In the wake of the Zagreb Summit, the friends of the EU enlargement, whether in the Western Balkans or within the Union itself, had reason to cheer. The European perspective of the nonEU six countries in Southeast Europe was confirmed again by EU leaders.
The EU aspiration of the six was also duly expressed. Beyond the solemn declaration, the EU also took measures in the fight against COVID-19 that equated the Western Balkans to members of the bloc. The export restrictions of critical medical equipment were removed and the six states were allowed to participate in the EU joint procurement of the needed supplies. Brussels also offered generous financial assistance to overcome the consequences of the pandemic.
The most important recent development concerning the European Perspective was, however, a March decision by the European Council to start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. As the Council had already postponed this move last October because of a lack of consensus, there was loud talk of a “historical mistake” and of quasi-irreversible Balkan disappointment and of facilitating the encroachment of unfriendly third powers.
The positive Council decision earlier this spring didn’t make headlines as Europe and the world was struggling with the coronavirus. Still, it remains very relevant. In hindsight, however, the October reactions seem exaggerated.
A sober look at Albania and North Macedonia, as well as at the regional “forerunners and laggards”, would reveal that the problems lie not with a populace turning away from the “European Dream” or an EU enclave falling prey to “non-EuroAtlantic” powerful players. The problems are rather homegrown and concern, first and foremost, what in EU-speak are known as the Copenhagen Criteria – “the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights”.
A recent overview by Reporters without Borders shows the media freedom receding in the region with the forerunners in the EU integration backsliding most. Other reports like Freedom House’s show similar deterioration with democracy and the rule-of-law. The strong argument for starting negotiations talks with North Macedonia was the difficult achievement by Skopje in settling outstanding issues with her two neighbours. However, domestic reform performance in both countries was weak even if one looks away from the high-level scandals and how dismally they were handled.
In Albania’s case, the factual start of the negotiations is conditional upon the fulfilment of 15 specific conditions set by the European Council. They grew over the years out of the initial five key priorities of the Commission. Some among them, like the prosecution of vote buyers and vote riggers as well as the rescinding of the December 2019 media muzzling laws, reflect new problems created by the ruling party. Albania’s 15 conditions would perfectly epitomise the general backsliding with regard to the Copenhagen Criteria. They contrast the Panglossian optimism of the Commission’s country-reports which promote a view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds.
It is not that the EU executive was impervious to the troublesome situation on the ground. Its Western Balkans strategy of February 2018 was presented in crude but realistic terms as it spoke of crime and corruption capturing high offices. The problem was that they did nothing about it despite their word carrying weight and plenty of means at hand. Some even went so far as to co-paint the Albanian government’s Potemkin facades.
The extraordinary government collusion with the underworld, including the appointment of felons to public office, the official involvement in the centrally organized cultivation of cannabis countrywide, unprecedented grand corruption, along with the more conventional concentration of power and erosion of checks and balance, didn’t make their way into the EU periodic reports; nor did they prevent hot congratulatory statements coming from Brussels. That in turn proved counterproductive as it encouraged the potentates in Tirana to skip serious reform efforts and shift into investing in propaganda and lobbying. The recent illegal and violent demolition of the National Theater in face of warnings coming from all possible quarters including the Commission provides a colourful and sad illustration.
With the buck reaching the member states, it shouldn’t have been surprising to see the MPs of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, who were well informed about the real situation, to lead the charge in imposing new and specific rule-of-law related conditions. The French and the Dutch followed up by adding theirs.
The genuine “Europeanisation” of the EU aspiring countries is and must remain the responsibility of their societies and respective polities, but the EU institutions are best placed to help. The recent Albanian experience reconfirms the old wisdom of tough love. An honest and sincere approach to the standards that are set is the best help for the Albanian people and to the whole region. This is also loyal to the EU itself one can add. Covering up misdeeds helps only ‘corruptocrats’, who, by definition, are not interested in European values.
The revised enlargement methodology and the restoration of the process’ credibility, to quote the current Enlargement Commissioner, are a good start. Genuine assessment of the fulfilment of the conditions would certainly support approaching the negotiations.
The genuine fulfilment of the conditions will hopefully help Albania restore her constitutional normality as Parliament and local government resemble bodies of a single-party state. Hopefully, it will also contribute that the new judicial institutions are not captured ab ovo by the ruling potentates.
Genc Pollo is an Albanian MP and former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration. He is also an ex-Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Education.
This article was originally published in New Europe.