EU door remains open for Albania pending progress, German ambassador says

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 15, 2017 14:29

EU door remains open for Albania pending progress, German ambassador says

Story Highlights

  • “The EU and Germany remain committed for EU membership for Albania and the five other Western Balkans countries regardless of a number of challenges the Union is facing. Challenges such as violent conflicts, migration, Brexit and populism do not change the EU’s commitment to Western Balkans and Albania. The EU door remains open,” said German Ambassador Susanne Schutz.

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The forum was held at Tirana Times Book House/Europa Conference Hall. (Photos: AIIS)

TIRANA, Feb. 15 – Germany has reaffirmed its commitment to keep the EU membership door open for Albania pending the implementation of five key reforms to strengthen rule of law despite challenges of violent extremism, migration, economic crisis and most recently Brexit and rising populism that the European Union has been facing in the past few years, raising fatigue concerns over the enlargement prospects for Western Balkans countries.

“The EU and Germany remain committed for EU membership for Albania and the five other Western Balkans countries regardless of a number of challenges the Union is facing. Challenges such as violent conflicts, migration, Brexit and populism do not change the EU’s commitment to Western Balkans and Albania. The EU door remains open,” said German Ambassador Susanne Schutz.

She spoke Wednesday at a foreign policy forum organized by the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS), one of the country’s top think tanks, being the first guest of the 2017 series of forums.

Ambassador Schutz said progress on the five key priorities the European Commission has set for Albania such as justice reform, tackling organized crime and corruption, respecting human rights and reforming the public administration and a clear track record on them remain key to opening accession negotiations.

The way the upcoming June 2017 general elections will also have a key impact on the Commission’s decision to open accession negotiations, the ambassador said.

“Free and fair elections are the bread and butter of the process,” said Schutz.

Commenting on the electoral reform the main two parties are pushing for ahead of the elections, Ambassador Schütz quoted experts who ruled out the option of introducing electronic voting for next June’s elections because of being too late, but remained hopeful for a compromise to make transparent party financing and strengthen the role of media as a watchdog.

“Electoral reform is also high on the agenda. We hope compromise can be found before the elections,” she said.

Albania, an EU candidate since mid-2014 is hopeful of launching accession negotiations with the EU by late 2017 pending results from the implementation of a long-awaited justice reform and the conduct of fair elections next June when a new government will come out.

“The way forward for Albania is EU membership and all politicians and civil society should work together. More track record is needed in fighting corruption. Albania is on good track and we hope vetting will have results,” said the ambassador.

Asked about a perceived growing fatigue in the EU and Albania over enlargement and a possible date when Albania could join the EU, the ambassador said that was up to Albania.

“I cannot tell you when Albania can become a member. It is in Albania’s hands to speed up the fulfillment of the five criteria,” said the ambassador, noting that the EU has become more cautious after its experiences with Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession a decade ago.

The German ambassador also assured the Berlin Process supporting Western Balkans countries to join the EU will continue despite the outcome of the upcoming German elections.

“The German foreign policy does not change despite the chancellor in office,” said the ambassador.

“Is there an alternative for Albania other than becoming an EU member? I hope we agree that the only way forward for Albania is to be an EU member and for Albania to soon become an EU member,” added the ambassador. “There will be no discount membership for Albania in terms of meeting standards and criteria.”

The German ambassador assured all Albanians who have applied for asylum in Germany will be turned back, saying that no asylum has been granted to Albanian citizens since October 2015 when Albania was designated as a safe country of origin by German authorities following a wave of migrants as rumors spread that the country needed workers.

Some 70,000 Albanians are officially reported to have applied for asylum in Germany in the past couple of years, with thousands having already returned either voluntarily or deported.

The number of Albanian asylum seekers in Germany registered a sharp 72 percent decline in 2016 when about 15,000 Albanians filed applications with German authorities, down from a record 53,800 in 2015, according to a report by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, BAMF.

Albert Rakipi, the director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, said the first AIIS foreign policy forum for 2017 with the German ambassador came at a critical moment.

“The European Union project which started as a security project but transformed into a development one is facing a number of challenges such as migration, economic crisis and Brexit,” said Rakipi, noting the importance of Albania remaining tied to EU integration and organizing free and fair elections next June.

Wrapping up the main themes of the discussion, Rakipi added, “There is no alternative to EU integration for Albania, geopolitically. Failure to organize free and fair elections will undermine the future EU prospects for Albania.”

Since the late 1980s just before the collapse of Albania’s communist regime, Europe’s largest economy Germany has invested about €810 million in development projects in Albania, mainly energy, water supply and sewerage, becoming the country’s main donor.

*The online version of this article has been updated. 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 15, 2017 14:29