Q&A: Work on reforms, don’t dwell on EU ‘enlargement fatigue,’ Norwegian ambassador says

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 31, 2015 10:33
Ambassador Jan Braathu is based in Prishtina, from where he also covers Albania. (Photo: Embassy of Norway)

Ambassador Jan Braathu is based in Prishtina, from where he also covers Albania. (Photo: Embassy of Norway)

The region’s European perspective is clear, and rule of law, an inclusive justice reform and regional cooperation are key areas for further progress, says Ambassador Jan Braathu, Norway’s top diplomat for Albania and Kosovo. He spoke to Tirana Times about EU integration, judicial reform, investments and security cooperation, among several topics discussed in an exclusive interview.

- Norway is not an EU member, but works with the EU in many programs. Your country has also assisted in the Western Balkans for years in terms of reconciliation and development. How do you see Albania’s and the region’s European perspective?

You are right: Norway is not a member of the EU. However, we are an integrated part of the Single European Market through the European Economic Area Agreement (EEA) and we are part of the Schengen cooperation. There is broad support both in the Norwegian people and in the Storting for Norway’s continued cooperation through the EEA Agreement, the Schengen agreement and other agreements with the European Union. We cooperate with the EU and its member states because we share a common set of values and because we all – as European states – need to find joint solutions to shared challenges. Norway is fully committed to European cooperation, at all levels. Cooperating with the EU ensures economic growth and secure jobs in Norway. EU member states are important partners for Norway, not only in economy, but in security, education, culture and many other areas.

Together with allies, Norway has contributed to stability and economic development of the Western Balkans since the 1990’s. We firmly believe that the Thessaloniki Declaration from June 2003 remains valid, namely that “The EU reiterates its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” Successive Norwegian Governments have supported that objective. We do so because we believe that Europe’s security and prosperity is indivisible. We believe that no European country can be secure if there is insecurity somewhere else in Europe. We also believe that prosperity in Europe is best served by raising the standard of living throughout Europe. Perhaps this is a “Scandinavian” perspective, we believe in equitable distribution of economic benefit, not only nationally, but throughout our continent, Europe, and beyond. As the European Council concluded on 20 June 2003, “(The Council) reiterated its determination to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, which will become an integral part of the EU, once they meet the established criteria.” Please note the last part of the sentence: “..once they meet established criteria.” Norway supports Albania’s EU-membership aspiration, and we align ourselves with policies and measures adopted by our fellow-Europeans in the EU. The European Commission’s annual progress reports give indications of the tasks that are required for moving the accession agenda forward. As EU Commissioner Hahn pointed out recently (Wirtscaftsblatt, 22.07) progress is being made, but the road is long. Hahn also underlined the importance of judicial reform, not only in Albania, but in the region.

On that score we do see a positive approach in Albania, with the Parliamentary Committee on Judicial Reform and the Government’s strong commitment to the justice reform process. I have noted that Prime Minister Rama has underscored the importance of Justice Reform for Albania and for the EU accession process. Let me add that the participation of the opposition in this process is of utmost importance. Judicial reform is a national interest and all parliamentary parties should take responsibility for its successful completion through constructive engagement.

The countries of the Western Balkans are European countries and they do have a perspective for membership in the EU. As Mr Hahn pointed out, it is a long road. The accession process requires strong national commitment. All factors must be agreed and aligned in order to move ahead as quickly as possible. I am aware that many in Albania and in the region feel that the process is taking too long, that it is too slow. I can understand the feeling of frustration. The EU today is a vast structure of consensual cooperation, encompassing 28 member states. It is a cooperation based on shared values and shared standards. It is a political project, but also a practical project. Therein lies a certain tension, between the political and the practical. What may be politically desirable can sometimes be difficult to achieve in practical terms. As the years have progressed, the body of “Acquis Communautaire” has expanded to over 108.000 documents. Adoption and implementation of the Acquis are the basis of the accession negotiations. The candidate countries are required to adapt their administrative and institutional infrastructures and to bring their national legislation in line with Community legislation in the areas of the different chapters. This is a daunting task, not the least the actual implementation of the Acquis. Justice reform and rule of law constitute key chapters (23 & 24) of the 35 chapters of Aquis.

From a more political perspective, we see that the Berlin process, or the Western Balkans 6 process, has opened new avenues for concrete cooperation, both within the region and between the region and the EU. This process again demonstrates that the EU and its member states remain committed to the region and to the region’s European perspective. Norway supports this perspective, both politically and through various support activities.

Speaking as a Norwegian, from a non-EU member country, I can say that there is no alternative to European cooperation. EU standards are the “benchmark” standards for all European countries, whether they are EU members or not.

- For some, EU now appears to be a club Europe’s wealthiest choose not to join, others are contemplating leaving altogether, while the poorest parts of Europe, including Albania, have a fervent desire to join. Should Albanians still hope for a better European future now that appetite for enlargement is clearly not what it once was?

Well, most European countries are in fact members of the EU. Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein are not EU members and are cooperating within the framework of EFTA. Of these countries, Switzerland is not a party to the EEA Agreement. Yes, the EFTA countries are well to do, but they are all highly dependent upon the EU and EU member states. Norway’s prosperity is unthinkable without a prosperous European economic space. The EU is Norway’s most important trading partner, while Norway is the EU’s fifth largest trading partner (after USA, China, Russia, Switzerland). More than 80% of Norway’s exports are to EU member states, and almost 70% of all Norwegian imports are from EU countries.

There is much talk about “enlargement fatigue”. I would not dwell too much on this. The fact remains that the EU has an enlargement strategy for the region and for Albania. The Enlargement Strategy document from October 2014 is worth reading. Candidate status was given in June 2014. The Stabilization and Association Agreement was initialled with Kosovo in July 2014 and we hope that it will be signed soon. Of the countries in the region, Albania and Kosovo, together with Montenegro and Serbia are making headway. Rule of Law and Public Administration reform, together with inclusive regional cooperation, are key sectors for further progress. The Commission admits that the accession process is “rigorous”, but based on established criteria and the principle of own merits. I think we should take the stated objective of enlargement for Western Balkan countries at face value, and then work as hard as possible to fulfil the accession criteria. There has been progress to date, and there will be further progress in the future as well.

- Norway is part of the Schengen Area and among the wealthiest countries where Albanians can travel without visas. There has been a rise in asylum claims from Albanians in wealthy northwestern European countries in recent months, largely due to bad economic conditions at home. Is Norway seeing a rise in asylum claims from Albanians? If so, what are you doing to deal with the situation?

Yes, this is hugely problematic. The dramatic increase in asylum applications from European countries, not to mention countries that are candidates for EU membership is worrying. The statistics are quite stark: There has been a large number of asylum seekers from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro during the last year. While asylum statistics for Kosovars are declining, the figures for Albanians in increasing, especially to Germany. This is difficult to explain to ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs in Schengen countries. Norway does not define Albania or Kosovo as “asylum-producing” countries. We do not consider asylum applications from these countries as well-founded and we apply a “fast-track” procedure that entails that almost all such applicants are returned after 48 hours. This procedure is known to many, with the result that we do not have too many asylum applications from Albania or Kosovo. In the six months from January 2015 to end June 2015, Norway had 188 asylum applications from Albanians and 146 asylum applications from Kosovars. Almost all of these can be expected to be rejected. It does seem strange that we receive asylum applications from a country that is on the verge of accession negotiations for membership in the EU.

- There are some large Norwegian investments in Albania, primary in the energy sector. How are economic relations between the two countries and what is the perspective for further Norwegian investments?

Yes, Norway has a profile of an “Energy nation”. The Devoll Hydropower project is until now the single largest investment project in Albania. Work is ongoing and the first production will begin in the second half of 2016. The project consists of two hydropower plants, Banja and Moglicë, with an installed capacity of 256 MW. When in full production, the two hydropower plants will produce 729 GWh annually, increasing the Albanian electricity production by almost 17 per cent. The investment decision for a possible third plant will be considered when the first two plants have been completed in 2018.

Successful completion and operation of the Devoll projects will hopefully encourage other Norwegian investors to look for opportunities in Albania.

- A recent Reuters article noted that Statoil, which is majority owned by the Norwegian Government, might be selling its 20 percent stake in TAP. The company hasn’t confirmed this yet. Do you have any comment on the matter?

Statoil is a Norwegian international petroleum and energy company operating in more than 30 countries. The Norwegian State owns 67% of Statoil’s shares and the company is listed on the New York and Oslo stock exchanges. The company operates fully on commercial basis. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has not been informed by Statoil regarding its plans regarding its 20% share in TAP.

- Norway and Albania are both NATO members. With growing challenges on the continent’s outskirts, has there been any increased cooperation in terms of defense?

Yes, we are NATO allies. Our cooperation with the Alliance is on-going and good. Norway has cooperation with the Albanian Ministry of defense, currently in a project involving mapping of coastal waters, the Norwegian-Albanian Hydrographic project. The project will contribute to competence and capacity building for the Albanian Hydrographic Service (AHS) and the Military Geographical Institute (MGI). Both institutes are led by the Ministry of Defense. In 2012, we completed a project on sea-rescue and pollution control in cooperation with the Norwegian Coastguard. A regional sea exercise, “Adriatic 12″ was conducted successfully in September 2012 with Norwegian and regional participation. The main objectives of the exercise were to promote regional cooperation and enhance existing national and regional emergency preparedness and response systems at sea.

- There is increasing anecdotal evidence that more Norwegians and other northern Europeans are traveling to Albania’s beaches and mountains each year as tourists. Has there been any growing interest in travel to Albania that you are aware of?

Indeed there has. This year, for the first time, there are charter tours for tourists from Norway to Saranda. There have been many articles in Norwegian media about tourism in Albania and we expect the statistics for this summer to show record numbers of visitors from Norway.

- On the other side of the equation, are the fjords as magnificent as they look on television?

For sure! However, the weather can be variable and the fjords always look their best in good weather! Albania has the advantage of having magnificent nature, combined with a more enjoyable climate than farther to the north in Norway. I expect that more Norwegians will discover Albania as a holiday destination in the years to come.

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 31, 2015 10:33