When Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama spoke at a Western Balkan Summit press conference yesterday afternoon in Brussels, I braced myself for a wild ride. Still, I was not expecting to come away agreeing with him. Yet here we are.
Rama is known for his no-holds-barred, rather rough way of speaking, often to the detriment of other politicians, civil society, or the media, but this time, his victim was the EU, and he was right to target them.
“I feel sorry for them. I hope we can help them,” Rama said; he expressed his “deep sorrow” for the EU, saying the spirit of enlargement is “crooked”.
But he didn’t stop there. He talked of member states’ “impotence”, the “disgrace”, and “shame” that Bulgaria should feel, and accused the union of being unable to liberate two hostages. He tackled the issue of Kosovo and its lack of visa liberalisation and even called out his friend, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic, for how he referred to the country.
Thursday’s summit was a catastrophic failure. There was no visa-free travel for Kosovo, no actual calls on Serbia regarding sanctions, no accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia, no candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU leaders’ press conference was cancelled, and not even a written statement was issued.
But despite this, Albania walked away with its head held high. There was no begging, no pleading, and no admittance of any kind of defeat. Rama told the world how it is without ranting, with a dash of humour, and without any despair.
People have looked at Western Balkan hopefuls with pity for far too long. Their failure to progress has been the butt of jokes, and much of the rest of the bloc thinks that countries in the region are literally desperate to join and will do anything to do so.
Albania is one of the most pro-European countries in the region; as Rama said, it is like a “religion” for Albanians. But that does not mean they are ready to sacrifice their pride.
Albania has, at least on paper, satisfied all the conditions. It has attempted reforms and made some progress. It has pledged to uphold EU values, and while it misses the mark quite often, I think we can say things are better than they were 10, 15, or 30 years ago.
Had Rama taken to the stage and spoken of only disappointment and hopes, he would have made the country and its people look weak in front of the whole of Europe. But by, standing there and telling all of the bloc’s most senior diplomats, politicians, and the world’s media the truth- that the EU is currently a mess- was the best way to go about it.
EU diplomats and leaders are used to being pandered to. They are used to grovelling, sycophants, diplo-speak, carefully scripted speeches and positions, political correctness, and platitudes.
They are not accustomed to people calling them out and making them accountable or levying criticism, especially a peer- in this case, the leader of a European country. They are certainly not used to someone from the Balkans and a non-EU country (which we all know they perceive as lesser) using firm and extremely critical language against them.
But perhaps someone needed to sooner rather than later. I am happy it was an Albanian to do so. Albania made headlines, his comments have been published throughout the continent and further afield, and many in Brussels admired him for his stance.
Yes, Albania and the region need the EU. Yes, we need the funds. Yes, we need the opportunities and benefits membership brings, but not at the expense of pride, dignity, and honesty.
He was also right to attack Bulgaria. Sofia is behaving like a bully, unprepared to compromise and projecting its own internal political failures, rooted in chauvinism and nationalism, on another country. Why should millions of people suffer prolonged uncertainty leading to mass immigration and deep societal rifts because another country cannot get its domestic politics in order?
While I do not agree with the pally-pally relationship with Serbia or anything that comes out of Vucic’s mouth, I can see that while faced with an EU pipedream, Albania has looked to strengthen regional networks. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Do I think yesterday’s speech will change anything? No. Do I believe that diplomatically it was the smartest move? Time will tell. But do I think it needed to be said and has left Albania with its dignity intact? Absolutely.