From: Alice Taylor
Albania Faces Difficult Questions in First Intergovernmental Conference

At the first Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels on Tuesday (19 July), Prime Minister Edi Rama discussed the country’s perspective and addressed difficult questions from the media.

Three years after receiving the ‘ok’ from the European Council and Commission, Albania finally started formal EU membership negotiations after Bulgaria lifted its veto of North Macedonia, which was holding up its progression. A delegation of Albanian politicians, led by Rama, met with Commission officials to start discussing the parameters of what lies ahead.

“In the few, terrible, years we left behind, the chain of refusals to formally start the accession talks was stretched further by terrifying events like the earthquake, the pandemic and, last but not least, the war in Ukraine. If a god had planned these obstacles to test our commitment to the EU integration process, they would not have been able to come up with a more devastating combination of challenges,” Rama said.

He added, “The EU for was always much more than reports, benchmarks, deadlines, paperwork. All of those rolling stones would have easily been lost down the hill under the heavy pressure of these extremely difficult years. ”

When asked by a journalist why no members of the opposition party, the Democratic Party were present, Rama replied that he was not sure who the opposition are.

“In terms of the delegation that would represent Albania at this table, we would have, we could have, of course, asked for a change of invite a representative or, in actual fact, more than one representative from the opposition; however, there is a problem. And that is not Brussels’ problem or a problem for here- it is that we do not know who is part of the opposition anymore.”

Rama referred to the fractured opposition, which includes that led by ex-prime minister and president Sali Berisha and that once led by Lulzim Basha but now led by Enkeled Allibeaj. The matter of who is the rightful leader is much debate and is subject to an ongoing court case.

An Albanian journalist brought up the topic of justice reform. The EU-backed justice reform started in Albania in 2016 and foresaw the vetting of every prosecutor and judge in the country. The process, however, has proceeded at a glacial pace and has been fraught with difficulties.

With just over half of all judiciary members vetted, half of them have either resigned or quit following the evaluation of their wealth, reputation, and qualifications. This brought the country’s Constitutional Court and High Court to a stand still for nearly two years and caused a backlog in cases to the tune of the tens of thousands.

Out of those who were fired due to discrepancies in  their wealth and issues with corruption, the lack of prosecutions, let alone convictions has raised eyebrows both at home and in Brussels.

When asked by a journalist whether prosecutions of judicial officials would be addressed during the accession process, Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi stated that the first cluster to be opened would be that including the rule of law.

“The first cluster to open and the last to close is the rule of law. We will work with the rule of law and obviously, the state of the judiciary will be discussed,” he said.

He added that “I can only confirm that we are not going to back down on our demands. There must be evidence that exists, cases that must be solved. And these must be resolved.”

In his speech, Rama said, “Justice Reform went through the implementation phase and – as we speak – Albania is the most advanced country in the region in this regard. Of course, there is more to do, but the foundations for a credible, fair, independent, professional, transparent, accountable and efficient justice system, one that can be trusted by the public, are set. ”

“We teared down the whole Old Palace of Crooked Justice and now we have fully operational brand new institutions for a new era of rule of law. The Special Prosecutor Against Corruption and the National Bureau of Investigation are crucial elements of this new era,” he concluded on the topic of justice reform.

Rama pledged transparency and periodic reports on progress through collaboration with different actors.

“We will not only continue to periodically report on integration negotiations to the Parliament and the National Council for European Integration, but we will find ways to raise the quality of these processes by improuving the interaction with as many different actors from as many ways of life as possible. At the same time, we will work to make sure that civil society critisism and freedom of media continue to be encouraged, so that citizens remain as aware and alert as the government try to be about both the challenges and opportunities of this new path towards the Union membership,” he said.

Following the opening of negotiations, President Ilir Meta welcomed the news and called on citizens not to fall prey to anti-integration campaigns. He also appealed to all institutions to work hard to fulfil obligations as soon as possible.

“The concerns of the Netherlands, the remarks of France, or all the concerns expressed in the last EP resolution, show that the transformation requires work,” said Meta. 

He added, “The European way is the only one that guarantees that our common home will have the prosperity that our citizens seek in Italy, Britain, and Germany. I call on the institutions to reflect without delay on the required tasks. It is in our hands whether this process lasts five, 30 or more years.”

Meanwhile, Rama acknowledged that the start of accession talks is just a step on a much longer road.

“Starting today, the accession talks does not make our dream a reality but makes the reality a better place to pursue the dream. We know that what we achieved so far is only just the end of the beginning.”