Albania is no closer to joining the EU. Its leaders might prefer it this way
It is fair to say that there is little love lost between Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his main opponent in this Sunday’s elections, Lulzim Basha.
Basha has long called on Rama to step down over corruption allegations, while his MPs even stepped out of parliament in 2019 over allegations of electoral fraud. Meanwhile, the opposition protests got so out of hand that at one point, protesters attempted to break into Rama’s office.
Polls see the two men neck and neck ahead of Sunday’s election, although Rama is confident his socialist party will secure a landslide victory. It would see Rama, a former painter and basketball player, serving an unprecedented third term as ruler of Albania.
But if there’s one thing Basha and Rama agree on – at least in public – it’s Europe and moving forward with Albania’s very stalled negotiations to join the European bloc. Albania’s European future has been a key electoral issue in 2021, as it has been in all other national elections in recent years.
It is politically obvious to put Europe at the forefront of the debate in a country where a February 2020 poll found up to 97% of Albanians in favor of EU membership.
“We could be the only country where you cannot find any political force, whether local or even on the fringes of the political spectrum, to be against the EU,” said Gledis Gjipali, executive director of the European Movement in Albania, at Euronews.
But like elsewhere in the Western Balkans, Albania’s road to Europe has been long, winding and strewn with potholes. Extremely slow, he was frustrated at every turn both by the changing political realities in the region and, more recently, by the changes of heart in Brussels.
Frenchman Emmanuel Macron and Dutchman Mark Rutte have embodied Europe’s reluctance to open books in recent years. In 2019, Macron blocked Albania and North Macedonia from moving forward with their membership offers.
Macron has his eye on his own re-election in 2022 and the challenge of the anti-EU far right under Marine Le Pen. He said the reform of the EU was more important than its enlargement and complained about the number of asylum seekers from Albania in France.
“How can I explain to my constituents that the country of origin of most asylum seekers is Albania, when many European ministers believe that Albania is improving and that we should start negotiations for ‘accession to the EU?’ Said Macron.
Message from Albania to Europe: Send more carrots
The French president’s argument is that Europe needs to reform before admitting new members, and despite the fact that Albania has been chosen, there are those in the country who agree. Finally, the EU needs to figure out how to deal with member states that ticked the democratic boxes when they joined and gradually roll back once they are there, Gjipali said.
But the EU’s backtracking on Albania and the wider Western Balkans is not a solution, added Gjipali. Despite all its failures and slowness, the path to European integration has often been the sole driving force behind reform in the Western Balkans.
Without the EU carrot, political elites and authoritarian forces would only be emboldened.
“Unfinished business would not bring such crucial stability and strong democratic values to the country. The pulling power of the EU is the greatest driving force behind the reforms carried out in Albania and the motivation to bear the costs of this process, ”he said.
Indeed, politically, the current unrest in Brussels has already benefited the political elites, allowing them to blame Europe for Albania’s problems rather than for the failure of successive governments in Tirana to adopt reforms sufficient to combat it. corruption, crime and the rule of law, analysts say.
Rama, speaking to Euronews Albania this week, that the country had fulfilled its duty to prepare for membership of the European Union and blamed the European Council and the European Commission for the failure to achieve this in its eight years in power .
In private, critics say, Albanian politicians may prefer the situation as it is. Opening negotiations would involve a detailed public inspection of all aspects of Albania’s economy, government and institutions and may reveal skeletons many would prefer to remain hidden.
“Hiding behind the political issues and blockages that keep enlargement in abeyance relieves pressure on the government to carry out reforms,” said Donika Emini, PhD student at the University of Westminster and member of the advisory group on Balkan policy in Europe.
The result of this was that the Albanians – and in particular the young people – became increasingly discouraged about Europe and apathetic towards politics in general, Alfonc Rakaj, an analyst, told Euronews. As elsewhere in the Western Balkans, it is the young people of Albania who – tired of waiting for life to improve at home – flock abroad to seek opportunities in Europe and beyond.
One of the reasons Sunday’s elections are still too close to be called, he added, is that so many voters are tired of the same old faces: Rama has been in politics since 1998, Basha since 2005, and neither is seen to have brought about the change voters want to see, he said.
Meanwhile, the Albanians look to their neighbors and see faster progress towards integration in increasingly undemocratic countries like Serbia, while the prospects for Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania remain in. dead end. It has not gone unnoticed that it is the Muslim-majority Western Balkan countries – or at least significant minorities – that are languishing, he said.
“For some, the EU’s inability to absorb the region has anti-Islamic overtones […], Said Rakaj, “Albania has done more than Serbia, but is not even allowed to open negotiation talks.”
Is it because we are Muslims, Albania wonders
This has been particularly acute as far-right forces in countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany have directly linked opposition to Albania’s EU membership to fears. an influx of Muslim immigrants to European countries, as well as suggestions that Albania – being a Muslim majority nation – has ties to Turkey or other Muslim states.
“The main fear of the public elite of Tirana is the identification of Albania with the religious beliefs of the majority of its population and, therefore, of being prejudiced as a bearer of Turkish influence or something similar, ”Afrim Krasniqi, former MP and executive director of the Institute for Political Studies, told Euronews.
“We don’t see ourselves as an extension of anyone. We don’t feel like one and we don’t want to identify ourselves as such. “
While full membership of the European Union seems more and more distant, at least in the short term, some have suggested that France and other countries opposed to enlargement might suggest a two-speed EU, some countries benefiting from some of the benefits of membership and not others. . It wouldn’t be a first choice, Krasniqi said, but it would be better than nothing.
“Essentially, citizens see integration as access to free movement, education, work, commerce and the same standard of living and democracy – and if these goals are achieved through alternative formulas, that would be a solution acceptable to us, “he said.
Others believe that for the European Union, to go back on what had been promised as early as 2003, when Albania was first identified as a potential candidate, and to deny all the work that has been done in the country since then could be another nail in the coffin. for the EU.
Even if it takes several years, full membership is the only way forward for Albania.
“The EU’s backtracking on a promise and commitment made to the countries of the Western Balkans – where most of them have made painful compromises even because of the prospect of EU membership – is harmful for our countries and for the EU itself, ”said Gjipali, at the European Movement conference.
“In a world which is increasingly globalized by the day, the EU must be stronger, determined and less ambiguous to face the challenges which are increasingly known and unknown.”