On Tuesday, European foreign affairs ministers voted to grant Albania formal EU “candidate country” status. A final vote will take place amongst heads of government during the summit taking place today and tomorrow (26th and 27th June), yet most expect the South East European country’s newfound status to be rubber-stamped.
News of the granting of “candidate country” status has rightly and understandably been lauded in Tirana as a tremendous step forward for Albanian EU membership. The country’s (relatively) new centre-left Prime Minister Edi Rama has presented the development as a vindication of his frenetic shuttle diplomacy around EU capitals. Former Prime Minister, President and centre-right opposition leader Sali Berisha has also sought to muscle in the announcement; presenting it as a “natural continuation” of the previous government’s work.
Amidst the euphoria, however, a dose of basic realism is needed. Albania is not on the verge of EU membership. Indeed, as the experience of Turkey – a formal “candidate” for integration into the Brussels institutions for the best part of a decade – proves, the term represents little more than semantics.
Albania is not ready to join the European Union. Indeed, it’s nowhere near meeting the basic, minimum membership criteria.
On a political level, while sixteen EU states lobbied in favour of Albania receiving “candidate” status, the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Germany lobbied against the proposal. While each government has a number of internal sensitivities to navigate in respect of potential Albanian membership, the chief motivation for their concerns are crime and corruption-related.
Albania has an image problem. Regrettably, perceptions of excessive criminality in Albania are widespread in many EU member states. These perceptions have been repeatedly reinforced at an institutional level; most recently in the European Commission’s communication to the Council of Ministers which included a number of scathing passages criticising Albania’s record on tax evasion and money laundering, the efficiency of police investigations and public prosecutions and human trafficking.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however.
Unlike a number of other EU “candidate” countries in South Eastern Europe, Albania has not attempted to pursue a quixotic strategy of trying to balance relations with Brussels and Moscow. Albania has neither been held back by the emotional links to Russia that Serbia has nor the economic pressures substantial Russian domestic investments in Montenegro bring.
Albania’s existing status us a NATO member – and therefore a country with clear aspirations to play an active role in Euro-Atlantic cooperation – will rightly be viewed as a significant factor in the country’s favour.
Through accepting “candidate” country status, Albanian leaders have demonstrated to EU leaders that they are willing to accept the challenges that increased scrutiny of its judicial and business climate and public administration processes will bring. Indeed, it is often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant – and increased scrutiny will be either the making or the breaking of Albanian EU membership aspirations.
As already discussed, the first key milestone for the Rama administration will be remedying concerns relating to crime and corruption. While one could embark upon a detailed discussion of what measures should be taken – from deeper cooperation with Interpol to the need to make examples of high profile public officials with their hands in the till by throwing them in gaol – the fundamental point is that nothing short of zero tolerance on this matter will be enough.
When it comes to its member states, the EU professes to loathe instability and immaturity in the democratic process. With its hands full dealing with the Ukraine crisis – for which there is no end in sight – the last thing it wishes to deal with is internal political crises in Albania.
The Commission’s 2013 report on Albanian progress towards “candidate” status was explicit in stating that “constructive and sustainable dialogue” was required between the government and opposition on EU-related matters. To date, the burlesque circus show operated daily by Rama and Berisha on the floor of the National Assembly gives little confidence in the maturity of Albania’s democracy. Both men need to demonstrate increased maturity in their political discourse.
Just as the EU wishes to avoid political instability, Angela Merkel – who would be more accurately described as Germany’s Prime Minister and Europe’s Chancellor – wishes to avoid further economic meltdowns of the type witnessed in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. The German public are simply unwilling to foot the bill any longer.
As such, the fact that Albania’s budget deficit and external debt continues to increase year-on-year and the statutory debt ceiling of 60% of GDP has been ridden roughshod over inspires little confidence.
If Albania is to convince EU leaders it is a suitable candidate for membership, two things need to happen. Firstly, the Albanian people must be willing to swallow savage cuts in public spending and an overhaul of their social security system. Secondly, Albanians will have to start actually paying their taxes rather than engineering schemes to shirk them.
Both of these actions require decisive government action and could prove politically toxic. They are, however, the only practical ways through which to engender the kind of economic credibility EU leaders are looking for in new member countries.
In being handed formal “candidate” status, Albania and Albanians haven’t been handed an overnight deliverance from the country’s many problems. The perception in Brussels and EU member states remains that Albania is a corrupt and unreliable state.
Instead, Albania has been given an opportunity to show that bold promises and the rhetoric of reform can be backed up with real achievements.
So Albania, the EU is watching. But are you serious?