EU integration, corruption, refugees remain key challenges for the region in 2014

30/12/2013

Southeast Europe needs to strengthen anti-corruption efforts to reach progress in EU integration process, officials and analysts say.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 30/12/13

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European leaders are expected to confirm the opening of negotiations between Serbia and the EU in January 2014. [AFP]

Experts say common challenges, such as corruption, refugee issues and border security, need a regional approach and stronger co-operation between countries in southeast Europe.

A major goal for many countries remains Euro-Atlantic integration.

Montenegro ended the year by opening five chapters of EU negotiation process, among which the most important and most difficult, 23 and 24, that affect the fight against corruption and the rule of law.

''Program accession of Montenegro to the EU 2014-2018 is a document that will define the European agenda of Montenegro in a five-year coming period. Its creation is in the final phase and it will be adopted in January 2014," Aleksandar Andrija Pejovic, Montenegro's chief negotiator with EU, told SETimes.

To address EU accession Chapters 23 and 24, Montenegro's government will establish the country's first state anti-corruption agency by the end of 2014. The country will provide 660,000 euros to launch the project.

"When it comes to money, reforms that are supposed to be carried out are a very expensive and demanding process," Pejovic said. "However, it is important to emphasise that reform is not being implemented because of Brussels, but for our citizens, because the ultimate goal is not membership in the EU but the European quality of life of Montenegrin citizens."

European leaders are expected to confirm the opening of negotiations between Serbia and the EU in January 2014, as the result of the historic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo in April. It is also expected that Kosovo conclude negotiations for a stabilisation and association agreement by the end of 2014.

"It has shown how the European path, chosen to be followed by both Kosovo and Serbia, can have stabilising and transformative effects even in the early phase of the stabilisation and association process," Euro-parliamentarian Tanja Fajon told SETimes. "Most importantly, this agreement is a significant step towards normalisation and improvement of the life of Kosovo citizens, in particular of those living in the north of Kosovo.''

However, EU officials stressed that many reforms need to be conducted. Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi said that Kosovo is ready to follow the EU recommendations.

"Dialogue on normalisation [of the relations with Serbia] will continue in next years by closing the remaining chapters in the post-war history between the two countries, but for full reconciliation between the two countries to unfold, Serbia will have to start a process of apology for the horrible deeds of 1999 war and will also have to recognise Kosovo's independence. I believe that the path opened with the historic April agreement will lead us there,'' Selimi told SETimes.

Peaceful reintegration of four Serb populated municipalities and dismissal of parallel structures after almost 15 years remain key challenges ahead.

''The fact that the two major ethnic communities, Albanian and Serb, took the course towards a common goal – to ensure better conditions for everyday life and fundamental existential problems – is a fresh advance, especially in the context of Serbia's attempt at playing on the 'old' strategy for Kosovo,'' Sonja Biserko, head of Serbian Helsinki Committee, told SETimes, adding that the elections were a major step towards the region's social and political stabilisation.

Abit Hoxha, a Kosovo senior researcher of the Centre for Security Studies, said the agreements reached between Kosovo and Serbia are a positive development for the whole region and will have a very positive impact in the process of normalisation between the two countries.

''By definition, both Kosovo and Serbia win from the agreements and the biggest victory is that dialogue is an ongoing issue for the governments and without such dialogue, both governments would have lots of difficulties both in the national level and vis-à-vis the EU,'' Hoxha told SETimes.

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Border police stand guard next to a border fences that are planned to be built on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, near the village of Golyam Dervent. [AFP]

Refugee issues need "a clear European solution"

Refugee issues and illegal migration will remain one of the key challenges for the region in 2014. Authorities said the wave of refugees coming from Syria is an open issue and needs a regional approach.

"The problem is there for all to see and it is really hard for South European countries to cope with it," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin told Europost.

Authorities in Bulgaria are working on government strategy to put the situation with refugees under the control and expecting EU assistance to cover some expenses.

"[T]he country could receive financial backing from the European Refugee Fund. Moreover, additional funding could also come as a result of the mandatory mid-term review of the EU multiannual financial framework 2014-2020," Vigenin said.

Bulgaria is planning to increase the police presence on the border and will closely co-operate with Turkey.

"We have an agreement with Turkey to jointly monitor the border, which is in the process of ratification, and we are planning joint patrols along the border," Vigenin said in an interview with NOVA TV.

To address refugee influx and illegal border-crossing problems, EU will launch a new 144-billion-euro system, Eurosur, starting from 2014 until 2020 to monitor its borders.

This system aims to strengthen the control of external borders, land and sea, of the Schengen area. It will establish a special mechanism that will allow the member state authorities, responsible for border controls, to share operational information and to co-operate with each other and with Frontex, the European Agency for Coordination of border guards, in order to reduce the number of immigrants who illegally enter the EU.

Eurosur is formed by 'national coordination centres' via which all national border guards, police, coast guards, navy are required to co-operate and to co-ordinate their activities. The system is being established gradually, starting on December 2nd with the 18 member states at the southern and eastern external borders including Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Italy, Malta, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Schengen-associated country Norway. The remaining 11 EU member states and Schengen-associated countries will join the system next year.

To strengthen border security, the countries in the region will tighten the police co-operation in 2014. In a joint police centre in Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, police officers from Serbia, Montenegro and BiH will work together to prevent organised crime and illegal migration. Authorities said the centre will improve co-operation between the police agencies in three countries.

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Macedonian journalists clash with police on October 23rd in the centre of Skopje. [AFP]

"The joint police centre in Trebinje [which is situated on the cross-border of Serbia, Montenegro and BiH] will significantly help in preventing cross-border crime and illegal migration. One of our most important obligations is a reduction of various illegal asylum seekers," Security Minister of BiH Fahrudin Radoncic told SETimes.

Human rights and media freedom

Political infighting and human rights remain the main challenges for BiH in the 2014. The Sejdic Finci verdict of European Court of Human Rights remains unimplemented.

"For the civilised world, it is inconceivable that in the 21st century in Europe there is a country that makes a distinction between its citizens just because of their national origin," Jakob Finci, one of the appellants of the case, told SETimes. "However, solving of this verdict is just one of 100 problems that BiH is facing. I hope that politicians will implement this verdict in 2014 so that we can have normal elections in October."

The case was brought in 2009, by Dervo Sejdic, a Roma activist, and Jakob Finci, who is Jewish. They argued that the BiH constitution, which was negotiated as part of the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in 1995, is discriminatory because certain electoral posts can only be held by Serbs, Croats or Bosniak Muslims.

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EU officials stressed that 2013 was a successful year for the western Balkans and they expect the trend to continue in 2014.

"With Greece overtaking the presidency of the Council of the EU as of January 2014, and having in mind the 10th anniversary of the biggest EU enlargement wave in 2004, I would like to see a sort of a follow-up to the Thessaloniki Agenda and all the commitments that have been given with regard to the future of the western Balkans countries in the EU. I sincerely hope that 2014 will be even more fruitful," Fajon said.

Correspondents Linda Karadaku in Pristina and Klaudija Lutovska in Skopje contributed to this report.

What are the most important issues the region should address in 2014? Join the discussion below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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