Importance of EU perspective of the Western Balkan Region
A credible EU perspective of the Western Balkans countries remains crucial to ensure the much-needed regional stability and to support to build resilient, prosperous and peaceful states. The Western Balkans are the part of Europe. The unanimous support towards the opening of the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, as well as the support of the new enlargement methodology in March by the European Council is an important milestone in that regard for the whole region.
The new enlargement methodology provides the necessary credibility, political focus, efficiency and merit based approach for the whole process as well as great impetus for the regional cooperation. The Western Balkans countries have shown real determination to continue to intensify their regional and EU cooperation in several fields, as well as to keep focusing nowadays on COVID response measures such as keeping the supply flow operational and coordinate efforts to fight the epidemic , facilitating the implementation of the four freedoms in the region and the necessary level of economic cooperation, working together on important topics such as climate change or security. The region is implementing the commitments and initiatives made within the framework of the Berlin Process.
In this context Albania is firmly commited to upholding the fundamental values, democratic principles and rule of law, achieving greater results in the fight against corruption and organized crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights, gender equality and rights of persons belonging to minorities, despite the introduction of special and extraordinary measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The Western Balkans countries are also willing to mutually support each other in the undertaking of the European integration.
Albania’s EU Membership Negotiation Framework
On July 1, 2020, Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi commented that draft negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia are marking another important step in the integration path of two countries. Fulfilling this commitment, the EU offers a concrete framework for the development of membership negotiations. He further confirmed that this project relies on the revised enlargement methodology, introduced in February this year, which aims to make the admission process more credible, with a stronger political direction, more dynamic and predictable. In his statement, he also stressed that he expects to discuss with member states as soon as possible, as well as holding the first intergovernmental conferences with both countries. Stating that the future of these countries is clear in the EU, he expressed confidence that they will continue to implement reforms on their integration path, as they have done so far.
The objective of the negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia is to fully adopt the EU acquis and ensure its full implementation after accession. The negotiation framework is based on the experience of previous enlargements and ongoing negotiations. They integrate the revised expansion methodology, take into account emerging European legislation, and properly reflect the merits of countries and specific situations.
As for further stages, as member states approve the framework for negotiations, the next Presidency of the Council of the European Union will present the EU’s generally agreed position at the first Intergovernmental Conference with each country, marking the beginning of official accession negotiations. The negotiating framework will be made public at this stage.
Referring to the framework document of the negotiations for Albania, regarding the formal aspect, the document contains three subdivisions:1) principles governing the accession negotiations; 2) substance of the negotiations; 3) Negotiation procedures; and 2 annexes: I. Procedure for organizing negotiations; II. Grouping of chapters / topics of negotiations
Regarding the guiding principles of the negotiations, the document first sets out the legal basis on which they will be based, namely: Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, and all relevant conclusions of the European Council, especially those of March 2020, will be taken into account for the adoption of the revised enlargement methodology, the revised consensus on enlargement adopted by the European Council of December 2006, and the conclusions of the 1993 Copenhagen Council.
Negotiations will be based on Albania’s merits and their speed will depend on the country’s progress in meeting membership requirements. The Commission will keep the Council regularly informed about this, so that the latter can constantly review the situation. For its part, the union will decide whether the conditions for concluding negotiations have been met. This procedure will be based on the report of the Commission, which will confirm the fulfillment of the requirements by Albania of the criteria listed in the document. It underlines that negotiations are a process of ‘opening and closing’, the outcome of which cannot be guaranteed in advance.
Advancement of negotiations will be guided by Albania’s progress in membership preparations within a convergent economic and social framework. Progress will be measured separately according to the following requirements:
– Copenhagen Criteria, which sets out the following membership requirements: the stability of institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; the existence of a functioning market economy and the ability to withstand competitive pressure and market forces within the union; the ability to assume membership obligations, including adherence to the goals of political, economic and monetary union, and the administrative ability to effectively implement the acquis.
– The Stabilization and Association Process, which remains the common framework for relations with the Western Balkans until their accession, and in particular Albania’s commitment to good neighborly relations and closer regional co-operation, in line with the Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans adopted in June 2003, the Sofia Declaration of May 2018 and the Zagreb Declaration of May 2020, the Council’s conclusions on enlargement and stabilization and the association process from March 2020 and other relevant Council conclusions.
– Fulfillment of Albania’s obligations under the Stabilization and Association Agreement, as well as Albania’s progress in addressing the key areas identified in the Commission’s annual reports and relevant Council Conclusions.
The document stipulates that the negotiations will take place in an Intergovernmental Conference with the participation of all member states on the one hand and Albania on the other. The conference will also provide a political direction and a forum for political dialogue on the reform process. Based on the Commission’s recommendations in its annual enlargement package, the Council will adopt conclusions on the current state of accession negotiations. The intergovernmental conference will provide a forum for political dialogue on reforms, will consider the overall accession process, and will set an indicator for the coming year on which groups / chapters could potentially be opened or closed and possible corrective action. All parties will ensure representation at the Intergovernmental Conference at the appropriate level to allow for a productive political dialogue.
The expanded membership process envisions a greater focus on fundamental reforms during negotiations in order to strengthen its credibility. Albania must fully align with reforms in key areas of the rule of law, in particular justice reform, the fight against corruption and organized crime, fundamental rights, economic criteria, the functioning of democratic institutions, and public administration reform. Albania needs to ensure that its institutions, governance and administrative and judicial systems are strengthened enough to effectively implement the acquis.
A stronger link to the economic reform program process should help countries meet economic criteria. Targeted policy recommendations, which guide countries to meet economic criteria standards, will be adopted jointly in the framework of the Annual Economic and Financial Dialogue.
The decisions of the Council for the opening and closing of groupings / chapters will take into account the improvement of administrative skills within the respective groupings and their constituent chapters. Furthermore, anti-corruption policies will be included in all relevant chapters. Thus, a chapter will not be temporarily closed before sufficient anti-corruption policies are implemented in that specific chapter.
In addition to the approximation of legislation, membership means the timely and effective implementation of the acquis, which is constantly evolving and includes in particular:
– the content, principles, values and political objectives of the treaties on which the union is founded;
– acts adopted by the institutions in accordance with the Treaties, as well as the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU;
– any other act, legally binding or not, adopted within the framework of the union, such as inter-institutional agreements, resolutions, statements, recommendations, instructions;
– international agreements concluded by the union, by the union together with its member countries, and those concluded by the member states among themselves in relation to the activities of the union.
Negotiation procedures: At this point, the Commission will undertake a formal process of reviewing the aquis in order to inform the country’s authorities on the developments of the acquis, to assess the state of Albania’s preparation for the opening of negotiations in certain areas, such as and to obtain preliminary indications of issues which are likely to arise during the negotiations. The document stipulates that the acquis will be divided into a number of chapters, each covering a specific policy area and organized into thematic groupings. The list of these chapters and groupings is given in Annex II. Any point of view expressed by Albania or the EU on a particular chapter or group of negotiations in no way prejudices the position that can be taken on other chapters or groupings. Policy areas that require particularly serious efforts by Albania to approximate legislation with the acquis and ensure its implementation will be addressed at an early stage of the negotiations. Also, agreements reached during negotiations on specific chapters or groupings, even partial ones, cannot be considered final until a general agreement is reached on all groupings.
Referring to the ‘screening process’, it is explained that it will be performed by the groupings and will result in priorities for the main reforms (opening standards) for the identification of the group as a whole. The Council, acting unanimously on a Commission proposal, shall determine and evaluate the opening standards for each group. The review process should also serve to identify areas for accelerated integration that will be agreed between the EU and Albania for follow-up in the structures of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, when appropriate.
Following the confirmation by the Council on the basis of an assessment by the Commission that the opening standards for the grouping of founders have been met, the Council shall decide to open this group and, acting unanimously, set temporary standards on the chapters of the rule of law in the EU’s opening position, based on the Commission’s proposal. These interim criteria will specifically address, as far as possible, the adoption of legislation and the establishment and strengthening of intermediate administrative and track record structures and will be closely linked to the main actions and points in the implementation of the guideline. Once these temporary standards are met, the Council will act unanimously, and will set in a temporary position the final standards for these chapters requiring ‘track records’ of the implementation of the reform.
Further, the Commission will regularly inform and report to the Council on the progress of the negotiations on the chapters “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights” and “Justice, Freedom and Security”.
Based on the information received from the Commission during the review, as well as regular reports from the conclusions of the relevant Commission and third parties indicators, when necessary, the Council acting unanimously on the Commission’s proposals will determine and assess compliance with the standards (for the temporary closure of each chapter or the whole grouping if the conditions are met). Depending on the chapter, clearly defined standards will refer in particular to legislative alignment with the acquis and a satisfactory ‘track record’ in the application of the main elements of the acquis.
In conclusion, the Commission will closely monitor Albania’s progress in all areas, using all available instruments, including expert assessments by the Commission and member states, dialogue under the SAA and third-party indicators when it is appropriate. The Commission will regularly inform the Council on Albania’s progress in any given area during the negotiations, and especially when presenting the EU’s joint project positions. Meanwhile, the Council will consider this assessment when deciding on further steps regarding negotiations for that chapter. In addition to the information that the EU may request for the negotiations for each chapter and grouping, which will be provided by Albania at the Intergovernmental Conference, the country may be required to provide regular, written, detailed information on progress in implementation of the acquis, even after the temporary closure of a chapter.
Aftermath of the March 2020 Council’s decision on opening accession negotiations with Albania
The Commissioner deliverables on the proposal of the new methodology of negotiations and the March update report on Albania, both brought to a desirable outcome for all, the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, especially on the fulfilment by Albania of the Council’s conditionality as well as to continue and finish the screening process starting with the fundamentals clusters.
Taking the March decision in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, the decision on opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macadonia did not only matter per se, but did matter for the fact that EU knows how to bounce back and how to resettle credibility, soft power and solidarity.
Albania continues to implement the priorities for the opening of accession negotiations, with a special focus on the conclusions of the March 2020 Council which opened accession negotiations with Albania.
In the face of the difficulties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the efforts necessary to launch the post-earthquake (November 2019) reconstruction process, the Albanian Government remaines dedicated to move on with the reform procedures and to finalize the plan how to meet the conditions established by the Council conclusions and to get a date for the first Intergovernmental Conference. In this context, the Government of Albania has prepared a Plan of Action for the fulfillment of the Council’s decision, monitoring its implementation rigorously.
The Plan of Action foresees priority actions for the conditionality from the Council’s decision that will be sought to be fulfilled before the first Intergovernmental Conference:
- The adoption of the electoral reform in June 2020;
- The functionality of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts in October 2020;
- The functionality of Special Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption and Organized Crime (SPAK) within October 2020.
In the Justice Reform progress has been achieved, during this time in two tracks: the re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors (vetting) and the establishment of the new institutions of justice.
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One of key priorities of utmost importance remains the adoptions of electoral reform. After the cross-party agreement reached in January 2020 with both the parliamentary and extra parliamentary opposition, the ’Political Council’ established to negotiate electoral reform has continued its work. The activity of the Political Council is supported by experts appointed by the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee for Electoral Reform, experts appointed by the extra parliamentary opposition and by ODIHR experts. The draft that is agreed by the Political Council on July 5, 2020, will be submitted for adoption to the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee for Electoral Reform. The parties has expressed their willingness to adopt by the end of July the amendments to the Electoral Code fully in accordance with OSCE/ODHIR recommendations, including transparent financing of electoral campaign, giving Albania an electoral process with higher integrity and transparency standards.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Albania has continued to show its commitment and have some results in the key areas identified in the Council Conclusions of March 2020. Anyway a lot of work remains to be done and satisfactory results are expected on the functioning of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, as well as further strengthening the fight against corruption and organised crime, which remains a long term objective for the European Integration of Albania.