The governments of the European Union reaffirmed their commitment to enlargement while stressing that the rule of law continues to be one of the “main challenges” to accession for the Western Balkans.
On Monday, European ministers meet in the General Affairs Council where they unanimously approved the Council’s conclusions on enlargement.
The conclusions confirmed that the Council is committed to enlargement, reiterating European leaders’ pledge at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in October. The declaration comes two months after reports by Reuters alleged that the 27 member states disagreed on explicitly guaranteeing the Western Balkans’ future EU membership.
On the topic of enlargement, the Council said it is looking forward to “holding of the first intergovernmental conferences with the Republic of North Macedonia and with Albania as soon as possible.” At the same time, it gave North Macedonia no timeline for the resolution of its issues with Bulgaria.
Rule of law was a key focus of the conclusions, as the Council noted “with concern that the reported shortcomings confirm [rule of law] to be one of the main challenges,” highlighting Serbia’s issues with an independent judiciary.
Regarding Albania more specifically, the Council gave a positive assessment’s of the country’s efforts to implement EU reforms, commending the April 2021 general elections and urging Albanian leaders to implement the OSCE/ODHIR recommendations.
It also spoke favorably of the country’s justice reform and judicial vetting, encouraging “Albanian authorities to pursue all efforts to allow the process to be successfully finalised.”
The mandate of the two bodies entrusted with the vetting of the country’s judges and prosecutors is set to expire in June 2022 and the Socialist majority have asked for their mandates to be extended. The opposition does not oppose the extension, but it is using it as leverage to implement its own agenda.
The Conclusions also highlighted the need for regional cooperation, in particular through the “Western Balkans Common Regional Market, based on EU rules and standards, which will be crucial for taking full advantage of the potential of the region and of the Economic and Investment Plan.”
The Council urged Serbia and Kosovo to continue with the EU-facilitated dialogue, reminding the parties that achieving “a comprehensive legally binding agreement…in accordance with international law and EU acquis,” is a prerequisite to EU integration.