Countries in the EU waiting room, such as Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, have mostly made no real progress in reducing corruption and improving democracy over the last four years, fundamental prerequisites for EU membership.
The plight of the Western Balkan countries was the center of attention at the recent EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels. Angry regional leaders took to the stage to point fingers at the EU, its lack of unity, its broken promises, and even accused the EU of not having its own house in order.
Although some of their frustrations were justified, EURACTIV wanted to take a closer look at the progress made in recent years in terms of internal management.
The results are far from impressive.
Albania applied for membership in 2009 and became an official candidate in 2014. Since then, it has strived to fulfill a number of conditions set by the Commission. These conditions, 15 in total, have been declared completed by Brussels, but independent organizations would disagree.
Transparency International’s corruption perception index fell significantly between 2016 and 2021, from 39 to 35 points out of a possible 100.
It currently stands at 2014 levels and has barely improved from 2012, when the country was first included. This shows little progress in a decade, and particular issues raised repeatedly over the years include state capture, police violence, high-level corruption, and weak checks and balances.
When it comes to Freedom House’s World Freedom Index, it’s a similar story. Albania has fallen in the last five years, there has been no progress and it is still classified as “partly free” in terms of the freedoms and democracy its citizens enjoy.
Things are even worse when considering the media freedom landscape: the country has fallen more than 20 places in the world rankings since Prime Minister Edi Rama came to power in 2013.
Even the US State Department has been consistent in its scathing criticism of Human rights abusesA heavily corrupted judicial system, failure to suppress human trafficking, drug culture and organized crimeand no progress in the fight against corruption or money laundering.
The situation is a little rosier North Macedonia, who has been on the OR waiting list for about 17 years. As its accession path is linked to that of neighboring Albania, its progress has been more tangible.
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders report progress in the country every year, although with some hiccups. The media environment, while still fragmented and rife with political pressure and misinformation, is improving.
Democratic freedoms are also increasing, with the country reaching a record score of 67 out of 100 last year, although it has not yet given up “partially free” status.
Although it has its problems, North Macedonia often outperforms its neighbors in terms of asylum seekers in Europe, organized crime and incidence of drug trafficking.
Montenegro, one of only two countries in the region to have opened accession negotiations, also did better than expected. The current pace of negotiations is slow, and at this pace the country could hope to join the bloc in about 90 years. That said, progress has been made in some areas.
Transparency International observed a slight increase compared to 2018, only one point in 2021. However, the overall situation improved compared to 2014, when it reached a low of 42, four points lower than the current score.
It is also improving in terms of democratic and societal freedoms, going from 65 in 2019, to 62 in 2020 and up to 67 in 2021. Although it is still classified as partially free, progress appears to be underway, even in freedom of the media. the environment, since it ranked 63rd in 2021, compared to 104 the previous year.
However, journalist Jovo Martinovic said there was no real political will to fight corruption and the weakness of the justice system meant there was little accountability.
“Montenegro is unable to advance accession negotiations with the EU… The central problem is corruption and a barely functioning justice system, worse than in Albania. Corruption is impossible to fight here,” he told EURACTIV.
Serbia is the worst performing country in the region, even more so than Albania. Transparency International reported that since 2016, when it scored 42 points, it has been on a downward trajectory, becoming even more corrupt and scoring only 38 last year.
Added to this is a decline in democratic freedoms since President Aleksander Vucic’s party came to power. The country, which is negotiating its accession and recently opened a new chapter, has gone from a free regime to a partially free regime in recent years, instead of recording an improvement.
The US Department of State I didn’t hold back either. They have voiced widespread criticism in recent years regarding the lack of media diversity, state capture, significant human rights violations, numerous serious acts of government corruption and crimes targeting the LGBTI community and People with Disabilities.
Many crimes against these people, as well as other members of society such as women, civil society and society at large, have gone unpunished.
Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have not yet obtained candidate country status, the former having not yet benefited from visa liberalization. Among its neighbors, Kosovo has seen significant increases across the board in recent years, often ranking above its hopeful counterparts in the EU.
The European Commission recognizes that much remains to be done to reform the rule of law in the Western Balkans, following a report by the European Court of Auditors which judged the EU’s 700 million euros of work ” ineffective” and “unsuccessful”.
Overall, the situation regarding corruption, organized crime, media freedom, democracy, human rights and other political issues is not great in the Western Balkans. Despite the hundreds of millions invested by the European Commission in hopeful countries, independent organizations report a setback rather than progress.
This raises questions about the effectiveness of the money invested, as noted by the European Court of Auditors, as well as the trajectory of their journey to the EU.