The countries of the Western Balkans should focus on fundamental reforms, protection of fundamental rights, functioning and independence of democratic institutions, as well as regional cooperation, according to the draft conclusions of the EU Council of Ministers for General Affairs on enlargement and countries in that process.
The Council reaffirmed its commitment to enlargement and said the EU is determined to strengthen and intensify engagement at all levels to foster the political, economic and social transformation of the Western Balkans, including further assistance based on tangible progress in the rule of law and social-economic reforms.
According to the draft document, the new approach to EU enlargement (new methodology) with an even stronger focus on fundamental reforms and with the aim of making the accession process more predictable, credible and dynamic, is based on objective criteria and rigorous conditions and reversibility.
In this context, the Council emphasizes the importance of ensuring that the EU can preserve and deepen its development, including its capacity to admit new members.
Given the current state of partner reforms in the Western Balkans, the Council stressed the urgent need for the region to focus on fundamental reforms to address a number of structural shortcomings in the areas of rule of law, fundamental rights, strengthening democratic institutions and public administration reform criteria.
The Council states that the rule of law and core values, although some partners in the region have made progress in this area, remain one of the main challenges often associated with a lack of political will, continuous elements of the captive state and shortcomings in judicial independence, institutional resistance and struggle against corruption and organized crime, as well as the increasingly difficult environment for civil society.
It is also stated that the measures adopted in the conditions of a pandemic must be proportional, limited in time and with respect for fundamental freedoms.
The situation regarding freedom of expression and media independence is a serious concern, the draft document said, adding that urgent measures were needed to protect these pillars of democracy.
It is stated that the Council is seriously concerned that threats, intimidation and attacks on journalists and other media actors are still present, and emphasizes that these fears must be resolutely removed, including through effective investigations and resolving such cases when they arise.
The importance of further progress in public administration reform, including depoliticisation and increased professionalism, is also highlighted.
It also highlights the greatest importance of inclusive political dialogue, especially in parliaments, and the stronger role of civil society organizations.
The Council reiterated the importance of free, fair and transparent elections in line with OSCE standards, as well as respect for the recommendations of the OSCE and EU observation teams.
Regarding the economic criteria, the Council stressed that the implementation of fundamental reforms remains essential for economic recovery and development and also noted the importance of combating brain drain and providing prospects for young people.
It was also emphasized that good neighborly relations and regional co-operation are key elements of the enlargement process, and the Council welcomed the progress made in this area, especially in the implementation of the Western Balkans Common Regional Market based on EU rules and tenants.
The Council also called for additional efforts in the region to overcome the legacy of the past and accelerate reconciliation based on a climate of tolerance, inclusiveness and trust and with strong civil society engagement.
At the same time, the EU Council reiterated the importance of further deepening co-operation on foreign policy issues as the EU expects alignment with its Foreign and Security Policy, especially on issues of common interest, such as restrictive measures and the fight against hybrid threats.
The Council further emphasized the importance of strengthening cooperation in the fight against terrorism, radicalization and organized crime, as well as in the fight against misinformation and hybrid threats.
At the same time, the Council praised the Western Balkans for its continued efforts and constructive co-operation in the field of migration.
The Council called for the continuation of significant financial and technical assistance in the enlargement process and the SAA, especially in the form of pre-accession assistance.