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No concrete promise after EU-Balkan summit commits to Albania

On May 6th, the EU held a virtual EU-Western Balkans summit. The COVID-19 response forced the summit to focus on aid and solidarity rather than on enlargement talks, but reforms in Albania still remained high on the agenda.

May 22, 2020 - Charles Fourmi - Articles and Commentary

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama with the then Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev Photo: Government of the Republic of Northern Macedonia

The Netherlands and Germany had been blocking the accession talks for over two years when France became the latest member state to threaten to veto them. It outlined the ‘strengthened’ conditions of EU membership to remedy for the Balkan countries shortcomings and backsliding. Despite the promise of accession talks opening with Albania and North Macedonia, President Macron delayed the negotiations for reasons that can only be speculated. Some believe the delays followed tensions during the 2019 spring and summer Council meetings, at which France and Germany argued at length over who the next President of the European Commission would be. In the fall, European parliamentary parties were also unwilling to nominate some of the member states’ commission choices. France was not able to promote Michel Barnier, the Bexit negotiator, to the top job, and the French choice for President of the Commission, Sylvie Goulard, was rejected by the parliament. It is possible that this is the reason France adopted a questionable position on enlargement. Paradoxically, the new enlargement methodology policy proposed by France was not rejected by the European leaders, who, by any standard, reacted quickly to avoid delaying talks, and lose credibility. This episode showed internal matters can impact enlargement, even when these issues are partly related to Balkan countries.

In order to qualify for accession, Albania passed a key ‘judicial reform’ in 2016 to allow for more scrutiny of judges. As a result, on March 26 of 2020, member states decided by ‘virtual’ format that Albania could start negotiations with the European Union. The decision was made during the Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which was chaired by Olivér Várhelyi, the Hungarian Commissioner for European Enlargement. Despite this symbolic step towards membership, Albania still has to meet a set of 15 conditions before it can begin talks. As of now, it has not fully met them with regards to elections, judicial reforms, battling organised crime and corruption, private property and media laws.

Albania needs more than a conditioned ‘European perspective’ to transform

The ‘European perspective’ does not avoid an increasing tendency of placing the Balkan discourse as a strategic instrument of European Union foreign policy resisting Russian or Chinese influence. If foreign policy alignment captures the scope of the ‘European perspective’ more prominently so than the support for transformation, it will lead to drawbacks regardless of commitments.

Despite talks, Albanians have much to lose if the European Union fails to fulfill its enlargement promises or if the leadership of eurosceptic states vetoes the process. Albanian civil society, where as high as 90 per cent of the population is said to support European Union membership, are the first to benefit from steps related to the prevention of ‘rent-seeking and power centric elites.’ Amidst high levels of poverty and criminal activities, Albania’s highly educated citizens have been emigrating in large numbers, many of them losing hope that their country can provide them with a secure future. LGBTI groups are under pressure, gender equality still falls short, domestic violence is high, and ethnic minority groups (Roma, Greeks, Egyptians, and Bulgarians) still seek better recognition. The economy has grown, but corruption and low foreign investments still prevail. With this in mind, the long term result could be disastrous if the closer EU-Albania relations of today did not lead to membership. It would put society under further pressure exacerbating problems such as the ongoing brain-drain.

The current political climate in Albania is tense between key political actors that will have to engage in a constructive dialogue. In 2019, the municipal elections were held without an agreement between the ruling majority and the opposition. The OSCE, which Albania is currently chairing, reported that the election process needs improvement, highlighting problems in how the elections were administered. The elections also had highly-contested results that led to boycotts and protests. The destruction of the national theater in Tirana last week displayed not only these societal cleavages, but also what limited influence the EU has on governance. Despite this, Albania continues to implement decriminalisation laws, reforming its judiciary and developing its democracy.

This has an impact on how the enlargement process works. The European and Balkan Sister Parties met in the hours prior to the May 6th EU-Balkan summit. One could see Albanian opposition candidate, Luzlim Basha, participating in the European People’s Party video conference, while Edi Rama participated in the Social Democrats’ meeting. The European Union representatives were also represented in their functions depending on their political affiliation. It is encouraging that both the opposition and government of Albania were able to participate in the summit so that EU grants both responsibility for bipartisan reforms. The absence of the EU Parliament from the new methodology fails to shape its role as a constructive dynamic for enlargement. However, political lines clearly risk eclipsing needed objectivity on evaluating accession criteria, and becoming dependent on the health of the dialogue between European political parties, hence affecting the pace of reforms. A constructive accession process must look toward transforming economies and engaging future Albanian EU citizens in democracy. The European Union Economic and Social committee, as well as Albanian NGOs, have voiced concern over the lack of civil society recognition as a credible actor.

EU Solidarity and COVID Response

The European Commission and the European Union Parliament, as well as some member states, like Italy, Romania, Croatia and the V4 countries, have recently been supportive of Albania, trying to repair the ‘shaming’ that occurred back in October 2019 when the European Council denied their accession talks. Jean-Claude Juncker even called the 2019 decision a ‘historic mistake.’ His successor, Ursula von der Leyen, who remains concerned about the European Union’s credibility, further extended solidarity on behalf of Europeans when she organised the Commission’s “Together4Albania” donor conference in February 2020. The campaign raised over 1.1 billion euros to rebuild damages and support victims of the 2019 earthquake.

In addition to the European support after the November earthquake, the European Union has made the unforeseen global pandemic, and resulting emergency, a major priority in its policy towards the Balkans. On April 29th, the European Commission agreed to a potential 3.3 billion euro stimulus package for Balkan countries to deal with health and humanitarian-related matters. This announcement creates significant economic and financial prospects for the future. Not only has the European Union sent medical equipment to the Balkans, but also waived the need for authorisation via the Green Lanes, which has allowed for the Balkan countries to send their own equipment. This act placed Albania and the Balkans ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the European family by allowing them to take part in schemes normally reserved for European Union countries.

The European Union has also opened schemes that allow for expatriation via the Civil Protection Mechanism, joint procurement of medical equipment and access to the Solidarity Fund. According to the Commission, over half of the funds, or 1.7 billion euros, will come from the European Investment Bank and will finance regional public investments and some private local enterprises. 180 million euros may conditionally be granted for urgent macro-financial needs in Albania, and additionally, 50.7 million euros will go to Albania from the Instrument of Pre-Accession to recover from social-economic issues and reactivate the economy.

The OECD has already warned that tourism, a major revenue source for Albania, will be hit hard in 2020. With the help of the International Monetary Fund, 455 million euros will be regionally available to support digital and green transformation, as well as fund innovative entrepreneurship projects for youth and women. Aside from this aid directly aimed at Balkan citizens, another 12.5 million euros of aid will be designated for refugees and their health needs. These financial measures were all outlined in the ‘Zagreb Declaration’ on May 6th and can be considered a strong commitment and incentive to revitalise the merit-based approach that has partly worked this far.

Despite being granted a EU negotiating status, after the EU-Balkan summit, more expectations on reforms will shape Albanian and EU enlargement politics. The previous months allowed for resilient interest in enlargement on both sides. But it is during the next four years, that various forms of contestations could occur at both EU and the level of individual states that will determine if the enlargement perspective can positively transform Albania.

Charles Fourmi is an MA student at Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

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