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The early stages of stagnation

The new EC report’s assessments are hidden behind a convoluted veil of words - but when it comes to Kosovo, the truth remains: there’s no will to roll up sleeves and do the necessary work.

The European Commission, EC, country reports for the six Western Balkan countries and Turkey were published last week. However, there is still a tendency to refer to them as progress reports for the sake of pretending there is still progress in the region. Or perhaps it is because  our clocks stopped back when they were still actually called progress reports — back in the days when the region’s governments, civil society, and the media used the reports as guidelines to assess each country’s progress and treated the reports as solid working documents in the EU integration process.

The country reports, part of the enlargement package, triggered a lukewarm reaction this year. I am not sure whether this means that the EU is losing clout in the region, or whether it means that the reports, similar to the situation on the ground, did not change in the past – at least ten years – and there is absolutely no added value to make an effort to read them.

This year’s country reports were expected to be slightly different, expectations running high especially after the Strategy for the Western Balkans published in 2018, marking the first European Commission document written outside of the comfort zone shielded by the (in)famous ambiguous bureaucratese . The strategy explicitly states that there are signs of state capture by private interests. Furthermore, it does use rather strong language when referring to the deterioration of democratic standards, pointing out that enlargement will only take place after serious improvement. The strategy provided a very strong point of reference for the subsequent country reports,  therefore, it was widely expected that the following reports would strike the same tone.

It took almost a year and a half – since November 2016, dozens of people in Brussels and the EU delegations in the six Western Balkans countries to vaguely define and assess three different levels of progress in the EU integration path: early stage, some progress, and good progress. One could argue that this is quite an ambiguous and one dimensional Likert Scale format offering only three options, missing a unique opportunity by keeping serious issues in limbo.

The reports marked another year of shattered hopes to see sharp and concise reporting, another round of overly technical and ambiguous language, and lack of creativity in tackling the most pressing issues. In other words, an ongoing deja-vu.

The reports proved to be a reality check for the so-called frontrunners: both Serbia and Montenegro were provided with a long list of challenges they have to tackle before 2025. Meanwhile, although Albania and Macedonia received a positive recommendation to open accession negotiations, the decision has yet to be taken in the EU Council. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina continue lagging behind their neighbors, both stuck in an overly complicated cycle of the inability to deliver and the political challenges of the EU integration process.

Among all, Kosovo remains in the early stage level of progress, with the largest number of problems pertaining to the fight against corruption and organized crime. In the case of Kosovo “corruption” is  mentioned 76 times, followed by “organized crime” mentioned 38 times. These two issues are highlighted on purpose, as they are also linked to one of the favorite topics in Kosovo, the visa liberalization process.

As expected, among all alarming issues in the report, Kosovo kept revolving around visa liberalization, the only “carrot” that it is going to receive – at least in the next ten years. This brings us to one of the fundamental problems in Kosovo, the inability to make a simple distinction between the EU accession process and visa liberalization process. Kosovo politicians have reduced all European integration processes to the visa-free regime; one could argue that even the progress report is read through with the expectation that it will assess the progress done on the visa liberalization roadmap (although they are issued by the same EU institution, they’re not the same thing). But visa liberalization is not tied to EU integration at all – countries such as Colombia and Taiwan enjoy  visa-free regimes with the EU, Kosovo too should start seeing this as a separate issue entirely.

So, apart from the visa issue – mentioned briefly in the country report mostly in relation to the work of the Assembly – can we start taking about the elephant in the room? Let’s discuss state capture. Although the European Commission enlargement strategy made a direct reference to it, the term does not make an appearance in the progress report for Kosovo. This has provided some peace of mind to Kosovo politicians, but other terms such as erosion of democracy (although the existence of any form of democracy in the region is very doubtful), weak institutions, lack of checks and balances and systematic corruption have been mentioned. In fact, a great chunk of the recommendations found in the new report have remained the same as from the last one published in November 2016.

Another perfect opportunity to exercise the copy-paste system of reporting, and perfect example of inability to deliver – which in the normal world should trigger debates for change in approach by both the EU and Kosovo leaders.

The report covers a hectic time for Kosovo: the country went through snap elections, was unable to form a government for months and ended up with an unstable coalition which can hardly manage to ensure a simple majority in the parliament, let alone address issues of major concern.

The report also flags another concerning issue, the slow implementation of the Stabilization Association Agreement – the only contractual agreement between Kosovo and the EU and the only avenue for Kosovo to show true commitment to the EU integration process. The claims by the Minister for EU integration, Dhurata Hoxha, that 30 per cent of the agreement is successfully implemented – I’m not sure how this assessment was conducted – are clearly negated by the country report. The European Reform Agenda programme was adopted in 2016, but the overall implementation is lagging behind. The new government has made attempts to implement the SAA by updating the mid-short term measures, thus creating better alignment with the annual working programme, but the results have been limited. Furthermore, this is one of the rare cases where the Kosovo Government cannot transfer the blame on an alleged blockade by non-recognizers or any other external factor hampering the process.

The country report for Kosovo provided a stroll down memory lane, it showed us once again  that it is impossible to get different results by doing the same thing over and over again. If the EU expects results from the region, the reporting should be very sharp and concise, done in strong cooperation with civil society, provide non papers, expert and peer-review missions to successfully tackle all pressing issues.  The biggest concern remains the fact that there is a total lack of political will to roll-up sleeves and work, especially in the fight against corruption and organized crime. Unless the region’s governments do this, we will witness yet another year of pretending to address EC recommendations, and another year of reporting the same issues, until eventually one of the parties finally gives up.

Donika Emini holds an MA in Public Policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. She is a researcher at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies in Prishtina.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

24 April 2018 - 10:31

Donika Emini

24/04/2018 - 10:31

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.