Op-Ed: The Netherlands remains critical, but fully supports Albania’s European integration efforts

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times April 3, 2015 09:07
Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd speaks at the European Forum as AIIS Director Albert Rakipi listens on. (Photo: AIIS)

Ambassador Dewi van de Weerd speaks at the European Forum as AIIS Director Albert Rakipi listens on. (Photo: AIIS)

By DEWI VAN DE WEERD

Dewi van de Weerd, the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ ambassador to Albania, made these remarks at the Albanian Institute for International Studies’ European Forum, focusing on current developments within the EU, the upcoming Dutch EU presidency, the Western Balkans, Albania and EU enlargement policy. 

Let me start with something significant. Albania has become a candidate member state to the EU. I would like to congratulate you with that status. The Netherlands is fully supportive of your European integration efforts. Albania belongs within the EU and the Netherlands stands ready to support the country in the accession process.

  1. I would first like to discuss some of the recent developments in the EU. Let’s zoom in at some of the plans of the new Commission.
  2. I would then like to focus on the Dutch position witin the EU, as we are preparing to take over the Presidency of the European Union in January next year.
  3. Let us, thirdly, have a look at the EU and the Western Balkans and where we are with the EU’s enlargement policy.
  4. In closing, I will come to the best part, Albania’s future within the EU.
  5. The EU today

There is a ring of unrest around Europe. The situation is much more serious then we have seen in the past decade. Not only does it lead to insecurity for many people, there are also immense streams of refugees. We cannot ignore them. It is in these uncertain times that the EU has to operate.

Also within the Union we have been facing a severe economic crisis. Luckily in many member states the prospectives are better now. But the necessary austerity policies have also led to unrest and less support for Europe, as we all know. This led to less trust, not only between member states, but also within them.

After elections last year the European Parliament has been renewed. A new Commission started, with a president, Claude Juncker, who was actually the preferred candidate of the European Parliament. My former minister, Frans Timmermans, who has visited Albania in the past, has left the Netherlands to become vice-president of the Commission in Brussels.

The new Commission has presented its strategic agenda. This agenda sets out five priorities that will guide the Union’s work over the next five years:

  1. a Union of jobs, growth and competitiveness;
  2. a Union that empowers and protects all its citizens;
  3. towards an Energy Union with a forward-looking climate policy. We want less dependence on energy suppliers that violate human rights. And with regard to climate we are late, it really is 5 to 12;
  4. a Union of freedom, security and justice, that focuses on solidarity and
  5. the Union as a strong global actor.

The agenda also considers how EU policy should be shaped and implemented. Subsidiarity and proportionality are key principles in this process: the Union should concentrate on areas where it can make a difference.

It has to refrain from taking action where the member states can do that themselves. National parliaments should be more involved. What does this actually mean? Let me give you an example.

It means that we should not ask Brussels to look at the size and shape of, for instance, bottles for olive oil. There is no added value. But we will count on Europe to set health and food safety standards.

  1. Focus of a small – or rather – medium sized member state

The Dutch position is well reflected in the EU’s strategic agenda. We advocate a Union that focuses on the essentials, on the main things, not on details. A Union that increases its added value for Europe’s citizens and companies. We think the EU should reduce the administrative burden.

For example, it should be possible for a young IT specialist from let’s say Germany to sell stuff from his webshop in the Netherlands, without too many regulations, paperwork, etc.  We have to come to one digital market.

We have presented the programme for our EU Presidency next year, I brought it with me, please take a copy if you like. I would like to mention our focus area’s:

– We think one of the key tasks is to create jobs and economic growth, with a focus on innovation and decent work.

– The EU, with the Netherlands as one of its founding states, was intended as a legal community, based on shared values, aimed at furthering common interests. We need to continue to listen to our citizens and make sure they still recognize themselves in this European idea. We need to make their voices heard, have debates, reach out for their ideas.

– We think the EU will have to further strengthen its common foreign and security policy. We believe in an integrated approach, more defense cooperation, between member states, but also with NATO and other allies. We will now need to give priority to areas south and east of the EU.

If you would ask the question where are Europe’s borders? The answer is they are there where its values are disputed most.

– The rule of law is one of those core values that needs to be respected in each member state. I would like to zoom in on this topic. It can be viewed from two perspectives: that of the citizen and that of member states’ cooperation within the EU.

The core principle of European citizenship is that nationals of one member state who are in another member state enjoy the same rights as the nationals of the latter member state. So that everyone has access to the EU’s freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. These freedoms can only be guaranteed if the rule of law functions effectively in all member states. Harmonised legislation creates a level playing field. It positively influences companies working in different member states, so that they know what kind of legislation to expect. It is not only the existence of this legislation, but also to know that it will be enforced, which makes the difference.

Lastly, it is essential for the credibility of the external policy of the EU and the member states that the member states themselves are governed by the rule of law. Coherence is needed between external and internal human rights policies.

Before arriving here, I headed our human rights team in The Hague. We promote equal rights for women, for LGBT or press freedom, in countries like Zimbabwe or Russia. But as Europeans we cannot point fingers to others, when human rights are not being respected within our own borders.

We therefore need to ensure that member states may hold another member state or even a candidate country to account. Even within the Union, we are not there yet. Look at Hungary for instance. There is progress in this field though. This year member states will start talks assessing the state of their national rule of law, monitored by the Commission. This has been and will remain high on the Dutch agenda.

We think rule of law should not only be regarded as a formal structure. Cultural factors are important too. Authorities should act in the spirit of the rule of law, that should indeed be the culture. Legal proceedings, complaint procedures, etcetera are not enough. The decisive factor is the operating culture among state agencies and officials who play a key role in the rule of law. Strengthening the rule of law also depends on vigilance of and respect for the independence of the judiciary. Politicians and others in positions of authority, such as senior judges and police chiefs, should set a good example.

  1. EU Enlargement: On the road

So looking at what Europe is, we can say, and I quote my ex-minister Timmermans, that Europe is a way of life, a way of thinking. All European states have a mix of the same ingredients of freedoms and human rights and respect for rule of law, be it in different compositions. It is not something that is easy to achieve, or to maintain, like we see at the moment. It requires a great deal of political, financial and social investment. But there is a high return, and this is clearly seen by the countries in the Balkans.

Despite calls for “less Europe”, due maybe to a bit too rapid expansion of the Union in the past, there are also calls for “more Europe”. With Croatia joining the EU, opening of negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia, the candidate status granted to Albania and the Kosovo-Serbia rapprochement – we have indeed seen a positive trend for the Western Balkans during 2013 – 2014. The whole of the Western Balkans has an accession perspective and rightly so. These countries are part of Europe and should eventually join the Union.

But enlargement of the EU is not self-evident these days, just as is the support for it. Critics and sceptics are on the rise. This trend can only be countered through arguments and through action. Ultimately, support for enlargement can only be maintained by a rigorous process, in which strict conditions are leading.

The current focus in the enlargement process on rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, has done just that. It has put what is the essence of the EU into the heart of the accession process. It is good to see that the countries in the Western Balkans are taking up this challenge and are increasing their efforts on these fundamental issues.

The EU and its member states want to assist countries in the Western Balkans to meet the conditions. This is why the Netherlands has devoted its bilateral assistance in the Western Balkans almost entirely to the rule of law. We have just started a regional rule of law pilot, with experts in all our embassies throughout the Balkans.

Albania is playing an active role in the region. At the same time it is clear that sensitivities with regard to regional cooperation remain, especially concerning Serbia and Kosovo. We think it is important that all parties are aware of this and avoid creating misunderstandings. Good neighbourly relations are an important aspect of the accession process in all Western Balkan countries.

We also need to realise that the EU we see today, is not the EU the countries in the Western Balkans will join in time. The Union is changing rapidly, especially with respect to economic governance. Look at, for example, at the banking sector. Accession countries need to also be prepared for the economic governance demands that will be put on them as soon as they join the Union. The EU needs to help out there too, that is why improving economic governance is one of the priorities for Albania. This also implies assisting acceding countries to improve and strengthen their capacities, for example in statistics. The Netherlands has been asked to look into energy efficiency and to see if our energy regulator can work with his Albanian counterpart.

Following Croatia’s accession in 2013, it is not expected that new member states will be joining the EU soon. The countries of the Western Balkans all have a genuine prospect of EU accession – their integration in the EU will contribute to regional and European stability – but they are responsible for determining the pace of their accession.

  1. Albania and its future in the EU: It takes two to tango

The Netherlands is supportive of Albania’s European integration efforts. Yesterday and today, minister Bushati and minister Gjiknuri are visiting the Netherlands. They had lunch with our minister of foreign affairs Koenders and they met our economic affairs minister, Kamp. The granting of candidate country status in June is an important milestone, both for the country and for the government. It is a deserved recognition of the progress that has been made so far. Great to see that there is so much public support for the EU here, 91 percent.

We have a lot in common. The Netherlands sincerely appreciates that Albania is a NATO member and a country that fully aligns itself with the common foreign and security policy of the EU, especially as the current geopolitical situation is in flux.

Both the Netherlands and Albania are now members of the UN’s Human Rights Council. As like minded countries we can work together on human rights issues, such as more political participation of women or ending violence against women. The Netherlands is a candidate for the UN Security Council, and so is Albania.

Getting back to the EU, we think that the EU candidate status means reforms here need to be stepped up. The merging of municipalities through the local territory reform is a good start. Hopefully this will contribute to combating corruption. We believe that justice reform should provide for a new system that Albanians in daily life will be able to trust. This is essential to progress: a more reliable justice sector will attract more foreign investment.

Public administration reform and progress in media digitization are necessary and welcomed. I would like to stress again the importance of including Albanian citizens in decision making. We will continue to support that.

The Netherlands has been critical of Albania’s readiness for the candidate status in the past. And we still are. Please allow me to mention some bottlenecks that have to be tackled from the Dutch perspective:

The proper functioning of political dialogue, especially where it belongs, in parliament. Full or partial boycott of parliament and extreme polarisation is not helpful. Both the government and opposition have their own responsibility in making cooperation work. It struck me that recent research showed the trust of the Albanian people in their political parties is at 15 percent, that is very low.

Improving the functioning and independence of the judiciary is crucial. Why is the High Council of Justice not participating in the justice reform?

Ensure that the fight against corruption does not limit itself to small fish, but equally focusses on large-scale corruption. There has been an impressive number of 4300 complaints on the new e-portal. But I am actually more interested in the number of cases that will get a thorough follow-up.

The freedom and independence of the media needs improvement.

It is clear that a lot of work remains to be done before the opening of negotiations could realistically come into sight. Since the start of the enlargement policies in 1993 the Netherlands has taken an approach to assess progress on the enlargement agenda through a method which we call “strict and fair”. What does this mean?

Strict means that we take the starting point of the ‘acquis’ serious. The acquis sets out the basic principles of the EU and the Copenhagen criteria stipulate the minimum conditions that need to be fulfilled before a new country can become a member of the EU. These are:

Stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;

A functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU;

The ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

In the strict and fair approach ‘fair’ means that the EU and the member states are prepared to help candidate countries in fulfilling the minimum conditions of the Copenhagen criteria. We are, for example, looking into the request to assist Albania with setting up its negotiation teams.

Dutch funds are used to support Albania in the field of the judiciary, human rights and the rule of law. Some examples of these projects are:

Training of police on diversity and how to deal with domestic violence,

Improving the implementation of e-procurement procedures leading to reduction of corruption, increase of transparency and competitiveness among businesses/economic operators

Drafting of the Whistleblowers Protection Law.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to end with a quote by Erasmus, he was a famous Dutch philosopher and one of the founding fathers of the concept of Europe.

“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; And then there are those who turn one into the other.”

I have set my hopes on a dynamic young generation of Albanians to do just that.

* The title of this op-ed has been written by Tirana Times.

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times April 3, 2015 09:07