BRUSSELS – The European Commission will recommend that the European Union opens accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, according to a draft document seen by RFE/RL.
The document is part of the annual EU enlargement package that is set to be published on April 17 in Strasbourg and which outlines how far the non-EU countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey have come on their road to European Union membership.
The European Commission has recommended commencing negotiations with Macedonia every year since 2009, but EU member states in the council -- most notably, Greece -- have always blocked talks due to the name issue, which has soured relations between Athens and Skopje ever since Macedonia became independent in 1991.
Athens has objected to its northern neighbor using the name Macedonia, contending that implies territorial claims on its own northern province of the same name.
Negotiations between the two countries have gathered pace this year, fostering hopes of finding a compromise that will unblock Skopje's path to eventual EU and NATO membership.
Skopje has also survived bitter political infighting that culminated in April 2017 when several hundred protesters stormed parliament and beat up several lawmakers, including the current prime minister, Zoran Zaev.
With tensions subsiding since then, the commission's paper notes that Macedonia "has largely overcome its deep political crisis" and states that "the political will to move forward is once again clearly present," adding that "a positive change in the political mind-set has been seen across society, the lack of which had been a major impediment to reforms in recent years."
At the same time, it adds that "the necessary structural reforms are a lengthy process which will take years and the damage of recent years cannot be undone overnight."
The document also confirms that the commission, for the first time, recommends opening EU accession negotiations with Albania, which became an official EU candidate country in 2014.
The document states that "reform of the public administration [has been] consolidated, with a view to enhancing its professionalism and depoliticization."
It also adds that "further actions were taken to reinforce the independence, efficiency, and accountability of judicial institutions, particularly through advancing in the implementation of a comprehensive justice reform."
The European Commission does, however, warn that "continued, concrete, and tangible results in the reevaluation of judges and prosecutors will be decisive for Albania's further progress."
Montenegro, which is considered the front-runner of the six Western Balkan countries, started negotiations back in 2012 and has opened 30 out of the 33 chapters, or policy areas, in which aspirant countries must align their legislation with that of the EU. Podgorica has also finished talks on three of the 30 chapters opened.
The paper is, however, not entirely rosy, stating that "further work is required to consolidate trust in the electoral framework" and notes regarding the fraught relationship between the government and the opposition that "returning the political debate to the parliament is the responsibility of all parties."
There is also criticism of the judiciary, with the paper stating that "the entire rule-of-law system now needs to deliver more results" and that "no progress has been made in the area of freedom of expression."
For Serbia, which so far has opened 12 chapters, the document also voices worries over a number of policy areas with the commission, saying that "while progress has been made on the rule of law, Serbia now needs to strengthen its efforts and deliver more results, in particular in terms of creating an enabling environment for freedom of expression, in strengthening the independence and overall efficiency of the judicial system, and in making sustainable progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime."
The paper, however, makes clear that apart from rule-of-law reforms, the one issue that will determine Belgrade's pace in its EU integration is the normalization process with Kosovo that has been taking place under EU auspices since 2011.
The same is true for Kosovo, but Pristina's EU path is complicated by the five EU countries Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain that still do not recognize Kosovo's 2008 independence. The document states that Kosovo's new government and assembly "should bring forward EU-related reforms as a matter of priority and build consensus on key strategic issues."
As with Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina is only a potential EU candidate country at this stage. But Sarajevo submited an official EU membership application in 2016.
The European Commission noted that the country "delivered at a slow pace throughout 2017" when it comes to EU-related reforms and states that "economic developments remain slow, suffering from a weak rule of law, a still poor business environment, an inefficient and fragmented public administration, and major labor market imbalances."