Western Balkans: Corruption reigns supreme among EU candidates
Countries on the EU’s waiting list, such as Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, have failed to show real progress in reducing corruption and improvement in democracy over the past four years, fundamental preconditions for EU membership.
The plight of the Western Balkan countries was highlighted at the recent EU-Western Balkans Summit in Brussels. Disgruntled regional leaders took to the floor to point the finger at the EU, its lack of unity, its broken promises, and even accused the EU of failing to put its own house in order.
While some of their frustrations were justified, EURACTIV wanted to take a closer look to see how far they have come in recent years when it comes to managing their internal affairs.
The results are far from impressive.
L’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 number, have been declared fulfilled by Brussels, but the independent organizations do not agree.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index dropped significantly between 2016 and 2021, falling from 39 to 35 points on a scale of 100.
It is currently at 2014 levels and has barely improved since 2012, when the country was first included. It shows little progress in a decade, and particular issues raised repeatedly over the years include state capture, police violence, high-level corruption, and a weak checks and balances system.
The situation is similar for the index Freedom in the World of Freedom House. Albania has gone backwards in the last five years, no progress has been recorded and it is still classified as “partially free” with regard to the freedoms and democracy enjoyed by citizens.
Things get even worse when looking at the press freedom landscape, as the country has tumbled 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 scathingly critical of human rights abuses, a heavily corrupt judiciary, failure to crack down on human trafficking, drug culture and the organized crime, as well as the lack of progress in the fight against corruption or money laundering.
The balance is a little more positive in North Macedonia, who has been on the Union’s waiting list for 17 years. Its path to membership being linked to that of neighboring Albania, its progress has been more tangible.
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders both report annual progress in the country, although they are not free from irregularities. The media landscape, while still fragmented and plagued by political pressures and misinformation, is improving.
Democratic freedoms are also progressing, with the country reaching a record score of 67 out of 100 last year, although it has yet to graduate from statehood. “partially free”.
Although it has its problems, North Macedonia often outperforms its neighbors in terms of asylum seekers in Europe, organized crime and the incidence of drug trafficking.
the 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. However, there is progress in some areas.
Transparency International observed a slight increase compared to 2018, by only one point in 2021. However, the general situation has improved since 2014, when it bottomed out at 42, four points lower than the score of today.
The country is also improving in terms of democratic and societal freedoms, rising from 65 in 2019 to 62 in 2020 and 67 in 2021. Although it is still classified as partly free, progress seems to be underway even in the freedom of the press, as it ranks 63rd in 2021, compared to 104th the previous year.
However, journalist Jovo Martinovic said there is no real political will to fight corruption, and the weakness of the judicial system means there is little political accountability.
“Montenegro is unable to advance accession negotiations with the EU….. The central problem is corruption and a barely functioning judicial system, which is worse than in Albania. Corruption is impossible to manage here”he told EURACTIV.
The Serbia is the least performing country in the region, even more so than Albania. Transparency International reported that since 2016, when the country scored 42 points, it has been on a downward trajectory, becoming increasingly corrupt and only scoring 38 points last year.
Added to this is a reduction in democratic freedoms since the coming to power of the party of President Aleksander Vucic. The country, which is negotiating membership and recently opened a new chapter, has gone from free to partly free in recent years rather than registering an improvement.
The US State Department also did not abstain. In recent years, he has voiced significant criticism regarding the lack of diversity in the media, state capture, gross human rights abuses, numerous serious acts of government corruption and crimes targeting the community. LGBTI and people with disabilities.
Many crimes against these people, as well as against other members of society such as women, civil society and society as a whole, have gone unpunished.
Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have not yet obtained candidate status, the former having not yet benefited from visa liberalisation. Compared to its neighbours, Kosovo has seen a significant increase in all areas over the past few years, often ranking above its counterparts hoping to join the EU.
The European Commission admits that there is still a long way to go to reform the rule of law in the Western Balkans, following a report by the European Court of Auditors which found “ineffective” and “unsuccessful” the 700 million euros allocated by the EU to this task.
Overall, the situation with regard to corruption, organized crime, freedom of the press, democracy, human rights and other political issues is not encouraging in the Western Balkans. Despite the hundreds of millions injected by the European Commission into hopeful countries, independent organizations report setbacks rather than progress.
This leads to questions about the effectiveness of the money invested, as noted by the European Court of Auditors, as well as the progression of their European trajectory.
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