Key findings of the European Commission’s 2018 country reports on the national parliaments of the Western Balkans countries

Blerim Vela discusses the state of the parliaments of the six candidate countries and potential candidate countries from the Western Balkans that are aspiring to become members of the European Union.

On April 17, 2018, the European Commission published the 2018 country reports for six candidate countries and potential candidate countries from the Western Balkans that are aspiring to become members of the European Union. The country reports on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia cover a 18-month period and a wide range of issues corresponding with the EU membership requirements. This includes political criteria and rule of law issues, economic development and competitiveness, regional issues and international obligations, and ability to assume obligations of membership/EU standards. The first chapter of each country report looks at the democratic functioning of institutions, which corresponds with the political criteria for joining the EU. Among other issues, this chapter reviews the developments and functioning of the national parliaments. Some of the key findings of the European Commission’s 2018 country reports on national parliaments relate to political relations between parliamentary groups, insufficient parliamentary oversight of the executives, the continued usage of shortened procedures for review of draft laws related to the EU accession requirements, challenges of the EU accession parliamentary structures, and examples of improved transparency of parliamentary proceedings. Compared to previous annual progress and country reports, the 2018 reports contain little or no reference to parliamentary secretariats and support services.

Political polarisation and opposition boycotts

During the reporting period, regular and early parliamentary elections were held in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Moreover, parliaments of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro saw periods of boycott of parliamentary proceedings by opposition parliamentary groups. In addition, the work of the parliaments in some countries was marred by political polarisation and in some instances use of non-conventional forms of parliamentary actions by parliamentary party groups. In Albania, four Members of Parliament lost their mandates under the so-called decriminalisation process in December 2016 and January 2018. In Kosovo, an opposition parliamentary group released tear gas to halt the ratifications of an agreement with Montenegro. While in Macedonia, the filibustering and highly divisive parliamentary language used by an opposition parliamentary group contributed to the events of April 27, 2017 when a group of protesters entered parliamentary premises and almost lynched MPs from the new governing coalition. For most parliaments, adopting a Code of Ethics for MPs to address MPs’ conflict of interests, unparliamentary behaviour and language remains a challenge. In order to address these challenges, the European Commission has called for political parties to allow parliaments to play their constitutional roles and serve as a forum for constructive political dialogue and representation, as well as guarantee proper checks and balances.

Shortened procedures for review of draft laws

Parliaments of the Western Balkans countries have continued to adopt new legislation and amend existing ones albeit with insufficient time, possibility for deliberation and involvement of the public. Albania saw an improvement of the law-making process with the increased number of laws and amendments put forward by MPs and the regularity of hearings with government and interest groups at committee level. In Bosnia, the adoption of legislation stemming from the EU reform agenda was negatively affected by tensions between ruling coalition parties, leading to a slowdown of the reform pace. In Kosovo, the Parliament used the fast-track procedure frequently when reviewing draft-laws. This resulted in legislation being adopted without substantive debate or stakeholder consultation, including the state budget. In Macedonia, the law-making process was delayed by the filibustering of the main opposition party, which created 10 political groups. At the same time, the Parliament continued to use the shortened or urgent procedure for adopting majority of the laws. While in Serbia, the lack of genuine cross-party debate and political dialogue risks undermining parliamentary effectiveness and the quality of legislation. Moreover, no draft legislative proposals tabled by the opposition were discussed.

Challenges of the parliamentary EU accession structures

The country reports presented different challenges faced by parliamentary structures tasked with facilitating and monitoring the EU accession process. In Albania, the Parliament should harmonise its rules of procedure with the law on the role of parliament in the EU integration process. While, the capacities of the National Council for European Integration were strengthened with the establishment of a dedicated support unit. In Bosnia, the insistence by some delegates from Bosnia and Herzegovina on the inclusion of a voting mechanism provision, which would not comply with European standards, continued to prevent the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement from adopting its Rules of Procedure and for its meetings to take place. In Kosovo, the Parliament adopted the European Reform Agenda, a tool to prioritise the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement; however, its implementation has lagged behind. While in Serbia, the Parliament held debates on country’s negotiating positions for EU accession chapters and organised exchanges with the core negotiating team and with the National Convention on the European Union, which brings together civil society organisations involved in the accession process.

Insufficient parliamentary oversight over the executive and independent institutions

A common challenge for all parliaments of the Western Balkans countries was their ineffective parliamentary oversight over the executive, and, in some instances, also over the independent institutions. Most of the parliaments have limited capacities to monitor the implementation of new legislation and its compliance with the EU acquis. The Parliament in Albania established several inquiry committees, however their work was highly conflictual and lacked results, while other oversight mechanisms remain underused. There were few Prime Minister and cabinet questions and oversight hearings at committee level. On the positive note, the Albanian Parliament  did conduct a structured review of annual reports from independent institutions, and established a system for following up and monitoring recommendations by Parliament and independent institutions. In Kosovo, overall the parliamentary oversight of the executive is weak. Moreover, ministers’ failure to attend plenary sessions and failure to answer parliamentary questions undermine transparency, accountability and communication with the Parliament. In addition, the Parliament lacks the powers and capacity to effectively supervise the 32 independent institutions, which report directly to it. For both Kosovo and Macedonia, parliamentary oversight of the armed forces and intelligence services remains a challenge. In Macedonia, the Parliament has made some progress in holding the executive accountable through regular weekly question and answer sessions. However, parliamentary oversight over government spending still needs to be improved through monitoring the budgetary impact of government proposals and making full use of the State Audit Office’s external reports (the same applies to parliament of Montenegro). Moreover, in Macedonia the parliament should complete all appointments in a timely manner, in line with the law as well as the principles of transparency and meritocracy. While in Serbia, the Parliament does not hold regular question and answer sessions with the executive, and there is very limited discussion and follow up to the State Audit Institution’s audit reports. Moreover, the support for independent regulatory bodies did not improve and the Parliament failed to discuss any annual reports by independent bodies in plenary sessions.

Commissioner Johannes Hahn and High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini announcing EC 2018 country reports

Commissioner Johannes Hahn and High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the launch of the European Commission 2018 country reports. Image via https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/albania/43084/former-yugoslav-republic-macedonia-and-albania-commission-recommends-opening-accession_en

Transparency of parliamentary proceedings

During the reporting period, most parliaments of the Western Balkans improved their transparency and consultations including involvement of public, NGOs and professional associations in parliamentary proceedings. In Albania, the Parliament has ensured access to documents and activities and in May 2017, it approved a two-year communications strategy that aims to improve transparency of parliamentary proceedings. The Parliament of Kosovo made some progress in improving the transparency in and public access to its work, launching an electronic tracking system, providing public access to all information and documents on draft laws under its review in November 2017 In Montenegro, the Parliament has maintained a high level of transparency, and in Serbia, the Parliament has continued its efforts to improve transparency and consultations with public and civil society organization.

The way forward: Strengthening the parliamentary dimension of the EU accession process

There is a need to strengthen the parliamentary dimension of the EU accession process of the Western Balkans countries. The focus of the national parliaments’ engagements should be to reduce the cost of the EU accession, rather than the timely review of the EU membership requirement. This would entail providing the national parliaments of the candidate countries and potential candidate countries with adequate resources and support services to properly review proposals that bring the domestic legal framework in line with the EU acquis. This includes the availability of nonpartisan research services, qualified lawyers and professional advisors for parliamentary committees and party parliamentary groups. Besides meeting the formal membership requirements, the national parliaments should enhance their oversight role by monitoring the implementation of such requirements and overseeing the negations between the national executive and the EU. Lastly, an important task that national parliaments should play is forging and maintaining the national consensus on EU membership through direct engagement with the public, professional associations and civil society organizations.

Notes:

Blerim Vela is Doctoral Researcher on Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the impact of the EU accession process on the functioning of potential EU candidate countries’ national parliaments. He previously worked for the WFD, UNDP and OSCE in a number of countries.

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