The European Commission has provided its latest assessment of where candidate countries stand in their efforts to join the European Union.
RFE/RL homes in on the five Balkan states on the path to EU accession, and the commendations, criticisms, and recommendations handed down to them by Brussels.
The European Commission is cautiously optimistic that Serbia, which was granted the status of a candidate for EU accession in 2012, can open real negotiations on some of the 35 negotiating chapters this year. The commission notes that Serbia has made progress both politically and economically, but underlines that Belgrade needs "to enhance credibility and predictability of the rule of law." This includes the "full exercise of freedom of expression," the conditions for which are not in place, according to the report. While the commission notes that some reforms pertaining to rule of law have been implemented, political influence over judicial appointments and the Serbian judiciary still pose major obstacles to independence, efficiency, and accountability.
The migrant situation in Europe and Serbia's role as a transit country for people fleeing conflict in Syria and elsewhere is also addressed, with the European Commission noting the need for Serbia to improve its asylum system and boost its accommodation capacity for migrants.
Serbia's relations with Kosovo, which is recognized as an independent state by 111 countries, but not by Serbia, are also mentioned. The commission says it expects Serbia to remain committed to the normalization of relations with Kosovo and to implement agreements reached so far in the Brussels-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Pristina.
Kosovo signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in October, establishing the first contractual relationship between Europe's newest country and the EU despite the fact the five member states still don't recognizes its independence.
The commission report commended Pristina for reaching several deals in the talks to normalize relations with Serbia and for setting up special chambers to prosecute cases linked to allegations of human organ trafficking. The commission's report criticizes, however, that many independent institutions and regulatory authorities are not operational, and that the judiciary lacks accountability and resources and is prone to political interference. The commission also says organized crime remains "a serious concern."
The commission slams the economic situation in Kosovo, sating that "very low levels of labor force participation together with high unemployment hinder economic development." The commission singles out Kosovo's inefficient public sector and political interference in the economy as particularly concerning.
Of the potential future members in the western Balkans, Montenegro has advanced the farthest in its integration with the European Union. It has opened negotiations with Brussels on 20 of 33 negotiating chapters, and has closed two of them. The commission emphasis that Montenegro must improve the independence of its judiciary and that Podgorica needs to establish "a solid track record in the fight against corruption and organized crime."
Addressing recent political instability that led to violence when the opposition decided to boycott parliament in September, the commission calls on the authorities in Montenegro to duly investigate "all incidents of violence and allegations of excessive use of force during these events." The report adds, however, that "all political parties should re-engage in a constructive political dialogue in the parliament."
The commission also expresses concerns about the freedom of expression in Montenegro, although it notes that the numbers of attacks against the media have decreased recently.
According to the European Commission, Bosnia-Herzegovina is "back on the reform track" after its Stabilization and Association Agreement entered into force in the summer of 2015, seven years after it was originally signed.
The commission suggests that the strengthening of public administration, improvement of cooperation at all levels, and the establishment of an effective coordination mechanism on EU matters could bring Sarajevo one step closer to the EU.
The commission says it wants to see a greater effort to combat organized crime and corruption, while noting that Bosnia-Herzegovina is "at an early stage regarding human rights and the protection of minorities." Similarly dour conclusions are made regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina's economy, which according to the report suffers from low public finance quality, a state sector that is too big, and high unemployment, especially among young people. The commission urges Sarajevo to develop "a more strategic approach" toward tackling deficiencies in its training and education system, simplifying complex export procedures, and developing transportation and energy strategies.
For the seventh consecutive year the commission recommends that the European Union open accession negotiations with Macedonia. The European Council, spearheaded by Greece, has previously struck down the request due to continued disputes over Macedonia's constitutional name.
This time the European Commission notes that its recommendation is dependent on the continued implementation of political agreement reached in summer between the governing party and the opposition. The report states that "the breakdown of political dialogue and difficulties in arriving at consensus on issues highlighted once again the divisive political culture in the country."
The report also notes that the interethnic situation also remains fragile in the country and that trust among ethnic communities must be improved.
The commission concludes that Macedonia is developing a functioning market economy with a sound monetary policy and legal system, but lists concerns about high unemployment, public debt, and setbacks in public finance management.