06.11.2014 On 1 November the new European Commission will officially commence its work for a five year term. The new college of 27 commissioners, led by President Jean Claude Junker, has committed to place transparency at the top of its agenda. The commission should make sure that its big talk about transparency and openness also applies to enlargement negotiations with the candidate and potential candidate countries.
EU integration has been and remains a major driver of anti-corruption efforts in countries aspiring to join the EU. Although it has been made clear that no new country will be joining the EU during the five year term of this commission, the integration perspective remains a major incentive when it comes to institutionalising anti-corruption reforms and fostering changes towards strengthening the rule of law and democracy in the post-war Western Balkan states.
In the case of Croatia, which in 2013 became the 28th member of the EU, there were a number of issues surrounding transparency of the process, which hindered the possibility for meaningful public participation and oversight. In fact, it took several years of civil society pressure until the government began to publish information about EU negotiations related documents discussed during its sessions.Moreover, essential documents produced by the European Commission and the Council, such as the EU Positions, were not proactively disclosed – hindering any independent monitoring.
The Negotiation Framework for Croatia did not specify any expectations regarding transparency, and the Croatian Parliament did not clarify the extent to which civil society could be informed and engaged in the negotiation process. As a result, according to civil society representatives, the Croatian accession ended up being an elitist process “only vaguely understood and remote from the everyday realm of Croatian citizens”.
While there have been improvements made in the disclosure of negotiation-related documents in the cases of Montenegro and Serbia, there are still concerns about the overall transparency of the process.
Screening reports, which are now published on the commission’s website, serve as useful tools for all stakeholders to diagnose the non-compliance of national legislation with the EU acquis. However, the process about the harmonisation of legislation and specific policy areas could benefit from more openness.
In Serbia, where negotiations with the EU are currently at an intensive phase, EU institutions are often asked for their opinions on new draft bills tabled in Parliament. The opinions are often referenced by the government as being positive of the proposed legislation. However, since these opinions are not published either by the government or the EU, national stakeholders have no way of knowing whether the proposals on key pieces of anti-corruption legislation – for instance on media ownership transparency or whistleblower protection – are indeed positively assessed.
Civil society on the ground would be better equipped to monitor the commitments of the national governments if EU could publish opinions it provides on draft laws or oblige the relevant governments to publish this opinion while legislation is being discussed with the national actors. Some good examples of such practices already exist in the region. For example, the Venice Commission, which is the advisory body of the Council of Europe in the field of constitutional law, publishes its draft opinions on whether the proposed legislation in member states meets the democratic standards.
The EU can and should play the central role in creating a space for non-state actors in accession countries to participate in screening and monitoring the negotiation process and tracking anti-corruption progress by national governments. In this regard, the European Commission must disclose all key documents for accession negotiations, such as screening reports, translations of the EU acquis and opening and closing benchmarks. These documents must be published on the websites of the DG Enlargement and the relevant EU Delegations. In addition, the European Commission must make public its opinions on specific pieces of legislation as well as ensure proper consultation with the civil society in the process of formulating those opinions.
EU accession offers historic opportunity for the countries to thoroughly reconfigure their governance landscape by initiating and implementing important reforms. Transparency and meaningful public engagement are necessary to ensure the sustainability and quality of these reforms as well as public ownership and trust in the process.
Author: Tinatin Ninua, TI Secretariat