EU – Western Balkans Justice and Home Affairs ministerial forum – joint press statement

The Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs of Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria, representing the trio of Presidencies of the Council of the EU, together with the European Commission, represented by the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality and the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship met on 26-27 October 2017 with their counterparts from six Western Balkan partners at the annual EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Forum on Justice and Home affairs.

The Ministers underlined the key importance of rule of law, justice and fundamental rights in the EU’s relation with the region and of practical cooperation on justice and home affairs and focused on the topics of: justice reform, judicial cooperation, migration and border management, counter-terrorism and radicalisation, as well as fight against firearms trafficking.

Justice session

The Ministers emphasized the importance of the independence, quality and efficiency of justice systems as the basis of peaceful, democratic societies, underpinning economic growth. They agreed that quality justice systems were crucial to create mutual trust, which is necessary for judicial cooperation and the application of mutual recognition instruments. 

Justice Reform

The Ministers welcomed the efforts made by the Western Balkans partners in the area of justice reform and underlined that more would need to be done for the effective implementation of judicial reforms, bringing direct benefits to citizens while being also a fundamental element of the EU accession process.

The Ministers discussed in particular the issue of accountability and agreed to focus Western Balkans reform efforts on meeting European standards[1] for judges and prosecutors. The Western Balkans partners agreed to work with the Commission to develop a set of key indicators to measure the performance of justice systems by the beginning of 2018. They supported the development of electronic case management systems that would help reduce backlogs of cases and were able to provide random case allocation.

The Commission reconfirmed its willingness to support the ongoing justice reform processes in the region through political support, expert advice and financial assistance from the Instrument for Pre-Accession. 

Judicial Cooperation

The Ministers acknowledged that improving regional judicial cooperation in the Western Balkans was crucial to good neighbourly relations.

The Western Balkan Justice Ministers committed that their authorities would serve mutual legal assistance requests from their neighbours more swiftly in order to jointly and efficiently fight the most severe forms of crime affecting the region.

With a view to reinforceing the fight against transnational crime, the Ministers and the Commission agreed on the importance for the Western Balkans which have not yet done so, to conclude cooperation agreements with Eurojust as soon as possible. The Justice Ministers of the Western Balkans partners committed to take the necessary measures, in particular on data protection legislation, to move the process further. The Commission recalled the importance of implementing Council of Europe instruments both on judicial cooperation and on substantive criminal law as they provide the main legal basis for smooth cooperation between EU and Western Balkans practitioners.

On judicial cooperation in civil matters, the Ministers agreed that the instruments of The Hague Conference were crucial to resolve in particular sensitive trans-border family disputes. The Ministers of Western Balkans committed themselves to ratifying the Hague Conference instruments having a direct link with the EU acquis.[2]

Home Affairs session

Migration and border management

The Ministers concurred that ensuring effective border management and fighting migrant smuggling remained top priorities for both the EU and the Western Balkans. The unprecedented scale of migrant smuggling by the criminal networks requires permanent vigilance and an effective partnership between countries and regions directly affected.

The Ministers recognised the importance of cooperation of Western Balkans partners with Europol and with EU Member States in combatting migrant smuggling. They committed to continuing the cooperation between the Western Balkans´ law enforcement agencies with EU Member States and Europol to dismantle organised crime groups responsible for facilitating this activity.

The Ministers welcomed regional initiatives designed to improve information and intelligence exchange both at strategic and at law enforcement level. Ministers recognised the important role of the European Migrant Smuggling Centre and the Joint Operational Office against Human Smuggling Networks (JOO) in tackling the migrant smuggling phenomenon, as well as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Liaison Officer deployed to Belgrade with a regional mandate for increased border management cooperation.

The Ministers discussed the state of implementation of the visa-free regimes. Taking note of the cases of unfounded asylum applications, the Ministers committed to strengthening their efforts in addressing this phenomenon in order to prevent triggering of the visa suspension mechanism.

Counter-terrorism and Radicalisation

The Ministers acknowledged that terrorism continued to be a common challenge for the European Union and the Western Balkans region and that close cooperation was essential for preventing radicalisation and terrorism. Ministers agreed that the existing formats and networks of cooperation, including through the Radicalisation Awareness Network, should be further strengthened.

Ministers confirmed that they faced similar challenges in responding to the security threat posed by violent extremism and agreed to work together to address its root-causes and to build resilient and cohesive societies. They further acknowledged that EU Counter Terrorism/Countering Violent Extremism political dialogues with the Western Balkans countries are useful for identifying the priorities and designing concrete action.

The Ministers welcomed in particular the broadening of the scope of the Western Balkans Counter-Terrorism initiative (WBCTi) to cover also the fight against serious and organised crime and border security. Ministers recognised that this enhanced role of WBCTi facilitates EU´s capacity-building support in the area of internal security and should enable the Western Balkans partners to better detect and tackle security challenges.

The Ministers committed to strengthening their operational partnership to efficiently and effectively address counter-terrorism and radicalisation, but also transnational organised crime and border security, in line with the new Integrative Internal Security Governance model and in cooperation with the relevant EU agencies. In this context, Ministers called for a swift conclusion of the discussion concerning the practical implementation of the pilot project to deploy Europol Guest Officers to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

The Ministers took stock of their continuous efforts to address the firearms trafficking and discussed progress achieved in implementation of the Joint Statement on Enhancing the Fight Against Illicit Trafficking of Firearms and Ammunition in the Western Balkans endorsed at their meeting last year. They committed to continue to carry out joint actions to enhance seizures of firearms, ammunition and explosives, to improve security of firearms and ammunition storage capacities, and to periodic disposals of surplus arms and ammunition, particularly those confiscated from illegal activities. The Ministers also welcomed the EU assistance in providing training on firearms to law enforcement officers.

The Ministers agreed to continue cooperation on all the issues discussed at the Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial Forum and to have further exchanges at their next meeting.

[1] The European Standards for judicial systems are based on instruments such as the rulings of Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. The main issues that they cover are (i) transparent and merit-based recruitment (ii) effective disciplinary rules and codes of ethics (iv) complaint mechanisms that are accessible to the public (v) access to justice including for women, children, the poorest and the most vulnerable (vi) effective legal aid (vii) alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (viii) judicial training practices (ix) Improvements in the day-to-day administration of courts.

[2] 1996 Convention on Child Protection, 2005 Convention on Choice of Court Agreement, 2007 Convention on Child Support and Family Maintenance and the Protocol on the Law Applicable to Maintenance Obligations.