Several Foreign Ministers from EU member states visited Tirana (and Skopje) in the last weeks to meet local officials and address the public. Their main message was that the EU should very soon call an Intergovernmental Conference or, in other words, essentially start accession negotiations, since Albania has met all conditions set by the EU in March 2020. Some added that the European Union’s credibility might suffer if it fails to do so.
Member states which were previously sceptical now seem to signal privately that they wouldn’t object any longer. Provided that the issue between Skopje and Sofia is resolved, there is hopefully a fair chance that the European Council will issue a positive decision in late June.
Of course, I should be thankful to these ministers and other officials who have been pushing for my country’s further integration in the EU at a time when enlargement isn’t popular in all European quarters.
Albania was granted the candidate country status in 2014 but several proposals by the European Commission to start accession talks were not approved by the member states until March 2020 when the Council confirmed it upon fulfilment of 15 conditions.
They were meant to show that Albania will be serious about the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities,” the first of the well-known Copenhagen Criteria. As the Treaty states “For EU accession negotiations to be launched, a country must satisfy the first criterion.”
While some of the conditions are of a general nature and could easily be considered as fulfilled, others are more thorough and specific and thus deserve a closer look.
Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas
Here are a few conditions excerpted out of the Conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council on 25 March 2020:
- “a final decision on the lawfulness of the local elections of 30 June 2019”
There has been no such final decision to date, but the Constitutional Court has announced it will be considering the matter by the end of June; a complete ruling is published usually a couple of weeks after.
- “a sound track record regarding fight against corruption and organised crime at all levels, including initiation of proceedings and completion of first proceedings against high-ranking public officials and politicians”
Unfortunately, there is no good news to announce on this front, with international reports pointing at increased state capture by the ruling party, centralisation of political power with the Prime Minister and high office corruption.
So far there has been a recent sole conviction of a former General Prosecutor for failing to properly declare personal assets.
A notorious Interior Minister of Rama’s government charged with drug trafficking and corruption got away with a mild suspended sentence for minor offences following huge government pressure.
- “implementation of the reform of the electoral law”
The international observers of the 25 April general elections criticised the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources and expressed concern over the widespread reports of vote buying. This surely presents no improvements when compared with what observers reported following the last general elections in 2017. And considering that the purpose of the 2020 electoral reform was to prevent the ruling party from abusing the state’s power, its implementation seems rather poor given that the same issues persist.
- “Albania should also further strengthen the fight against corruption and organised crime, including through cooperation with EU Member States and through the action plan to address the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.”
According to an April 2021 report by MONEYVAL (CoE), Albania has failed to significantly improve the measures it employs to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, to bring them in line with the recommendations set down by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Meanwhile, dirty money obviously funds the ongoing construction boom in the capital and along the Albanian coast.
- “initiation of proceedings against those accused of vote buying,”
Of the two well-known judicial files 339 and 184 on vote buying/rigging, which gained international notoriety, only 184 is being addressed in court and with watered down charges (accusations of vote rigging have been dropped) against four local officials. The relevant judicial wiretaps featured several cabinet ministers and MPs who were involved in the scam.
The opposition has decried government interference in the case, while the General Prosecutor has initiated disciplinary proceedings against the case prosecutors for stalling the investigation. Meanwhile many voices from the international community call for a proper inquiry into the reported election crimes of the April 2021 general elections.
- “amending the media law in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission”
The December 2019 media amendments package was adopted in Parliament, despite the EU, CoE, OSCE, and domestic stakeholders loudly opposing it; the Prime Minister claimed they were misled and never really read the legislation.
The President returned it to Parliament for revision and under increasing EU pressure the government accepted to wait for and abide with the “Opinion” of the Venice Commission.
The Commission issued its opinion in June 2020 and basically requested that the core of the package—which allowed the government to shut down any news website at will—be scrapped.
Since then, the government has left the package in limbo, while the Commission has publicly and repeatedly asked for the package to be brought in line with the Opinion after an open consultation process that included the relevant stakeholders.
In a recent volte face, the Commission told Albanian media that only if Parliament (re)voted on the package, the latter would have to be in line with the Venice Commission’s Opinion, otherwise the status quo is satisfactory (!).
Meanwhile the government majority has been using machinations in Parliament to fill all steering board positions of the public broadcaster and media regulator with their own political appointees. The 2013 media law, which reflected the relevant EU acquis, mandated balanced, non-political appointments filled with the equal involvement of the opposition. The media regulator is the key institution to execute the draconian measures foreseen in the media package.
- “Tackling the phenomenon of unfounded asylum applications and ensuring repatriations”
To end the selected list on a positive note, this condition has actually been met; let’s hope this will remain unchanged once the COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.
The First Copenhagen Criterion is a legitimate goal per se
This is not the best time to highlight that Albania might not have properly met the conditions for opening EU accession talks.
Segments of public opinion which widely support a future in the EU might not always appreciate the revelation of inconvenient truths. The government will lambast every critical voice as anti-European, and therefore unpatriotic; officials from the EU who claim Albania has met all conditions, might not necessarily welcome third-party scrutiny of the above facts.
However, I believe that the First Copenhagen Criterion is too important to be left exclusively to other people. The ideals of Human Rights, democracy, and the rule of law were central to the movement that brought down the Communist regime in Albania and were generally embraced by society and its political class, even if preaching is sometimes easier than practicing.
They are historically European values that aspire to become universal. Very rightly they are a conditio sine qua non for starting membership talks with the EU. But they remain central even if, God forbid, the perspective of a future in the EU happens not to be there. As they are for Switzerland and Norway (which don’t aspire to EU membership), for the United States, and other countries across the globe. These values need care, continued observance and demonstrable and enduring adherence in order to be consolidated and fully interiorized.
Albania’s membership in European and Euro-Atlantic organizations such as the OSCE (1990), the Council of Europe (1995), and NATO (2009) was seen not only as affirmation of these organizations’ underlying values but also a means to develop and consolidate these values at home through proper interaction. The same goes for EU membership with, of course, enhanced expectations.
The EU officials in questions are in their own right to consider the conditions they themselves set on Albania as fulfilled. They may have their own reasons, tactical or otherwise, to overlook details such as those described above.
One of the reasons that is often mentioned as the motivation behind the EU’s rush towards enlargement, is that the Union is trying to fend off encroachment by unfriendly third powers. While this might be an issue in other parts of the region, there is no ground in Albania for such concerns; opinion polls steadily demonstrate a strong pro-EU societal consensus upon which the political one relies.
Often, Brussels officials say they need to deliver on their promises otherwise people in the Balkans will grow disenchanted and the EU will lose credibility. My sense is that people first and foremost expect support in consolidating a rules-based democracy and market economy, with other important benefits certainly following suit; regardless of the advent of the Intergovernmental Conference.
Other EU officials believe that once accession talks have started, Brussels will have much stronger leverage to hold the government of any aspiring country accountable. Some in Albania think that way too. I would very much like to throw some doubt to this received wisdom.
First, we have the experience with Serbia and Montenegro, that used to be “EU integration front runners”: both kept “backsliding” on the First Copenhagen Criterion as they negotiated chapter after chapter with the Commission (the latest government change via the ballot box in Podgorica provides hope for progress).
In Albania, we have seen continuing state capture on the rise, while the Commission has testified steady progress in their periodical country reports. The much-praised Justice Reform has yet to deliver and to prove wrong the criticism over the political capture of its new born institutions. The 15 conditions set by the Council in March 2020 were a breath of realism and raised expectations that, finally, there would be some fruitful conditionality. Prime Minister Rama remained unimpressed. He repeatedly denied, sometimes in the presence of EU officials, their existence. He has repeatedly stated that his government has completely finished its required homework and has talked about how, according to him, the start of accession talks was unduly blocked by the ill will of certain EU politicians and member states; who were motivated by domestic electoral concerns or prejudices.
Between December 2020 and March 2021, as his government failed to provide the promised vaccination against COVID-19, Rama found no other scapegoat than the EU itself: in a bizarre and irrational twist he kept calling the EU’s position, which at the time didn’t yet grant vaccines to the Western Balkans (but already helped the region through their financing of the COVAX mechanism) immoral and shameful.
Just recently, in major European media outlets, Rama labelled the EU’s failure so far to open accession negotiations as “cynical and divisive.” He signalled that he could find other economic opportunities and perhaps political allies elsewhere. Overall, one should be forgiven for seeing in the above picture an incoherent Union that keeps giving in when facing the transgressions and insults of an arrogant Balkan autocrat.
The EU integration process was ideally meant to be a transformational process during which candidate countries would embrace the values, norms, legislation of the EU and share in the Common Market. However, the current candidates, perhaps even a few EU members, are stuck in a transactional mode. Acknowledging it helps formulate an effective policy.
If the rather solemnly set EU conditions were practically ignored to a meaningful extent and became object of public ridicule at the highest level in the receiving candidate country, who in his/her right mind would believe that in the next stage behaviour will improve? Why would pressure about the non-opening of cluster B and chapter 17 or even of reopening cluster A and chapter 16 would impress a Balkan autocrat? As his main interest is only retaining power and reaping the benefits!
With its sticks so far missing and its carrots being abused, the EU’s approach isn’t working. While the Intergovernmental Conference will hopefully be called soon it is more important to focus on current policies that are in dire need of transformation. The EU should not undermine its legitimate dialogue with the governments of candidate countries. However, if it wants to be more effective than it has been so far, it should reach out to civil society and every entity committed to the values of the EU. And, especially, it should be able and willing to call a spade a spade for every obvious transgression. Otherwise, it will sow disillusionment in the European project and cynicism about itself.
Genc Pollo is a former Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Telecom & IT, former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Media and also of European Integration.