• Tirana: EU ministers decided in 2010 to lift visa requirements for citizens of Albania (Photo: lassi.kurkijarvi)

Opinion

Albania deserves EU candidate status

16.12.13 @ 09:07

  1. By Kate Holman

BRUSSELS - On a recent BBC Today programme, the presenters found it hard to contain their astonishment that a country – Ukraine – might still be attracted to the EU. But it is not an isolated case. There is another country, closer to home, where 87 percent of the population want membership, and are ready to make huge efforts to obtain it: Albania.

This week, EU leaders will decide whether to grant the country candidate status following the European Commission’s positive recommendation in October. Why, then, is it widely predicted that Albania will get the EU cold shoulder again?

After two rejections in 2010 and 2011, the commission first offered Albania its tentative approval in 2012, but hedged around with conditions. The brief euphoria that Albanians enjoyed, coinciding with a century of nationhood, quickly subsided into resignation.

But last summer’s elections, finally meeting international standards and putting Edi Rama’s socialist party in power, generated a real sense that something had changed; a sense of hope.

And over the last 12 months things have moved.

The commission’s 2013 Progress report found that Albania had made good progress on key reforms. In the European Parliament last week, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle told MEPs: “I am impressed by the way the new government is prioritising its efforts in the fight against corruption and organised crime, and I am equally impressed by the results achieved in the months since it has taken office, which confirm the positive trend established earlier.

“Granting candidate status is an important step, not only for encouraging Albania to pursue the far reaching reforms required, but also for the credibility of the EU,” he warned. “Albania has delivered and so should we.”

Speaking in Brussels recently, Albania’s European Integration Minister Klajda Gjosha described EU membership as “a people’s priority more than a government priority.”

The reforms needed for accession will also bring better living standards, she argued. “The EU is a driving force for transforming our society. Albania is trying so hard. A few years ago, Europe was a dream. Now there’s no going back.”

And what about the people?

After 46 years of Communism, the country had no model of organised civil society or public influence on decision-making. But in November, thousands mobilised across the country to resist pressure from the US, and stop Syrian chemical weapons being dismantled on Albanian soil. It was an unprecedented show of people power.

“It was big news for Albania that civil society stood up,” admitted Gjosha. “It was not easy for the government. But Albania is changing, and the Albanian people are being heard more than ever. We are very proud.”

There is something else Albanians are justly proud of: a unique but little-known model of religious tolerance. Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics live side by side in genuine harmony: socialising, intermarrying and celebrating each other’s religious festivals. Perhaps Europe could learn something.

But will the EU be willing to listen to the voice of Albanians? The fact is, the country has suffered for decades from an unfair and undeserved public image problem. Of course, it still has issues to tackle, but some Europeans labour under the false apprehension that Albania is riddled with crime, people trafficking and poverty. As any publicist will confirm, perceptions are more powerful than the truth.

Current reports put a number of countries in the frame for blocking Albania’s progress, among them the UK and the Netherlands. It may come down to the wire, in the end.

But one cannot help wondering whether, given the current hysteria in some member states about the opening of borders to Romanians and Bulgarians in January, some leaders have not decided that they cannot face the domestic outcry that might follow approval of Albania’s candidate status, and are willing to sacrifice a small population (an experience Albanians are well used to, throughout history), for the sake of national expediency.

Yet candidate status would not mean membership tomorrow, with many years of arduous negotiations to come. One possibility is that the European Council might postpone the decision yet again, until June 2014, with further conditions attached. But by then – who knows – the European election results may make leaders even more fearful of challenging a Eurosceptic current.

There are many reasons for Albanians’ special commitment to EU membership, some of them explained by centuries of Ottoman rule, followed soon afterwards by total isolation under Enver Hoxha’s regime.

But what most people in the EU fail to understand is how ‘European’ Albania already is, and how closely its history has been linked to neighbouring member states. The French writer Valery Larbaud, visiting the country in the 1930s, wrote of “a beautiful little piece of our Europe, too long neglected and kept at a distance."

Some 80 years later, there is a danger that Albania, despite its efforts, will continue to be pushed to the margins.

The writer is a freelance journalist and member of the administrative council of the Konitza Cultural Association, set up by the Albanian diaspora in Belgium. The views expressed are her own.

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