Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

Opinion

EU report recognises Albania's achievements

  • European foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini with the incumbent prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, in December 2017 (Photo: EEAS)

On 29 May, EU foreign policy cheif, Federica Mogherini, advised the EU council to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia this June.

As Mogherini highlighted in her statement, both countries "have shown a strong determination to advance on the EU path and achieved results that are concrete and must be irreversible".

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Unfortunately, recognition of Albania's progress through the opening of accession talks is far from certain.

Albania requires unanimous support from all EU governments to begin the discussion.

Only two days after Mogherini's recommendations were made public, the Netherlands formally asked the European Commission to suspend the visa-free movement which Albanians have enjoyed since 2006.

This is the first time that the so-called 'break mechanism' has ever been considered by the commission.

Dutch support for Albania's passage into the European Union seems far from certain, when the country is doing everything possible to rescind the travel rights all Albanians have enjoyed since 2006.

Disparate attitudes to enlargement and migration amongst the EU's member states naturally create new hurdles for the Western Balkans.

Unfortunately, Albania has also developed an image problem itself.

As outlets such as Newsweek and Bild have reported, the government of incumbent Socialist Party prime minister Edi Rama has been criticised since 2013 for perceived links to organised crime.

Under the previous coalition government - formed by Dr Sali Berisha's Democratic Party, and incumbent president Ilir Meta's Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI) - Albania became a source country for the cultivation of cannabis, and a transit route for the trafficking of cocaine.

It's easy to understand Europe's belief that Albania's political class is part of the bigger problem.

When SMI parliamentarian Mhill Fufi's son was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in Great Britain on 5 April 2017, all actors in Albanian politics had to listen to the electorate - who rightly voiced concern about the problem.

Albania understands the Netherlands' particular concern about the treat of transnational crime, in the context of liberal narcotics legislation.

As professor Pieter Tops, an expert in narcotics at the University of Tilburg has stated: "Criminal networks are drawn to the Netherlands by the same convenient business climate that appeals to legal businesses. Holland's entrepreneurial mindset and its attractiveness as a 'gateway to Europe' facilitate trade" which can, sadly, mean "Illegal trade, too".

Tops is not the only analyst to observe Antwerp and Amsterdam's particular "vulnerability" to transnational crime - a threat exacerbated by a falling group of Albanian nationals.

As Rudina Hajdari, who is leader of the parliamentary opposition and chair of the EU Integration Committee has repeatedly stated, Albania is committed to allaying Dutch concerns.

While in the past, Albania's failings stalled accession, we're now battling an image problem that's far greater than the facts suggest.

The progress Albania's made in the fight against organised crime is outlined in significant detail for the council's consideration, throughout Mogherini's report.

While transnational crime undoubtedly features as a concern, Mogherini actually concludes that Albania is making significant strides forward in this space, and faces a far great battle with political division.

As the report states, "a joint resolution of the EU-Albania Parliamentary Stabilisation and Association Committee was adopted only in the first of the two meetings held during the reporting period (February and November 2018)" due to the 18 April decision by former parliamentarian Lulzim Basha to instruct opposition MPs to burn their mandates.

Since the walk-out was announced, Albania has been shaken by the most violent protests since 2011.

On Saturday 1 June, rioters connected to the Socialist Movement for Integration (SMI) & Democratic Party (PD) hurled petrol bombs and other projectiles at police officers, leaving 10 injured.

Condemnation of the Democratic Party's actions by the US State Department were instantaneous, while all EU embassies in Tirana gave warnings. Both Nato and the OSCE have also expressed their disdain for violent protest.

Serious crisis

Albania currently faces a serious crisis - which it would be foolish for all actors in the international community to ignore.

We need to address each stakeholder's concerns proactively, and we must ensure that the failure of the Berlin Process and the growth of criminal groups in the Balkans does not cause our allies in Europe further concern.

Yet we must ask that our partners in Europe read Mogherini's report carefully and recognise accomplishments.

We've made significant steps to slow organised crime, but need additional bilateral support to strengthen our democracy. As Mogherini states: "Strong polarisation and the opposition's repeated boycott of parliamentary activities has negatively affected the Assembly's work".

It's a sad reflection of this democracy's strength that a walk-out by MPs has affected Albania's future - but it's within the EU's hands to ignore the actions of a small group of MPs, by recognising that the silent majority are committed to working with the EU28 through the commencement of accession talks with parliament.

Author bio

Hugo Stride is a former UK diplomat, and now advises the government of Albania on electoral reform & EU accession as a senior partner at NBE Global Strategies.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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