The Cost of Delay - Why Albania should submit an Application for EU Membership this Year

Tirana, 26 May 2008

On 26th of May 2008, AGENDA Institute and European Stability Initiative (ESI), organized a round table to launch the discussion paper: The Cost of Delay – Why Albania Should Submit an Application for EU Membership this Year.

The panellists of the round table were Mrs. Milva Ekonomi, President of AGENDA Institute, Mr. Erion Veliaj, Senior Analyst of ESI in Albania, Mr. Gerald Knaus, President of ESI, Mr. Arbjan Mazniku, Executive Director of AGENDA and Mr. Gjergji Filipi, Research Director of AGENDA.

In the wake of the recent decision on Kosovo independence the borders of Europeanisation in the Balkans are going to be redrawn in 2008. The risk is very real that Albania will find itself on the wrong side of this border, left among a diminishing group of countries that do not advance further. Indeed, there is likelihood that by 2009 the current “Western Balkans” will have been divided into three new categories: Croatia, no longer “Balkan”, will prepare to become the EU’s next full member; Montenegro, Macedonia and probably Serbia will be involved in EU membership talks. And the two EU protectorates (Kosovo and Bosnia) plus Albania will be left behind in a category on their own: stigmatized as societies that like to dream of Europe but lack the courage and determination to act on their own rhetoric.

This paper argues that therefore it is high time for Albania and its political leaders (in government and opposition) to wake up to this danger and set a similarly ambitious goal. For this Albania needs to build a domestic consensus based on actions and not abstract goals; to find a way even for bitterly divided parties to work towards making a strong case for giving Albania candidate status in the EU soon; and prepare the administration for the necessary work required.

The Albanian political class needs to stop saying to itself that it wants to join the EU and do the most basic, very first, logical step: to announce its intention to other Europeans and EU institutions.

The goal of EU integration is one of the few issues on which even deeply divided Albanian political parties can agree. Since the collapse of the Albanian state in 1997 the goal of EU accession has also been a driving force for some necessary reforms in the country. And yet in recent years – and well before the Albanian car has even reached the starting line in this long race - the motor has already begun to stutter.

Albania signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in 2006, 13 years after Bulgaria signed its Europe Agreement. While this was shortly celebrated, all momentum was lost after this signature. Since then, “Europe” has again become a word to be evoked in campaign speeches. As such it has been downgraded to a vague vision of a better future that would start at some uncertain moment. Everybody is “for Europe” and nobody is required to work hard to bring this beautiful dream down to earth. To turn visions into action plans, to move from nice phrases to hard parliamentary work is left for later.

The EU, on the other hand, has come to view Albania as a compliant student. It is neither the best in the Balkan class nor the worst. It is neither a pupil winning any prizes nor one to cause any serious trouble. In the context of Balkan politics Albanian stability can be taken for granted, and the country forgotten. Albanian support for EU policies in the region (such as on Kosovo) is taken for granted. It is the most difficult pupil in class that makes EU officials worry which additional carrots to offer. And therefore it is Serbia (where almost half the population votes for parties opposed to EU integration) and not Albania (with its almost total consensus on the EU goal) that has recently been promised both a clear road to get official EU candidate status soon.

Meanwhile Albania continues to attract little attention from European policy makers, from European business or from the European press. While both the Albanian political class and the EU have treated the goal of EU accession with little seriousness, Albanian society has fortunately continued to evolve. In recent months it appears for the first time that the political elite in the country has taken note of this. Following a series of agreements on judicial and electoral reform between the major political forces in recent months, Albania received an invitation to join NATO in April this year. This is important.

Other countries in the region have many more ambitions. In April 2008, just after the signing of a conditional SAA, the Serbian President Boris Tadic, told a press conference in Luxemburg that Serbia aims “to become an official candidate by the end of the year.” The Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro, Gordana Djurovic, told her colleagues from the other Balkan countries at an ESI event in Paris on 17 April that Montenegro would also soon (and certainly in 2008) submit its application for membership. Turkey has continued to push its case as well, as has Croatia, with great success.

There will not come a moment in which the EU will invite countries to submit an application for membership. Bulgaria, and Romania and even Spain, Austria and Greece were actively discouraged by the EU to do so. If the political elite wait for this moment it may well never come and Albania might miss again the train for Brussels.

The round table was followed with interest by printed and visual media. The participants in the workshop were representatives from central institutions, diplomatic corps in Albania, representatives from civil society, and business community.

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