As it becomes increasingly clear obvious and undeniable to the Albanian ruling class that the road to joining the European Union will be long and tedious, the impatience of Prime Minister Edi Rama, and the effects of his insistent delusions regarding a speedy and “deserved” opening of the EU accession negotiations, are becoming more overt.
On September 11, at the first parliamentary session of the political year, Rama had already stated:
What I can say very openly and directly […] is that the opening of negotiations no longer is an issue that depends on what we are doing better. […] I remind you that the progress with the 5 priorities was such that the Commission decided as a final point the constitutional judicial reform to open negotiations. The constitutional judicial reform passed, the negotiations were not opened. Then vetting was imposed. The vetting passed and of course the implementation of the vetting is awaited, but that depends on how you see it, because vetting has started.
[The opening] of negotiations next year is what Albania expects and deserves and it is unfair that this issue continues to be dragged along for reasons that have no relation to Albania, bringing up at every turn new reasons.
Now recently Rama decided to complain about the “unfair treatment” of Albania in a more European forum, in a recent interview in the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. His argument is more or less the same:
FR: The judicial reform is also connected to the beginning of the EU accession negotiations. When can these start?
ER: You never know with the EU, because they constantly change their positions and conditions. We were told that the negotiations start when the constitutional reform made it to the judicial chapter. So we changed the Constitution, but the accession negotiations have not started. Then we were told that the law for the vetting commission was important. Then we were told that the elections were important, so that we could start. Now we have fulfilled everything and we’ll see. It could happen next year, when the Council of Europe expresses a positive opinion, but it could also be that it won’t happen next year. The enlargement process has become increasingly unfair and for states less imaginable. This is not about Albania. This is about Europe itself.
The important question is, what is it that made Edi Rama think that the EU “constantly changes its positions and conditions”? As Exit has documented extensively, the process from the European Commission’s recommendation to conditionally open accession negotiations in November 2016, through the amendments of the European Parliament, which sharpened the five conditions, and up to the failure of the European Council to reach consensus on adopting the amended report, the process has been complicated, yet unequivocal. Unfortunately, the European Commission has been unable to communicate this process properly to the Albanian government or the Albanian people.
Instead there has been a consistent underplaying of the importance of all five key priorities by overemphasizing the vetting law, most importantly by the European Commission itself, through its Ambassador Romana Vlahutin. In December 2016, Vlahutin stated:
The Commission has published a positive recommendation, but there is a recommendation, a condition, which is the vetting law and other issues that have to do with the five key priorities. […] In order to open negotiations it is very important that the vetting law is passed.
The five priorities will continue to remain with us until the end. […] So there needs to progress, a little bit but apparent.
These words were verbatim repeated by Edi Rama in Parliament:
The Member States support the continuation of the negotiations for the membership with the understanding that the vetting law is implemented. As the way in which the negotiations have been opened in Montenegro and Serbia shows, these five priorities are accompanying until the moment of membership. They are not conditions, but priorities that the country needs to fulfill. The condition is the vetting. [The priorities] are the drivel of your inconsolable despair, you have become unhinged from logic, to throw each day dirt, lies, accusations with the hope that the Albanians will believe you.
Through her deemphasis of the importance of the five key priorities (which really are conditions), Vlahutin allowed Rama to claim publicly that only the passing of the vetting law would suffice for accession negotiations to be opened, and to consider that the only condition. At no point did Vlahutin publicly correct this clearly erroneous interpretation of the EU’s position. Only in July 2017 did she publicly set the record straight. But by then it was already too late:
You know that we never speak about a precise timeline, but about what should be done for Albania has been explained in the decision of the European Commission. The recommendation for the opening of the negotiations depends on credible and tangible progress in the implementation of the judicial reform, especially the vetting of the judges as well as the five key priorities: the battle against corruption, organized crime, the empowerment of the judiciary, public administration, and the protection of human rights, including the Roma and anti-discrimination policies, as well as the implementation of property rights.
There is an enormous difference between the “little, but apparent” progress of December 2016, and “credible and tangible progress” from July 2017. The fact of the matter is, is that the European Union has been very upfront about its conditions, they were repeated over and over again by many different representatives, mainly from the European Parliament. The communication failure, however, lies clearly with the European Commission.
The results of this failure, caused by the self-serving desire of European Commission bureaucrats to continue enlargement, the personal relation between Vlahutin and Rama, or both, is now obvious for all to see: a deluded Prime Minister who after months of repeating to himself and others, with no external corrective, that the vetting law is all that matters, has set himself up for a total disappointment – and now he is starting to blame the EU and claim “unfairness.”
In the interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau, Rama states:
The problem is not what Europe says, but what it does. In our case it is totally unfair, because we are a NATO state. Montenegro has joined the NATO much longer. Moreover we are with the decisive judicial chapter much ahead of Montenegro. Also Serbia still has to implement these reforms. We have already done so. It is fantastic that they are negotiating. It is just unfair that we are not.
Apart from the fact that NATO membership has no influence on EU accession (just look at Turkey), the Albanian judicial reform is not a “chapter” in the precise sense that such “chapters” only exist as part of the implementation of the acquis communautaire, which is the common EU legal framework, during the accession negotiation process. Rama is comparing apples with pears.
The decisive question is obviously how Rama’s complaining is going to help Albania’s accession process. As the Balkan Barometer showed, Serbian and Montenegrin citizens appear to be much more realistic about their chances about EU accession than Albanians. Rama has not only worked up his own hopes to unrealistic heights, but also those of the Albanian citizens. His only solution to keep up appearances and his own (mistaken) judgment, is to start blaming the EU, or even implying that EU countries would not understand the gravity of his plight: “Often I wonder whether these European leaders have thought about [the EU enlargement strategy].”
The political reality, however, is that the European Union is currently dealing with a Brexit, several rogue Eastern European countries, an “internal” crisis in Spain, and a weakened trans-Atlantic partnership. The possible date for opening Albania’s EU accession negotiations is a really minor issue compared those EU-threatening events.
Instead of complaining, Edi Rama could perhaps learn something from the other Balkan leaders, who, instead of playing the tough guy, are currently actually negotiating their actual chapters with the EU.
At the same time, the European Commission would do well not to extend the current term of Ambassador Vlahutin, as she carries considerable responsibility for the ineffective and damaging miscommunication of the EU’s message in Albania.