EU Says To Raise 20 Billion Euros For Western Balkans, But Warns Graft Still A Problem

BRUSSELS -- The European Commission aims to raise 20 billion euros ($23.5 billion) in the coming decades in loans and grants for six EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans, according to a document seen by RFE/RL.

The sum, earmarked for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, is part of a project called “An Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans” that Brussels is due to launch on October 6.

The money would come on top of at least 9 billion euros ($10.5 billion) in grants from the expected EU budget for the 2021-2027 period.

According to the document, the new amount should be spent on strengthening “core infrastructure links, in particular main transport and energy connections, which are instrumental for economic development, market integration, and cross-border trade within the region and with the European Union.”

It would also “support the green and digital twin transitions” and “connect economies through strengthened regional economic integration and integration with the EU.”

The economic plan comes on the same day as the European Commission is to present its annual progress report for the six countries, with Brussels assessing how they have done in areas such as media freedom, judicial reform, and fight against corruption over the past year.

The report, seen by RFE/RL, criticizes Montenegro, which started EU accession negotiations with the EU in 2012, over its lack of progress on freedom of expression. It states that “although there has been progress on the media legislation, this has been overshadowed by arrests and proceedings against editors of online portals and citizens for content they posted or shared online in the course of 2020.”

It also notes that “the growing volume of region-wide disinformation further polarized the society in the aftermath of the adoption of the law on freedom of religion and during the electoral campaign."

The report criticizes Serbia for the parliamentary elections that it held in June.

“While contestants were able to campaign and fundamental freedoms were respected, voter choice was limited by the governing party’s overwhelming advantage and the promotion of government policies by most major media outlets,” the report says.

“The newly constituted Serbian parliament is marked by the overwhelming majority of the ruling coalition and the absence of a viable opposition, a situation which is not conducive to political pluralism in the country,” it adds.

North Macedonia, which hopes to start EU accession talks later this year, has the most positive assessment out of the six countries covered by the report which warns, however, that “corruption is prevalent in many areas and a more proactive approach from all actors engaged in preventing and fighting corruption needs to be ensured.”

In the case of Albania, which is also hoping to start accession talks later in 2020, the report highlights progress in judicial reform and the fight against corruption. However, it cautions that “the political dialogue in the country needs to be improved” and that “the political environment in Albania continued to be marked by intense polarization.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is still not an official EU candidate country, is criticized in the report for the political deadlock that paralyzed the country most of the year.

"No progress was made in improving the electoral framework in line with European standards and ensuring transparency of political party financing," the document says, adding that corruption remained “widespread” and is a “serious concern,” with “all levels of government showing signs of political capture directly affecting the daily life of citizens."

There is also heavy criticism in the report for Kosovo, where “corruption is widespread and remains an issue of serious concern."

The document highlights the need for "strong political will to effectively address corruption issues, as well as a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.”

"Measures are needed to strictly ensure there is no political interference with operational activities of law enforcement bodies and the prosecution" in the fight against organized crime in Kosovo, the report says.