What are the main challenges that Albania (and Western Balkans countries) face at June’s EU Council in persuading all 27 member states to vote for further enlargement?
What are we really talking about? The Council will not be voting for enlargement in June; it will be voting for continuing and deepening a fundamental reform process across the Western Balkans. This process has already brought greater stability, more economic security and improved ties among our nations.
The process of EU integration, with all its benchmarks and meticulous demands, may be evolutionary but it is generating revolutionary results. To slow or stop it, now that the country has had a crystal clear recommendation for opening accession talks, would be harmful and impossible to explain to our citizens, who have supported even painful reforms because they are fully behind the European Albania ideal.
Naturally, EU influence would wain as a result. On the other hand, advancing to the next step, formal negotiations, will actually increase EU leverage over the reform processes in our country, with strict milestones and deadlines to be met.
There are two principal and fundamental views on the Western Balkans joining the EU – one supports a so-called ‘regatta principle’ with Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunners. the other suggests that the goal should be to get EU member states to approve accession negotiations for all the Western Balkan states. Which viewpoint do you favour? Why do you think Albania was initially left out when negotiations started with Serbia and Montenegro?
Brussels was being pragmatic. In the aftermath of the terrible conflicts across the former Yugoslavia, it was natural that attention would be focused on that part of the Balkan Peninsula. It was disappointing for us, but understandable in the context. However, to view the process as a boat race is a mistake. It’s the wrong metaphor. Albania is not competing with our friends in Serbia, Montenegro or anywhere else.
In fact, all of us are working together increasingly, in connectivity, trade, digitalisation, in tourism promotion, in policing and more. This doesn’t attract as many headlines of course. The international media all too easily slip into old tropes about cultural conflict when the reality, on the ground, is very different. Ask any 20-something citizen in Bratislava, Skopje or Tirana about their cultural identity. They have all lived most of their lives as Europeans, with the expectation that, one day, their nation would be an EU member.
One of the reasons the polls show that 80 per cent of Albanians want EU membership is demographic. We are the youngest country in Europe, with an average age of 28. In other words, when the average Albanian was just 13 years old, we began negotiating a stabilisation and association agreement with Brussels.
"One of the reasons the polls show that 80 per cent of Albanians want EU membership is demographic. We are the youngest country in Europe, with an average age of 28"
On the day that the European Commission published its recommendation on opening formal accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, French President Emmanuel Macron commented on EU enlargement policy. How do you view his comments and what impact might they have on the EU Council voting in June?
President Macron was correct: The EU needs reform. Yet as the EU reforms, we in the Western Balkans also need to do so. These processes should happen in tandem. Let me offer an example. As in many post-Communist states, we in Albania have had a big problem with a corrupt judiciary. EU officials told us we needed to fix this. So, together with Brussels, with assistance from Washington, we came up with a formula to strengthen the rule of law and the judicial institutions.
This has involved far-reaching constitutional changes. A key element is a non-partisan system of vetting to rid the justice system of corrupt or incompetent judges and prosecutors. So far, 21 have been removed from office, 17 for having refused to subject themselves to vetting, while four were removed for not being able to justify their wealth and assets. Although painful, the process has had the overwhelming support of Albanian citizens.
Now, there are recommendations that the ‘Albanian model’ be adopted across the Western Balkans.
What tipped the opinion of the European commission to recommend opening of accession negotiations With Albania?
Undoubtedly this was our justice reform programme, but much else has been done. Where only two years ago we were facing a huge challenge because of two decades of widespread outdoor cultivation of cannabis, we have all but eradicated this illicit industry.
We have strengthened our agricultural development programmes to promote replacement crops. We are also improving our administration and now the vetting process for judges and prosecutors is being extended to the police.
There are stories that appeared recently about Russian intervention in Albania’s last parliamentary election. What are your views and are you Worried by this?
I have heard and read the stories. There appears to be some evidence that our political opponents received financial support in breach of our legislation. There is an ongoing investigation, but as a rule of thumb, I decided a long time ago not to comment internationally about the opposition. We in Albania try to maintain friendly relations with all nations.
There is something unique about Albania, we are the most pro-European and the most pro-US country in Europe. But, as a member of Nato and a European nation, there are powers that would like to weaken our commitment to the Western Alliance. Political disruption, including the encouragement of populism and nationalism, could be one of the tactics.
Am I worried? Not at the moment. My party was returned to office with a strong majority. For me there is only one thing to focus on: Modernising my country through deep reforms that others before us didn’t dare imagine, let alone fight for.
"There is something unique about Albania, we are the most pro-European and the most pro-US country in Europe. But, as a member of Nato and a European nation, there are powers that would like to weaken our commitment to the Western Alliance"
Some EU members and their publics have expressed misgivings over Bulgarian and Romanian EU membership, given historical concerns over corruption. Do you accept that this may also be an impediment for Albania?
Corruption in Albania is still a problem, but the Commission has clearly judged Albania not as a new member state, but by the eff orts the government is putting into dealing with it. Accession negotiations will help deepen our reforms and results against corruption. It is not an issue you can eliminate overnight but we have been setting an example for several years that stealing from the state is stealing from yourself, and that if we want to join the European club we must adopt a new set of behavioural standards with public money.
Recently we have created an innovative online platform, through which citizens can have a direct line of communication with the ministers of government to tackle together any wrongdoing by public officials. The platform promotes access to information, transparency, accountability and the battle against governmental and institutional corruption.
Some 81 public officials have already been dismissed and many of them disciplined or even prosecuted for not having offered on-time public services or having asked for bribes. This is thanks to the complaints of citizens through the online platform.