Albania rewarded with EU Candidate Status

Albania received the official candidate status of the EU. The country in the Western Balkans has a population of three million people, 17% unemployment and is known for its endemic organized crime but also its beautiful beaches. It is likely that the talks for Tirana will last for many years. It will depend on the speed of reform and the political will and consensus how long Albania’s road to membership will take.

The decision of EU leaders on 27 June 2014 to accept Albania is also a personal victory of Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister who came into power in June 2013 after a peaceful transition. His major promises were the fight against corruption and organized crime. Clearly, this was positive received in Brussels. In a very dramatic act, Albanian police had a gun battle in an Albanian village that produced marihuana illegally on an industrial scale and destroyed 12 tons (!) of marihuana. First, I would like to shortly present also Albania’s modern history due to its enormous impact until today.

In the claws of a dictator

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One of Hoxha’s architechtural “achievements” in Albania’s capital city Tirana

In contrast to a rather mild form of socialism in former Yugoslavia, Albania was led by a Stalinist-like dictator for 40 years. Enver Hoxha kept Albanians in poverty for decades. His regime was characterized by mismanagement, failed policies, extensive use of the death penalty and long-time imprisonments of political opponents. However, the country also experienced industrialization and achievements in the health and education sector. Hoxha was first allied with the Soviet Union and later on with China, but fell out with both.

Under his rule also a strong Albanian nationalism was planted under which many Albanians suffer until today. Hoxha tried to connect the ancient Illyrians with today’s Albanians; a failure like all constructions of modern nations. However, one should not underestimate the impact it has until today. Instead of materializing achievements for his people, Albanians ended up to have the lowest living standard in Europe.

A difficult transition

The transition after the fall of the Berlin wall was not easy. After all, the country was in shambles due to a lousy management of the economy. Instead of liberalization, the country continued to be ruled by shady governments and an obscure economy. In late 1996 a pyramid scheme broke down and many ordinary Albanians were suddenly in ruins. It is believed that Albanians lost $1bn. The anger was stark and almost led to a civil war because many claimed that the government has not prevented these illegal schemes. The consequence was civil disorder, the fall of government and a basic breakdown of the state.

Thousands of Albanians left for Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Only during the summer of 1997, the situation got back under control thanks to an international military effort; it took years, however, that the state had the full control of all parts of Albania. In 1998, a new constitution was set up and a Western-style course was installed. This also led to the entry of NATO in 2009 and a continued call for EU membership. Until today, the GDP per capita is only $10,700

The call for EU membership

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Tirana is full of colorful buildings

Albania had to wait five years before it received the candidate status and was rejected three times by the Commission to receive the candidate status. In the meantime, also the population in Albania has become very much in favor of the EU. It is seen as the only way forward for Albania, economically but also to ensure that reforms will be done. The population is fed up with the corruption and nepotism that is still embedded in the political system. Not least impunity in the higher echelons of the state will be major issue.

In December 2013, Rama wanted to get the green light of the EU but was blocked by some EU member states – due to “prejudice” as he said at the time. But on 24 June 2014, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele proclaimed that Albania had taken “another important milestone” towards EU membership. Particularly the fight against organized crime was highlighted as a success of the current government.

Others say that this is related with the general fatigue of enlargement. After all, 13 countries joined the EU during the past decade, thus almost doubled in member states. Moreover, the 2007 enlargement with Rumania and Bulgaria was perceived by many as “too early” and the two countries were simply not prepared. Trying to avoid the mistake, many EU leaders are cautious if not outright hostile towards enlargement.

Doubts in London, Paris and Prague

It was the UK and France that threatened to block Albania in order to gain ground in their demand on restricting the freedom of movement. Also the Czech Republic almost blocked Albania due to problems in an investment deal. Also Germany was everything else than enthusiastic but Merkel stuck to her promise that all Western Balkan countries should have the perspective to join the EU in early June 2014.

For now, UKIP and Front National were not successful with their campaign of angst and the UK and France also voted in favor. Now, Cameroon stated that the UK was in favor of candidate status but the UK would block Albania during the next 20 years from an entry into the EU. Well, who knows whether the UK will remain part of the union in the next in the next five years…

A long to-do list to fulfill

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Albania’s hero Skanderberg still has enormous importance in Albania’s nationalism

Now, there is a long list of the EU that Albania has to tackle. Particularly important is the reform of the public administration and the judiciary, the fight against organized crime and corruption, the protection of human rights and antidiscrimination policies. Moreover, the fight against crime by beefing up its law enforcement agencies and crack down on fraud, money laundering, drug cultivation and human trafficking has to be fortified. This long list can con come down to three major issues: independent judiciary, fight against corruption and democratic structures.

It is obvious that Albania is still very far away from EU membership. In comparison, it took Croatia six years after receiving the candidate status to join the EU in 2013. Albania, which is much poorer and corrupt, will thus probably take many more years than that. One of the instruments that should help Albania, will be EURALIUS, an EU-led judicial mission to Albania; hopefully, their budget of €4m will be sufficient though.

At least Albania’s government seems to be aware of the Hercules task. “To be a candidate country means that we have to work even harder and that we can’t lean back confidently,” Klajda Gjosha, EU integration minister, is quoted in Deutsche Welle.

One of the fears in EU countries is that many Albanians will migrate into their countries. Considering that already now ten thousands of Albanians live in Western European countries, this is anyways already a reality to a large degree. However, moving closer to the EU should also allow Albania to become more attractive for tourists. The country is known for its beautiful beaches at the Adriatic.

On a more obscure note, one can also visit the some 750,000 “mushrooms” across the country – bunkers built by Hoxha during his dictatorship reflecting his paranoia. More importantly though, tourists can experience the hospitality of the country and overcome the stereotypes they might have about Albanians. I was myself able to have a great time there for three days back in 2008, visiting Tirana and the northern coast line.

Further step for full West Balkan integration

As always, there is the hope that the EU can fuel reform thanks to the carrots they can provide and the use of necessary sticks to also pass unpopular reforms. For sure, the perspective of EU membership is the motivation for transitioning the country to a Western-style democracy that will not only benefit Albania but the whole region that until today suffers under organized crime and corruption.

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