criticized

Nonetheless, the European Commission's enlargement report on Montenegro described the country's parliamentary elections in October as "more participatory and transparent" but was critical of Podgorica for its fight against corruption and the state of media freedom in the small Balkan state.

The report said the October 17 election was "held in a competitive environment and characterized by general respect for fundamental freedoms."

Earlier this week, a special prosecutor investigating an alleged plot to sway the vote said that "Russian nationalists" had planned to kill Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in the run-up to the election. There was no mention of the claims in the EU report.

The EU report stated that "corruption remains prevalent in many areas and continues to be a serious problem" and that the number of convictions in high-profile corruption cases "remains limited."

Podgorica was also strongly criticized in the area of media freedom, with the commission noting that "the number of defamation cases remains high, which points to weak self-regulation mechanisms, as well as to challenges in understanding the role of the media."

Montenegro is the currently the country in the Western Balkans closest to joining the EU.

It has opened 24 out of the 35 negotiating EU accession chapters. The chapters consist of EU legislation in different policy fields which a country must adopt in order to join the club. Montenegro is also expected to join NATO in early 2017.

Belgrade Urged To Normalize Kosovo Ties

The commission's enlargement report on Serbia, meanwhile, urges Belgrade to improve the rule of law and make progress in normalizing ties with Kosovo.

Serbia has made slow progress in the accession process, opening only four out of the 35 EU accession chapters.

The EU's Serbia report said a credible track record in the fight against organized crime "still needs to be established" and that "no progress was made to improve conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression" in the country.

The report also said that "the quality and efficiency of the judiciary and access to justice remain undermined by an uneven distribution of workload, a burdensome case backlog and the lack of a free legal aid system."

Serbia and Kosovo, a former province that unilaterally declared independence from Belgrade in 2008, have been locked in EU-facilitated talks since 2011 to normalize ties.

The two countries have signed several deals on the free movement of people and Serbian minority representation in northern Kosovo, but implementation of the agreements has been slow.

The report states that "continued efforts are needed to implement the agreements already reached with Kosovo" but notes that progress has been limited this year due to elections in Serbia and political instability in Kosovo.

Concerns Over Kosovo Standoff

The commission's document on Kosovo also raised concerns about an ongoing standoff between the ruling government and the opposition.

The EU report said "normal parliamentary functioning was prevented for parts of the reporting period, including through the use of violent means by opposition members."

The report said "all political parties should show responsibility and re-engage in a constructive dialogue, with parliament as the key forum for political debate."

It also noted that the judiciary was "still vulnerable to undue political influence," corruption remained a "serious problem" and that "enforcement needs to be improved in particular for money laundering, confiscation and seizure of assets, and financial investigation."

Kosovo has generally made slow progress on the accession criteria for joining the EU. But in a boost to accession talks, the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) between Kosovo and the EU entered into force earlier this year. The agreement regulates the political relationship between Brussels and Pristina.

However, five EU member states still do not recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008, hindering accession talks.

With no country expected to join the EU before 2020, the bloc will be looking into different ways of making the EU more visible in the enlargement countries. The building of infrastructure connecting the countries closer together is one of the ways Brussels is hoping to boost its popularity in the Balkans region.

Macedonia's 'Divisive Political Culture'

On Macedonia, the commission's report raises concerns over the ongoing political crisis in the small Balkan state.

The EU report says that "democracy and rule of law have been constantly challenged, in particular due to state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society."

The report added that Macedonia "suffers from a divisive political culture and a lack of capacity for compromise."

Despite the challenges, the EU report offers Skopje a conditional offer of starting EU accession negotiations.

The crisis in Macedonia erupted in February 2015, when the leader of the main opposition party, Zoran Zaev of the Social Democrats, released tapes that appeared to reveal official and widespread wiretapping, including of journalists and politicians.

After several demonstrations and the postponement of elections, the four main parties agreed to hold parliamentary elections on December 11.

The EU report says the holding of "a credible election" and continued reforms in the country are the two conditions necessary for the commission to recommend Skopje start formal negotiations.

The commission has recommended starting negotiations with Macedonia since 2009 but Greece has repeatedly blocked the move due to the ongoing issue over the legal, constitutional name of Macedonia.

Bosnia's 'Significant Steps' Toward EU Membership

Finally, the European Commission's enlargement report says Bosnia-Herzegovina has taken significant steps toward EU membership this year by submitting an application to join the bloc.

The EU report commends reforms taken by Sarajevo, though it notes major structural problems remain in the country.

The report highlights improvements in the coordination between state-level and entity-level assemblies. But it also notes "their role and capacities in the EU integration process need to be further improved."

The report praised the improving business environment but added that the "public sector is inefficient and private sector development is slow."

The EU also said that "politically motivated threats on the judiciary by some politicians in the country continued" and that the declared political commitment to the fight against corruption "did not translate into concrete results."

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.