Albania and the EU-accession negotiations

maandag 25 november 2019, 13:00, analyse van Jorida Shytaj

Het overgrote gedeelte van de bevolking van Albanië is voor een toetreding tot de Europese Unie. De afgelopen jaren zijn grote stappen gezet om die toetreding mogelijk te maken. Zo is het rechtssysteem volledig op de schop gegaan. Toch gaat de toetredingsprocedure nog niet van start: onder andere Frankrijk en Nederland stonden dit niet toe. Albanië lijkt de dupe te worden van een verandering in de Europese visie op de toekomst van het Europese project: een van verdieping in plaats van uitbreiding. Dat de spelregels tussentijds gewijzigd worden is niet zonder gevolgen. De EU dreigt hiermee haar legitimiteit ten opzichte van de Albanese bevolking te verliezen. Om landen zoals Albanië de benodigde veranderingen door te laten voeren, is het van belang hen ook te belonen wanneer zij belangrijke ontwikkelingen afronden.

How do you assess the Albanian perspective for negotiations about accession?

European Integration is the national priority agenda for Albania since the fall of the communist regime in 1991, backed as well by 86% of the Albanian population. Together with other Western Balkans (WB) countries it participated in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) and was offered a process based on merits in meeting the Copenhagen criteria and the conditions set for the SAP and a rigorous but fair conditionality to be applied to all candidate and potential candidate countries. Every step forward would depend on each country’s own progress in meeting the necessary conditions at each stage of the accession process. After 2 decades from the SAP that only one WB country managed to become a member of the EU, it is important for the Thessaloniki promise to be still in place and further reinvigorated.

In the past year Albania embraced the opportunity and delivered on EU-related reforms, in particular in the areas set unanimously by the Council conclusions of June 2018, in order to organise first Intergovernmental Conference by the end of 2019. The significant progress achieved especially with the justice reform aimed at increased independence, accountability, professionalism and efficiency of the judiciary was recognised by the Commission which recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with Albania. Nevertheless this was not the decision of the Council. Lack of decision in the October’s Council to open the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia was another disappointment to the hopes of speeding up the accession process and avoid a possible political vacuum in the WB region. This was the third time, after Council meetings in June 2018 and June 2019 that the bloc's leaders couldn’t reach the required unanimity in order to make the decision.

The failure of EU to keep its promise was in fact considered a mistake, by the current heads of EU institutions (President of the EU Commission Juncker, President of the European Council Tusk, and European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Hahn) and European Parliament Resolution on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Albania is still far from fulfilling all the membership criteria and become a full-fledged member of the EU, although it is on the right path in terms of implementing the necessary reforms. This state and societal transformation needs time. What was required now was the decision to formally start the accession negotiations, and Albania has made considerable efforts to meet the EU’s requirements for opening accession negotiations. The enlargement practice has shown that from the start of the accession negotiations to the full membership can take up more than a decade, and the current lack of decision not only undermines the predictability and credibility of the merit based process but it also would further detriment the achievements so far and especially the citizens' support for the European perspective of the country.

What is/are the main obstacle/hurdles/challenges for negotiations or accession?

I personally see as the main challenge the current situation in the EU; the internal reform agenda prioritising deepening over widening of the EU, the ever-changing political dynamics and debates about the future reform of EU which are clearly affecting the most successful policy of the EU, i.e. Enlargement.

The EU must maintain and further deepen its own development while pursuing a credible enlargement agenda, not by completely freezing it. Strong positive interactions exist between enlargement and deep institutional reform of the EU. While EU membership perspective has been the most important leverage in the Western Balkans region to promote democracy, rule of law, and consolidate stability, history has shown that Enlargement is also a constructive factor for transformative pressure for the EU and its institutions.

What is the Albanian take on the length of the pre-negotiations status?

Albania is strongly committed to its European perspective. For decades, it has been the key driver for vital reforms which assisted the political, economic and societal transformation of the country. However, for the EU to continue being the strongest factor in the country’s transformative agenda, accession should remain a merit-based process fully dependent on the progress achieved by each of the enlargement countries evaluated upon objective criteria. It should be the quality and speed of drafting and implementing reforms to determine the accession agenda rather than internal politics and dynamics of the Member States.

Rules should not be changed in the middle of a process. Altering the assessment criteria or imposing additional stages in the Enlargement process, as it is being currently suggested by some Member States would further discourage reform efforts and momentum in the whole region.

What work has been done and must still be done to make Albania ready?

Albania has come a long way since the beginning of the Stabilisation and Association Process. The European perspective had a real transformative effect by assisting and supporting the country’s reforms to majorly transform its legislation, institutions, and overall societal culture. Nevertheless comprehensive and convincing reforms are still required in crucial areas, notably on the rule of law, fight against corruption and organised crime, economic criteria and many other important fields. But it is also very important to be rewarded for the achievements made so far.

In the past 3 years Albania was deeply focused on the comprehensive and thorough justice reform which was considered the priority reform on which the opening of the accession negotiations would depend. A difficult and very bold justice reform - including the unprecedented reassessment of judges and prosecutors – was undertaken, resulting in a major transformation of the country’s justice system. The reform brought tangible and sustained results, particularly the vetting process which delivered visible results and was widely considered a model to be implemented across the region.

It was not an easy process to change 1/3 of the Constitution and to vet all the judges and prosecutors of the system, risking even the emptying of institutions as it happened in practice. To give a simple overview of the situation: the number of magistrates leaving the judicial system in Albania, through dismissals and resignations, is higher than the number of confirmations in office of existing magistrates. The opening of the accession negotiations now would have been a very strong signal for the newly established justice institutions to continue maintaining and deepening the current reform momentum in particular continuing to deliver the concrete and tangible results in the re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors (vetting).

However, there are reasons to be proud for the enormous work done in the framework of the justice reform, not only because of the major transformation it brought about but also because it has already aligned Albania with much of the content and standards of Chapters 23 and 24 of the EU acquis. Thus, much of the future work in terms of the screening process, and even possible benchmarks for the opening of these negotiating chapters have been already finalised. Namely, most of the tasks already fulfilled by Albania have been benchmarks for closing chapters 23 & 24 during Croatia’s accession to the EU.

The focus for the future should be maintaining and deepening the reform momentum not only in the judiciary but also in other crucial areas strongly related to rule of law and economic criteria. As for the EU, to put it in the words of the 2018 Strategy for the Western Balkans, it must remain credible, firm and fair, and must fulfil its commitment towards the Western Balkans.

Jorida Shytaj is PHD fellow aan de Universiteit Maastricht is specialiseert zich in de toetredingsprocedures van de Europese Unie.