News analysis: Is the EU neglecting the political crisis in Albania?

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 9, 2017 20:09

Story Highlights

  • There is little doubt that the EU uses the opening of negotiations as leverage to encourage the undertaking of reforms in Albania, including the justice reform. But it seems very naïve to think that by simply starting the vetting process, one step in the justice reform implementation – which is expected to take five to ten years to be fully implemented – can convince all European Council members to open negotiations with Albania. That is even more the case when the EU itself has made it clear that enlargement is no longer a priority in the short to medium terms thanks to numerous crisis the union faces.
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EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini speaks in front of Albania’s parliament. (Photo: PoA)

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said in Tirana earlier this week that Albania has a real chance at clinching accession talks. It was a bit of a déjà vu moment as a year ago, during her first visit to Albania, Mogherini also spoke in parliament about the good chances that Albania had of opening negotiations in November 2016, a time in which the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations. However, the European Council threw cold water on the idea. Try back in about a year and a half, the general message was at the time, causing understandable anger in Albania.

What Mogherini said this week was that there is now a real chance of clinching accession talks once the vetting process of the justice reform has started. In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Edi Rama, Mogherini said that membership negotiations will start as soon the as the vetting process starts. The vetting process is one of the components of the justice reform, which Albania’s parliament voted unanimously last summer. It is the first time that the opening of negotiations is conditioned by only the start of a component in a reform. A year earlier, Mogherini called on Albanian politicians to vote in favor of the justice reform so negotiations can start. However, the negotiations did not start despite the unanimous vote and the EU commission recommendation. The European Council, made up by member state ministers and heads of government, confirmed that the opening of negotiations is tied to five priorities. In addition, in December, the member states set conditions on opening negotiations  including the holding of free and fair elections, rule of law in relation to cannabis cultivation and the decriminalization of the political process.

It is the same position sought by the Albanian opposition. Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was very blunt, using a term this newspaper cannot print, when he said that idea that opening negotiations relies solely on the vetting process is nonsense.

There is little doubt that the EU uses the opening of negotiations as leverage to encourage the undertaking of reforms in Albania, including the justice reform. But it seems very naïve to think that by simply starting the vetting process, one step in the justice reform implementation – which is expected to take five to ten years to be fully implemented – can convince all European Council members to open negotiations with Albania. That is even more the case when the EU itself has made it clear that enlargement is no longer a priority in the short to medium terms thanks to numerous crisis the union faces.

Albania’s government likes the narrative of a single condition – justice reform vetting. That’s because having free and fair elections as a condition would be harder on ruling Socialist Party.

When the EU Ambassador in Tirana was asked about the importance of the general elections in the in integration process, she said that free and fair elections were a given, a statement that causes some surprise in a country where free and fair elections have been the apple of discord in Albania for more than two decades. Political conflict over the elections has destabilized the country over and over since the fall of communism.

Are the EU and the Socialist-led government on the same page on opposition requests for a caretaker government and the Democrats’ boycott of parliament?

What are the real chances of Albania’s progress in its EU bid when it seems the country is headed into another political crisis? The opposition has practically abandoned the parliament and says it will not return until a single request is met: a caretaker government in charge of organizing the next elections. The opposition says the next elections can only take place if an impartial government is in power, because the current Socialist-led government does not enjoy the confidence of the opposition to organize the elections.

According to the opposition, Prime Minister Rama and his party will use the criminal world and its funds to buy and influence the polls. The opposition says the ties between the government and criminals are clear in the industrial scale cultivation of marijuana across the country and the people with criminal records that the opposition says Rama handpicked to become members of parliament.

Despite the approval of a decriminalization law that led to the expulsion from politics of several elected representatives – in parliament and local governments – these people with murky backgrounds have not withdrawn from political involvement. Some have been seen at political events held by government representatives and are likely to play part in the next electoral campaign, according to the opposition.

In addition, critical media and voices are more oppressed than ever through a political-business alliance, a climate that speaks ill of free and fair elections. Without a thriving independent media, including critical television stations that reach every corner of the country, the chances of having free and fair elections are virtually zero.

With a parliament without an opposition and with parliamentary elections set for June 18, and in which the opposition says it will not take part, the country seems to be heading for a bad political crisis.

With this situation in this country, when the European Commission says, through Mogherini, that all it takes to open membership negotiations is the start of the vetting process, then it is clear the European Commission does not want to see the actual political reality in Albania.

While it might still be early to say that the European Commission is neglecting the political crisis in Albania, the reality is that the EU and the international community in general has been reluctant to express opinions and guarantees that with the current climate there can be free and fair elections.

Despite this, the U.S. Ambassador has recently stated publicly that criminals should stay out of politics and drug money should not be allowed to influence the general elections.

For those unfamiliar with Albania: Buying votes is a normal phenomenon in this country. According Pandeli Majko, a former Socialist prime minister, the price of one vote went up to 50 euros in the 2013 elections. Sometimes, in rural areas, the votes of an entire extended family are bought in this manner.

It is no wonder then that the OSCE Ambassador in Tirana raised the alarm publicly that the billions in profit from cannabis can be used to distort the elections.

The canary in the mine were the local elections in Diber, a stronghold of the opposition, where the Socialists increased their votes tenfold without any irregularities witnessed by international observers.

Is the opposition anti-reform and anti-integration?

But, notwithstanding all these warning signs, the European Commission, at least as it appears from the statements of Mogherini, feels that the elections are not under threat. She clearly sees the opposition boycott of parliament as a sign they are trying to block the creation of committees of the vetting process, and de facto blocking Albania’s progress toward the EU.

“Boycott of the parliament means blocking the establishment of the (judicial) vetting commissions and de facto stops Albania’s progress towards the European Union,” Mogherini said. “I have been very clear in saying that those who seek to delay and dilute key reforms are putting the European Union integration agenda at risk.”

Albania’s Socialist-led government fully agrees. And it seems that the European Commission, through Mogherini’s statement, sees the actions of the Albanian opposition in the exact same way as the Socialist-led government sees them. In essence that view is that the opposition has boycotted parliament and is seeking a caretaker government in order to slow down and sabotage the justice reform.

Mogherini in 2016 to the Albanian parliament: European path  lies in your hands  and is a shared responsibility

No reform cannot be successful without local ownership and without shared responsibility of all local actors – that’s what Mogherini told Albanian MPs a year ago, reminding them that European integration requires local ownership, even quoting Albania’s prime minister to make the point.

European integration “truly lies in your hands in particular. It is a shared responsibility that we must honor. As your Prime Minister – Edi [Rama], if you allow me – recently said: ‘The European path it is not about ready-made formulas that can or should be imposed on you or on any country, a top-down approach.'”

As one high-ranking opposition Democratic Party official puts it this week, what has changed in the period of one year that Albania’s European project can be seen as solely a Socialist enterprise, or as a “renaissance project,” as the Socialist-led government likes to call itself?

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 9, 2017 20:09