One of the conclusions reached by the European Commission (EC) in the newly issued enlargement package for the Western Balkans is that the overall pace of fighting corruption has slowed, and most countries’ track records are far from achieving the conditions for membership. The four EU candidate nations in the Western Balkans — Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania – have varying achievements in the battle against corruption. While nations in the early phases of the EU accession process (Albania and North Macedonia) appear to be speeding up or continuing rule of law changes, the frontrunners (Montenegro and Serbia) appear to be slowing down.
Despite the fact that these four countries’ reform initiatives are at different stages, they all need to step up their efforts and generate results in the fight against corruption (track record), particularly high-level corruption. As EU officials have begun to emphasize that economic assistance will be conditional on the completion of key reforms, and the new enlargement methodology envisages more stringent conditionality, progress in the areas of anti-corruption and rule of law will be needed now more than ever if these countries are to become EU members in the near future.
The proper implementation of the vetting process in Albania will be critical in the fight against corruption, while the trial of the criminals in the wiretapping cases will be the most pressing task in North Macedonia in the coming years, according to this article. With the opposition winning the parliamentary election in Montenegro, there is a new hope for the EU accession process to be accelerated, while the Serbian ruling elite will have to work to create an environment conducive to political pluralism and change its policy of inaction when it comes to high-level corruption. For reforms to take effect, a compromise in the Montenegrin Parliament is required.
Montenegro received the European Commission Report during a period of political transition, as the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years after the August parliamentary election, and negotiations for the formation of a new government are ongoing. Depoliticization of institutions and the battle against corruption and organized crime would be top priorities on the new government’s agenda, according to the preliminary agreement of the new parliamentary majority.
According to this year’s EC report, Montenegro has made very little progress in the battle against corruption, and there are several flaws in the rule of law. According to Ana Urni, Public Policy Researcher at Institute Alternative (IA) in Podgorica, Montenegro’s progress in the EU accession process is “one stride ahead, two steps back” based on the overall score in the report (3,18 out of 5), which is somewhat better than last year but same to 2016, “The fight against corruption is not an exception; rather, it influences the progress of talks, which is reflected in the average score,” Urni explained.
She believes that once the new majority is created, it should capitalize on the reforms resulting from the accession negotiations process, which the people voted for in the August elections, rather than the previous government’s approach. She claimed that the European Commission underlined that the work of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is problematic in terms of independence, prioritization, selectivity, and decision quality. “Agency is the institution that has been utilized in the past for political disputes, which needs to stop,” Urni pointed out.
In the field of free access to information, where insufficient legislative solutions prohibit citizens from fully exercising their right to access information of public interest, there is still much room for improvement. “The outgoing government intended to pass a new law that would further exacerbate backsliding in this area, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that, so this may be one of the first issues that the incoming administration must handle. The insufficient formulation in the Law on Free Access to Information from 2017, which exploits business and tax secrets as reasons for withholding information and endless rejections of requests, has not yielded any positive results in this area, so new and more advanced legal solutions are required,” Urni said. The new parliamentary majority, as well as the opposition, must demonstrate their commitment to the EU integration process. “Without an effective judiciary, there can be no effective fight against corruption.
If the government and the opposition do not reach good and quality compromises on these issues, I am confident that the judgments in the European Commission’s next report will be identical to this year’s, with the exception of names,” Urni added. In Serbia, the number of concluded high-level corruption cases is decreasing. Serbia was confronted with the most damning European Commission report to date, particularly in regard to the political criteria for membership and the rule of law, where a new assessment grade – very little progress – was added.
The report’s overall bitterness is mitigated by significant progress in economic categories, but it hasn’t stopped civil society specialists from concluding that the country could face suspension of negotiations with the EU unless something drastically changes. However, the report’s most influential political actors, the President and Prime Minister, attempted to undermine it by calling it “politically biased” and “unfounded” in some portions, while complimenting its economic assessment accurately.