Stuck in the waiting room: Albania’s EU candidacy for years | New
Tirana, Albania – The prospect of Albania’s EU membership has faded for Jonara Hoxha.
Six years ago, she chose to study medicine in Tirana rather than at the foreign universities that accepted her.
“I really thought if I left I would lose [my] place in my country, ”she told Al Jazeera. “And sometimes I thought I would lose my place even in my family. So I stayed here, and I regret this decision I made.
After completing her final year, she wishes to specialize in Germany as a general surgeon.
It’s not just that starting salaries in Germany are several times higher than the $ 600 per month she would earn in Albania.
She is disappointed that many of her teachers never showed up to class, leaving the students to fend for themselves.
She says Albanian doctors are often viewed with suspicion, suffering verbal and physical assault.
“We should all help change these things and I’m ready to help, but I don’t want to be disappointed again,” she said. “I want to work for myself and become something bigger, and here I can’t do that… I feel like I’m losing hope.”
Over the past decade, 423,700 Albanians have migrated west for work, education and health care, or 14% of the population.
While after the fall of communism, the emigrants were mostly manual laborers, they now include educated professionals who could strengthen the country’s middle class and economy.
Emigration over the years:
2014 – 46,525
2015 – 41,443
2016 – 32,532
2017 – 39,905
2018 – 38,703
2019 – 43 835
2020 – 23 854
Source: Albanian Institute of Statistics
Work is one of the main reasons for overwhelming Albanian support for EU membership, says journalist Enton Abilekaj. Corruption is the other.
“They don’t trust the elections, they don’t trust the politicians, and they think that after accession our government will have more control from the outside,” says Abilekaj. “That’s why they want our membership so badly.
The dynamic Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, spent his second term trying to clean up Albanian politics, setting up a special corruption court and subjecting all judges of the Supreme Court and the Albanian Constitutional Court to a verification process to determine their sources of wealth.
Now entering his third term, Rama plans to focus on university reform, staffing the Higher Education Council with diaspora Albanians. They are responsible for preparing the system of mergers and joint programs with foreign universities to “internationalize the spirit of Albanian higher education”.
“You can’t just blame a young child… for wanting to get what he wants or what she wants now,” said Rama, when asked about the high rate of emigration.
“What we’ve been doing all these years is just not wasting more time, going faster with reforms, going faster with modernization, to make the country work in terms of systems. And then the trends can change.
It also has big plans for the Albanian tourism industry, issuing tenders for the construction of four ports and four airports along the Albanian Adriatic coast.
“When I became Prime Minister, it was out of the question to seriously invest in tourism. It was out of the question to imagine that five-star hotels or high-end investments would consider coming. Now Albania is on their map, ”Rama told Al Jazeera.
All these processes could be accelerated if the EU, to which Albania applied for membership in 2009, starts talks.
The European Commission has encouraged the bloc to do so for three years, and last year the European Council of Heads of Government agreed to do so in principle.
Albania has been waiting for a start date since then. However, it is unlikely that the Council meeting on June 24 will publish it, according to experts.
The first problem is that the invitation from Albania was harnessed to that of North Macedonia, whose candidacy was blocked by Bulgaria because of its demand for a “Macedonian” language.
Bulgaria wants the country to say that it speaks a dialect of Bulgarian.
North Macedonia, in 2018, overcame Greece’s objection to joining under the name “Republic of Macedonia” and agreed to amend it.
Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi suggested last month that Albania and North Macedonia could be decoupled, but this comes at credibility costs for the EU, which could be seen as a disregard of promises not to leave North Macedonia aside.
“I think there will be positive sounds because the EU doesn’t want to be seen as being cold about the process, but what they mean on the ground may not be much,” said James Pettifer, who teaches Balkan history at the University of Oxford.
He sees two more “elephants in the room”.
One is the illegal cannabis industry in Albania, which, he said, “permeates all aspects of the economy”.
Visitors to Tirana are often in awe of the number of luxury cars and frantic building of skyscrapers, but these seem incompatible with the country’s 12% unemployment rate, massive emigration and an average monthly salary of $ 600.
The other “elephant” is Rama’s increasingly close friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and what Pettifer called the “soft power aspects” of Ankara’s foreign policy, which include funding for the construction of mosques in the predominantly Muslim Balkan nation.
“Mr. Erdogan has a long-term vision,” Pettifer said. “For many unemployed young people in particular, these clubs attached to mosques are quite attractive, and there are also very good scholarships on offer.
“I think Rama always hoped that, in the eyes of the European Union, Albanian Islam would not be an obstacle to membership… Of course, in the more right-wing members of the EU, especially in France and in Hungary, the fact that there is an Islamic majority in the population would exclude Albanian membership at all.
Rama is adamant that he will continue to rule Albania in a western direction.
“We have done our homework and we deserve to officially start,” Rama said. “I don’t think this will be resolved in June, but maybe in the fall. But if not, we will wait.