Spotlight European Integration – VIII – Albania closer to EU accession talks in June

ISSN: 2736-6065

Blog Post by Emil Kirjas, Founder of Kirjas Global, Vice President of Liberal International

Spotlight European integration blogpost series tracks the progress of EU enlargement with a liberal perspective, looking at Europe’s future.

Albania is ready to start the accession talks for EU membership as early as June this year under the Portuguese presidency. The EU officials announced this after the Albania-EU Stabilisation and Association Council (SA Council) meeting last week in Brussels. The Albanian government led by PM Edi Rama could not have received a better present from the EU ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 April.

The EU membership prospect

Albania enjoys nearly 90% of public support for EU membership. After joining NATO in 2008 alongside Croatia, the focus of the Western Balkan nation has been on integrating the country in the EU, for which it formally applied in 2009. It took the EU Council nearly two years to approve the 2012 Commission recommendation for awarding Albania the candidate status for EU membership. For 18 months, Albania had to complete a set of benchmarks focusing on judicial and administrative reform and revision of the parliamentary rules of procedures.

The awarding of candidate status in 2014 didn’t mean an automatic green light for the start of the accession talks. That was rather yet another “EU carrot” offered on the path towards membership. In 2005 the EU set a precedent with North Macedonia by awarding a candidate status that was detached from the start of the accession talks. The reason was the public sensitiveness in the aftermath of the failed Dutch and the French referenda on the EU constitution. Subsequently, Albania had to wait for six long years to get the green light for the formal EU talks to be opened under this new approach.

Yet again, the EU’s decision was not unconditional. The EU council gave North Macedonia a clear green light in March 2020, while Albania was given 15 conditions to fulfil for the first Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) to take place. To address the scepticism of several EU governments, the critical areas for monitoring Albania included: electoral reform, the functioning of the Constitutional Court and High Court, the functioning of the Special Anti-Corruption Structure (SPAK), strengthening the fight against corruption, organised crime, and financial crime, and the continuation of the justice reform.

 

Race to meet the conditions

Albania’s EU integration path’s slow pace is mainly the fault of its political elites and how they have governed the country since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. The latest EU 2020 Progress Report refers to it as “intense polarisation” in the country, which has to be addressed. Hence, the EU conditions were necessary to motivate the Albanian socialist government to press on with the reform agenda. It meant that it had to downplay the open and sometimes violent confrontations with the opposition Democrats and show more understanding for the opponents’ requests. Equally, it was a challenge for the opposition to be more reasonable in its methods to not completely fallout from the sympathy of the EU counterparts, crucially important should the Democrats get in a position to govern and lead the talks with the EU. The Albanian political elites understood the message and managed to rise to the challenge, despite the tensions exacerbated by the pandemic and the devastating earthquake in Durres. A national Political Council was created with the participation of both government and the opposition to agree on how to meet the reform requirements by several European institutions.

In February this year, Foreign Minister Olta Xhaçka triumphantly announced in the national parliament that Albania has met the requirement is ready to start the EU talks, underlining that there is no room for new conditions. She expressed hope that “the process will not be delayed once with five conditions or 15” as that would jeopardise the EU’s credibility even further. Soon after, on 1 March, the highest Albania-EU forum for political dialogue took place in Brussels for the first meeting of such nature after the start of the pandemic. A highly positive Joint Statement of the SA Council was issued, which praised “Albania’s determination in the pursuit of its EU reform agenda.” In the press conference, the Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi presented EC’s assessment that “Albania has delivered on its promises and met criteria for 1st Intergovernmental Conference,” hinting that it can happen by the end of the current EU presidency. Albanian PM Edi Rama could not have received a more significant boost from Brussels ahead of the April elections.

 

Fresh hopes that the talks will start soon

The EU prepared draft Negotiating Frameworks already in October 2020. There was high pressure from some of the EU countries to formally start the accession talks with both Albania and North Macedonia by the end of 2020. However, the wish of the Germany Presidency did not materialise. North Macedonia was vetoed by Bulgaria for bilateral historical reasons unrelated to the EU membership, while some EU governments expressed their disagreement for Albania’s preparedness for negotiations. To make the situation worse, for the first time in a long period, the Council failed to adopt any conclusions on the enlargement due to combined Czech and Slovak veto on the Bulgarian insistence to include unacceptable vocabulary on “falsified history”. The German government didn’t hide its frustration with these developments, prompting its Europe Minister to offer stern warning that the failure to start membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania is “a political mistake which will take a toll on the stability and security of the Western Balkans, and jeopardise the security of Europe”.

With Bulgaria holding elections in early April where the “Macedonian issue” is high on the agenda of the extreme right as a key part of the outgoing cabinet, the case of North Macedonia’s accession remains stalled for the moment. Hopes had opened both in Brussels and in Tirana that by fulfilment of the required conditions by Albania, the EU’s enlargement credibility can be saved with the start of the accession talks with Albania during the current Portuguese presidency in June. Certainly, Albania’s offers reasons for such hope and potential scenario, despite the honest words of EU’s Foreign Chief Josep Borrell, who at the SA Council warned that “some countries of EU believe that Albania is not ready yet.”

With eyes set on June before Portugal hands over the presidency to Slovenia, it seems that the 2019 discussions on possible decoupling of North Macedonia and Albania will resurface. Two years ago, North Macedonia’s case was more advanced, and Skopje was to be rewarded for the historic Agreement with Greece. Then, many analysts and governments thought that it was dangerous to leave Albania lagging behind. Now the conditions are reversed.

How the situation will evolve will depend on the April elections in Albania and, of course, on the internal EU crisis caused by the management and the aftermath of the pandemic. With or without talks in June, what remains critical is that the governments in Tirana and the rest of the region continue to deliver convincing messages on their reform agendas for liberal societies that offer better living conditions for their citizens.