At the end of May, the European Commission published its annual reports on the EU candidate countries and potential candidates in the Western Balkans. Blerim Vela explains what the reports illustrated about the functioning of national parliaments in the region. The Assembly of North Macedonia appeared to be the best-functioning, while the Assembly of Serbia had deteriorated most.
On 29 May, the European Commission published its 2019 annual country reports for the Western Balkans countries. The Commission recommended starting accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The annual reports noted, “proper functioning of democratic institutions remains a key challenge in most countries”. According to the European Commission, national parliaments play a central role in enhancing accountability and oversight of governments. To achieve this, the Commission argued that the functioning of national parliaments should be firmly embedded in a state’s domestic political culture, which supports constructive cross-party dialogue.
However, the reports noted that the functioning of national parliaments is heavily affected by the nature of relations between governing and opposition parties as well as the dominance of the executive over parliament. The Assembly of North Macedonia appeared to be the best-functioning parliament in the region from this perspective, while the Assembly of Serbia had deteriorated most in terms of its overall functioning. Other national parliaments recorded minor improvements, while common challenges related to oversight continued to persist.
Political developments affecting the functioning of national parliaments
Political developments and relations between governing and opposition parliamentary parties affected the work of the all national parliaments in the Western Balkans. The European Commission reported that the Assembly of Albania was affected by a high degree of polarisation and a prolonged boycott by the opposition. Similarly, the Commission reported that the Assembly of Kosovo continued to operate in a highly polarised political context that, coupled with the continuing weaknesses relating to the rules of procedure and planning of sessions, affected its legislative activity. Frequent violations of the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure stoked political tensions between the governing and opposition parties. In addition, the work of the Assembly of Kosovo was marked by lack of regular plenary sessions and a large backlog of agenda items. The Commission noted that the Assembly of Kosovo should improve its internal regulatory framework with the adoption of new Rules of Procedure.
The Commission highlighted limited progress in the Assembly of Montenegro on re-establishing political dialogue between the governing and opposition parties that resulted in a temporary return of most opposition MPs to parliamentary proceedings. However, by the end of 2018, the opposition gradually returned to a selective boycott of parliamentary proceedings. This affected the Assembly’s ability to exercise its oversight role over the government and weakened the quality of debates on draft legislation. The boycott also obstructed decisions on appointments to public bodies that required a qualified majority (the Judicial Council). Reflecting the unique institutional set up of the legislative assemblies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Commission called for reconsidering the ethnic-based veto procedures that adversely affected the work of the legislative assemblies at state and entities level.
Federica Mogherini delivering a speech in the Parliament of Montenegro, Credit: EEAS (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Commission praised improvements in the functioning of the Assembly of North Macedonia in the law-making and oversight domains. The Assembly managed to enhance its role as a forum for constructive political dialogue between governing and opposition parties. As a result, consensus across party and ethnic lines was established on several occasions, including for amendments to laws requiring a two-thirds majority. With assistance from the European Parliament, governing and opposition parties engaged constructively in the framework of the ‘Jean Monnet Dialogue’ that resulted in the adoption of a Code of Ethics, while inclusive work on the Rules of Procedure was at an advanced stage.
The European Commission was highly critical of the governing parties’ parliamentary practices in the Assembly of Serbia that led to a deterioration in legislative debate and scrutiny, significantly undermining the parliament’s oversight of the government. The application of negative agenda setting measures by merging unrelated laws under one discussion point, as well as proposing hundreds of amendments irrelevant to the content of legislation, suppressed the space for genuine cross-party debate and conditions for the opposition to participate meaningfully in the parliament. As a result, the governing parties used up the allocated time for debate in the plenary and the opposition parties were blocked from effectively participating in the legislative debate and presenting their draft amendments, including on key legislative pieces such as the 2019 budget. The Commission noted that in the current polarised environment in the Assembly of Serbia, it is crucial that cross-party debate and meaningful participation are restored as a matter of priority.
When it came to the functioning of the parliamentary administration, the Assembly of Albania lacked sufficient research staff to support the work of the MPs and parliamentary groups. Similarly, the parliamentary administration of the Assembly of Kosovo lacked specialist expertise to support the work of MPs and parliamentary committees. Despite increasing the number of staff, the Assembly of Montenegro lacked capacity to scrutinise proposed legislation for compliance with the EU acquis. Nevertheless, the Commission praised the administration’s high level of transparency.
The performance of the national parliaments in key domains
The Commission presented a contrasting picture related to developments on the law-making and oversight functions of the national parliaments. The fact that national parliaments decreased the usage of fastened, urgent and extraordinary procedures to approve draft laws did not result in additional opportunities for meaningful debate by parliamentary committees and the plenary session. This was in part due to the boycott of parliamentary proceedings by opposition parties, or in the case of Serbia, the application of active negative agenda setting measures by the governing parties that limited the opportunities for opposition parties to participate in the review of draft laws.
On the one hand, the Commission praised the Assembly of Albania’s contribution to legislative review through more legislative initiatives, amendments from MPs, and interest-group hearings. On the other hand, there was concern over the negative agenda setting measures in Serbia. Because of the shortcomings in the legislative review procedures, the Commission recommended the Assembly of Serbia should work on improving the law-making process based on amendments to the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure.
The Commission noted that national parliaments of other countries, such as Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, reduced the usage of shortened parliamentary procedures for the review of draft laws. Specifically, in the Assembly of Kosovo there was still a lack of substantive debate or stakeholder consultation on draft laws. The Assembly of Montenegro resorted to the practice of MPs submitting draft laws prepared by the government as a way to circumvent mandatory public consultations for such draft laws. Meanwhile, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Commission reported that the legislative assemblies at state and entities level increasingly used urgent procedures to pass legislation. The reports emphasised progress in adoption of the MPs’ Code of Conduct in Albania and North Macedonia, but called on the Assembly of Serbia to adopt a Code of Conduct that reflected best practices from the EU member states’ national parliaments.
National parliaments in the Western Balkans countries uniformly faced challenges in effectively carrying out their oversight duties. The Assembly of Kosovo’s oversight of the government remained weak with ministers often failing to report to the Assembly and answer parliamentary questions in a timely manner. The Assembly of Montenegro’s oversight initiatives were affected negatively by the boycott of parliamentary proceedings by the opposition parties. The Commission noted that the Assembly of Montenegro should step up efforts to develop a uniform and effective system to monitor the implementation of conclusions and recommendations adopted at oversight hearings. Additionally, it should improve its communication and engagement with citizens in particular related to establishing a procedure for addressing citizens’ complaints and petitions.
In the Assembly of Albania, the work of inquiry committees was highly polarised and did not lead to conclusive results. Additionally, the parliament did not make use of other oversight mechanisms. The Assembly of Serbia’s oversight of the government in 2018 continued to be weak, with the holding of only a handful of question and answer sessions and only one public hearing. Only the Assembly of North Macedonia improved its oversight of the government, however greater oversight of intelligence services is needed, as well as the capacity to monitor the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Assembly of Albania was praised for its work with independent institutions as it conducted a structured review of its annual reports, including hearings at committee level, and adopted 21 resolutions. The Assembly’s mechanism for following up and monitoring recommendations from independent institutions marked a step towards stronger oversight. The European Commission called on the Assembly of Kosovo to implement the recommendations to reduce the number of independent institutions reporting to it.
The Assembly’s current practices did not ensure regular reporting from these independent agencies to parliamentary committees, which affected the Assembly’s ability to oversee their work and undermined their independence from undue political or commercial influence. Contrary to recommendations for Kosovo, the Commission called on the Assembly of Serbia to support and guarantee the functioning of independent bodies. Since 2014, the Assembly has persistently failed to support the role of independent institutions, as it did not review the annual reports of the institutions in its plenary sessions.
On the input of the national parliaments and their bodies on EU accession issues, the Commission presented a similar assessment compared to previous years. The Assembly of North Macedonia carried out intensive activities and debates related to the adoption of EU-related laws. The Commission considered that legislative assemblies in Bosnia and Herzegovina should ensure the proper functioning of the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee. Meanwhile, the Assembly of Albania’s Rules of Procedure were not harmonised with the provisions of the law on the role of Parliament in the EU integration process. Additionally, the Assembly lacked sufficient capacity to monitor the compliance of new legislation with the acquis and ensure its implementation. The parliamentary bodies tasked with EU accession issues, the parliamentary committee and the national council on European integration, played a limited role in parliamentary proceedings on the topic.
Below par performance
The Commission’s reports reviewed the functioning of national parliaments in the same areas across each state, which enabled a comparison of the findings. However, the fact that the Commission does not have a transparent list of criteria on which it assesses the functioning of a national parliament remains a problem. Such a list of criteria would be beneficial also for national parliaments themselves, as it would allow them to focus their efforts on implementing reforms in critical areas of their work.
The Commission’s 2019 findings suggest below par functioning of national parliaments in the Western Balkans. The nature of relations between governing and opposition parties, as well as the presence of a strong executive, negatively affected the functioning and the ability of national parliaments to exercise their law-making and oversight roles properly. The reports also reviewed the national parliaments’ performances in the law making and oversight domains, and relations with independent institutions. All these developments from April 2018 to May 2019, attest that parliamentary development in the Western Balkans is still at a nascent stage.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Blerim Vela – University of Sussex
Blerim Vela is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sussex.