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Western Balkans region gets endorsement from Merkel on path to EU integration

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The German chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) has mentioned that the six Western Balkan countries should become EU member states in the future. She considers this move to hold strategic importance hinting at the influence China and Russia have in the region, writes Cristian Gherasim, Bucharest correspondent.

"It is in the European Union's very own interests to drive the process forward here," Merkel said during a virtual conference on the future of Western Balkans.

The conference was attended by the heads of government of Serbia, Albania, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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In 2003 the Council summit in Thessaloniki set integration of the Western Balkans as a priority of EU expansion. The EU's relations with the Western Balkans states were moved from the "External Relations" to the "Enlargement" policy segment in 2005.

Serbia officially applied for European Union membership on 22 December 2009. Accession negotiations are currently ongoing. Ideally, Serbia is expected to complete its negotiations by the end of 2024.

For Albania, accessions talks began in March last year when EU ministers reached a political agreement on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Until now, Albania has received in EU money a total of €1.2bn of developmental aid from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, a funding mechanism for EU candidate countries.

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Probably the widest support out of all Western Balkan states in joining the union is received by Montenegro. The accession negotiations with Montenegro began on 29 June 2012. With all the negotiating chapters opened, the country’s widespread support amongst EU members' officials could prove very valuable for Montenegro to meet its 2025 accession deadline.

North Macedonia faces a bit more hurdles from its neighbours in becoming the next EU member state. North Macedonia faced two separate issues with both Greece and Bulgaria. The use of the country name "Macedonia" was the object of a dispute with neighboring Greece between 1991 and 2019, resulting in a Greek veto against EU and NATO accession talks. After the issue was resolved, the EU gave its formal approval to begin accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in March 2020. Bulgaria on the other hand in November 2020 effectively blocked the official start of North Macedonia's EU Accession Negotiations over what it perceives as slow progress on the implementation of the 2017 Friendship Treaty between the two countries, state-supported or tolerated hate speech and minority claims towards Bulgaria.

Even less fortunate on the waiting list for EU accession talks is Bosnia and Herzegovina. An opinion on Bosnia's application was published by the European Commission in May 2019. It remains a potential candidate country until it can successfully answer all of the questions on the European Commission's questionnaire sheet as well as "ensure the functioning of the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee and develop a national programme for the adoption of the EU acquis.” Many observers estimate that Bosnia and Herzegovina is at the bottom in terms of EU integration among the Western Balkans states seeking EU membership.

Kosovo is recognized by the EU as a potential candidate for accession. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo was signed on 26 February 2016 but Kosovo is still far on the path to EU accession.

Supporting a speed up of the integration process for the six western Balkan nations is also backed by President of the European Commission. Von der Leyen said: "Our first priority is to accelerate the enlargement agenda across the region and support our Western Balkan partners in their work to deliver on the necessary reforms to advance on their European path."

Eastern Partnership

Visa liberalization: Commission reports on continued fulfilment of requirements by Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries

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The Commission has presented its 4th report on the monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The report focuses on actions taken in 2020 to address  the recommendations in the 3rd Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism.

For countries that have been visa-exempt for fewer than seven years (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), the report also provides a more detailed assessment of other actions taken to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks. The report concludes that all countries concerned continue to meet the visa liberalisation requirements and made progress in addressing last year's recommendations. At the same time, the report highlights areas where further efforts are needed from each country. The report also states that visa-free movement continues to bring positive economic, social and cultural benefits to EU member states and partner countries.

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said: “Visa-free travel between the EU and the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries is a significant achievement. While restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on mobility, visa-free countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership must continue and step up their efforts in managing migration and asylum and in fighting corruption and organized crime.”

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Migration, asylum and co-operation on readmission

The COVID-19 pandemic and the related travel restrictions had a major impact on migration and mobility to the EU. The vast majority of those who did travel to the EU did so with legitimate grounds. While all countries assessed continued to take measures to address irregular migration, further efforts are needed to address ongoing concerns:

  • Asylum applications decreased sharply in the spring of 2020. However, several countries need to continue addressing the issue of unfounded asylum applications by their citizens, including by strengthening participation in the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT)and by continuing to organise targeted information campaigns.
  • While return rates decreased due to the limited availability of flights, good cooperation on return and readmission continues between Member States and participating countries.
  • Despite an overall decrease in the number of irregular border crossings, improvements in the areas of border and migration management are still needed. The reception capacity in some Western Balkan countries continues to raise concerns, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • The Frontex status agreements with North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina should be swiftly finalised and implemented.
  • To ensure a well-managed migration and security environment, a pre-condition for the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation criteria, the assessed countries must ensure further alignment with EU's visa policy.

Public order and security

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All countries assessed continued to take measures to prevent and fight organized crime. However, further efforts are needed to address internal security concerns:

  • The countries should take action to effectively fight against organised crime, financial fraud and money laundering, especially through better coordination between law enforcement agencies.
  • High-level corruption remains an area of concern. In some cases, efforts against corruption are still hampered by the limited capacity and legal status of anti-corruption agencies as well as and the small number of convictions in those corruption cases which go to trial (especially in Moldova and Ukraine).
  • Visa-free countries granting citizenship in exchange for investment should effectively phase out such schemes, so as to prevent nationals of other visa-required countries from circumventing the EU short-stay visa procedure and the in-depth assessment of migration and security risks it entails.

Next steps

The Commission will continue monitoring the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements through senior officials meetings as well as through the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and bilateral and regional dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries. For the Western Balkans, this monitoring will also take place through regular enlargement reports and, where relevant, EU accession negotiations. The Commission will continue to report to the European Parliament and the Council at least once a year.

Background

The EU currently has a visa-free regime in place with 61 countries. Under this visa-free regime, non-EU citizens with a biometric passport can enter the Schengen area for 90 days, within 180 days, without a visa. Visa-exempt travellers visiting the Schengen area will be subject to the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) as from the end of 2022.

As part of the Strengthened Visa Suspension Mechanism, adopted in March 2017, the Commission  monitors the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries that obtained visa exemption as a result of a visa liberalization dialogue fewer than seven years ago, and reports to the European Parliament and the Council at least once a year.

The report is the 4th under the Visa Suspension Mechanism, following the First Visa Suspension Mechanism Report of December 2017, Second Visa Suspension Mechanism Report issued in December 2018 and Third Visa Suspension Mechanism Report issued in July 2020.

Data from this report relates to the 2020 calendar year, with updates for 2021 where relevant.

Citizens of Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia can travel to the EU without a visa since December 2009. For citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is possible since the end of 2010. For Moldova visa-free travel entered into force in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.

More information

Fourth Report Under the Visa Suspension Mechanism

Staff Working Document

Question and Answers

Strengthened Visa Suspension Mechanism

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Crime

18 arrested for smuggling more than 490 migrants across the Balkan route

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Officers from the Romanian Police (Poliția Română) and Border Police (Poliția de Frontieră Română), supported by Europol, dismantled an organized crime group involved in migrant smuggling across the so-called Balkan route.

The action day on 29 July 2021 led to:

  • 22 house searches
  • 18 suspects arrested
  • Seizure of munitions, five vehicles car, mobile phones and €22 000 in cash

The criminal network, active since October 2020, consisted of Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Romanian citizens. The criminal group had cells in the countries across the Balkan route from where regional facilitators managed the recruitment, accommodation and transport of migrants from Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Several criminal cells based in Romania facilitated the border crossing from Bulgaria and Serbia of groups of migrants and arranged their temporary accommodation in the area of Bucharest and in western Romania. The migrants were then smuggled to Hungary on their way to Germany as a final destination. In total, 26 illegal transports of migrants were intercepted and 490 migrants were detected in an attempt to illegally cross the Romanian border. Very well organized, the criminal group was involved in other criminal activities as well, such as drug trafficking, document fraud and property crime.

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Up to €10,000 per migrant

Migrants were paying between €4,000 and €10,000 depending on the trafficking segment. For example, the price for facilitating the crossing from Romania to Germany was between €4,000 and €5,000. The migrants, some of which were families with young children, were accommodated in extremely poor conditions, often with no access to toilets or running water. For the safe houses, the suspects rented accommodations or used the residences of group members, mainly situated in the areas of Călărași County, Ialomița County and Timișoara. In one of the safe houses, measuring about 60 m2, the suspects hid 100 people at the same time. The migrants were then transferred in risky conditions in overcrowded lorries between merchandise and in vans hidden in concealments without proper ventilation. 

Europol facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support. On the action day, Europol deployed one analyst to Romania to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases in real time to provide leads to investigators in the field. 

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Environment

Report: Western Balkan coal plants pollute twice as much as those in the EU

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A report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and Bankwatch set to be released on 12 July shows how 18 coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans emitted twice as much sulphur dioxide than was released by 221 power plants in the EU in one year: 2019. This is in stark contrast to 2015, when emissions of SO2  — an air pollutant that can cause respiratory issues and other health problems — from coal-powered electricity generation in the then EU28 were 20% higher than those from Western Balkan countries.

The report, Western Balkan coal power plants polluted twice as much as those in the EU in 2019, finds that some individual coal power plants in the Western Balkans emit more than entire countries in the EU. Nikola Tesla A, in Serbia, exceeded the total SO2 emissions of the highest emitting EU country, Poland.
When looking at emissions per GWh of electricity produced, Ugljevik, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 50 tonnes of SO2/GWh, is the biggest offender. In comparison, Bełchatów in Poland, the EU’s most polluting power plant, emitted just 1.1 tonnes of SO2/GWh.

While the EU has closed 30 such coal plants since 2016, and is becoming compliant with the Industrial Emissions Directive, and its requirements to reduce pollution, this has not been the case for the Western Balkan region where pollution control rules have been repeatedly breached.

Since 2018, 17 of the 18 coal power plants in the Western Balkans have been under legal obligation to implement the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD). This should have resulted in significant immediate drops in SO2, NOx and dust pollution, followed by gradual reductions of these pollutants until the end of 2027. 

“These findings demonstrate the urgent need for discontinuation of coal-fired electricity production in the Western Balkans, as well as urgent improvements in pollution control for those plants during their remaining years of service,” said Davor Pehchevski, Balkan air pollution campaign coordinator, from Bankwatch. “Making coal an energy source of the past will be an enormous benefit to Western Balkan countries seeking to improve their populations’ health. It would also help in their aspirations for EU membership, and set a course for an all-inclusive transition away from all fossil fuels for the entire EU and Energy Community region in the coming decades.”

CREA and Bankwatch are calling on the European Commission Directorate-General for Energy to ensure stronger, effective and dissuasive enforcement tools for penalising breaches to the Energy Community Treaty, in particular non-compliance regarding LCPD. Please view the report here.

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