Germany, the migration crisis, and Albania's resurgent image problems

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 16, 2015 11:46

Story Highlights

  • In an exclusive interview appearing in the Sept. 18 print issue, German Ambassador Hellmutt Hoffmann spoke in length about migration issues as well as about other hot topics this week such as the government's reforms, where he called for a “common sense approach” to enforcement and the decriminalization of politics, on which he said: “attack this cancer as efficiently and as soon as possible.”

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Applying for asylum is the wrong way to seek employment in Germany, Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann says in an exclusive interview with Tirana Times. To make it easier for people to apply legally, Berlin is working on a plan to partially open its labor market to the Western Balkans. Ambassador Hoffman spoke in length about migration issues as well as about other hot topics this week such as the government's reforms, where he called for a “common sense approach” to enforcement and the decriminalization of politics, on which he said: “attack this cancer as efficiently and as soon as possible.”

Q: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for being on Q&A with Tirana Times. Germany has been a lot in the news lately, much of it relating to the migration and refugee crisis. As this subject also relates to Albania, I would like to start with it. German authorities have made it clear that virtually all asylum seekers from Albania will be processed quickly and returned to their country of origin. What are the immediate plans on the return of the about 30,000 Albanians who have applied for asylum in Germany so far this year?

A: Well, I am very pleased to have an opportunity speak about this, because it is really a very important matter right now. I guess you follow the news about what is happening in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, in Serbia, Macedonia over the last couple of weeks. Particularly in Germany, now, where we have had tens of thousands of arrivals – refugees from Syria and other countries. We have done a lot now in terms of humanitarian assistance, but it is perfectly clear that we can only continue to do that if we manage to get economic migrants back to their home countries, and this is what we are trying to do now with Albania. We are flying back people, practically on a daily basis now with airplanes. There is no master plan. I cannot tell you when all these 30,000 will return, but we are flying them in on a very regular basis now – just to show to everybody we really mean it when we say that there is no economic asylum, and I can really really plead with people that they should give up this idea – to seek economic asylum – it does not really work that way.

Q: The Albanian opposition has accused the government here of driving people to migrate through tough reforms that have hit the poorest Albanians hard. The push factor is poverty and hopelessness at home, the opposition says, blaming the government of mismanagement here. Is the Albanian government partly to blame for the wave of Albanian migrants who seeking a new life in Germany this year?

A: Look, I will not go into this kind of domestic infighting at all. This is not my business. And also, one has to say that this whole this migration wave is a very complicated matter. There are the so called pull factors, there are the push factors and so on. What I will say as to the situation here in Albania is the following: I think it's a question for the entire society, the entire Albanian political class to ask themselves the fundamental question: What is going on in this country that so many people are actually ready to leave? And one has to say, because I really do not want to contribute into turning this into a party political football, it think finger-pointing is not good at all in this connection. This has has been a phenomenon that has been going on a long time – migration – and its not only an issue which affects Albania – it affects the whole region, the Western Balkans, we have had many people who ask for asylum.

And, lastly, about these reforms you referred to: Of course, I am perfectly clear that there may be a certain connection. People that have to pay their electricity bill may have come to the conclusion that maybe going to Germany is an option. But I have to say that I have been in favor of such reforms, and I continue to be in favor, because I think it is high time that, in a sense, Albania gets its house in order, and that people pay up. I still find it difficult to understand that the situation was tolerated for so many years, where even people who were not poor at all, who ran businesses, got away with not paying their electricity bill, and you can imagine all kinds of suspicions are attached to that too. So yes, I think one needs to pursue such policies, but I think I would hope -- watching the scenery here – that people would do it with a good sense of judgment.

Like in the present case of the fight against informality, I think that is also a good idea as such, but I do hope that not the elderly farmer woman around the corner who sells a couple of kilos of tomatoes will be checked whether she has a cash machine printing out a ticket tickets.

Q: But the anecdotal evidence we are getting so far is that some of these very small survival businesses are being checked, and there is fear unemployment will rise as a result. Aren't there any concerns about that?

A: Well, I have no detailed knowledge about that. My only advice is to do that with a good degree of common sense. But I think, and maybe we want to speak about about Europe too in this conversation, Albania wants to join the European Union, and at some point you cannot have a member of the Union which is a bit like a third world country with a huge informal sector, so at some point you have to address this issue, and I think the sooner the better, but my modest advice would be to do it with a good degree of common sense.

Q: We will get to EU integration questions later in the interview, but I do have another question on the migration issue. Albanians are only part of this large wave of migrants Germany and the EU are facing. These are both asylum seekers from war-torn countries and others looking for better economic opportunities. This week border controls were reestablished. Is this crisis hurting free movement in Europe, and as Albania entangled into this, is Albania at risk of new travel restrictions?

A: To start with, to restate the obvious, when you reintroduce border controls, this has in a way a negative impact in the free movement in the Schengen Area, which we are talking here, and this of course a matter of regret, but under the circumstances I think it was absolutely necessary to do that. But I have to say, because I read an article today which said: “Germany leaves the Schengen Agreement” – that's absolutely untrue. There is a clear provision in the Schengen Agreement that under certain circumstances you can reintroduce border controls and this is what we are doing.

And by the way, we are not doing it on an across-the-board basis, it is more random checks in order to bring order back into entry movements. Because as a result of these rather chaotic developments, this kind of order had been pretty much lost. So, it is a temporary measure which is necessary under the circumstances, and as far Albanians are concerned they are nor more affected by that than anybody else.

And, just to add this, we ask for understanding that people might have to wait longer at border crossing points, but that's unfortunately unavoidable.

Q: There have been reports that a plan is in the works to make it easier for qualified people from the Western Balkans to work in Germany legally. So these would people who apply for work permits at the embassy. Is this a new program that makes it easier to work or simply more education on existing work opportunities?

A: Well, indeed, the leading figures of the governing coalition under the leadership of the Chancellor herself, they met a couple of days ago, and they decided a few basic points of our policy with respect of this whole asylum and migration crisis, and one of them is indeed to open up the German labor market -- in a measured way – for the Western Balkans states – I underline – for the Western Balkan states alone – as candidate countries for the European Union.

The details still remain to be worked out, but basically it is true that we want to do that in order to alleviate this asylum situation, because there is fundamental misunderstanding here in Albania and also other Western Balkans states that people who actually want to work in Germany think that the way to do that is to ask for asylum and that is absolutely wrong. I can only say: If you want to work – do not ask for asylum.

What you can do already today, and what has been possible for quite some time, is for people with special skills and recognized qualifications – they can travel to Germany, using the visa liberalization regime, and if they find a German employer who offers them a work contract, and if they get their qualifications recognized by German authorities – and they should ask their potential employer for help on how to do that -- then they can come back to Tirana to the German embassy and apply for a long-term visa to work in Germany. That's the way they should do it. And the debate now will be over whether we will reduce, let's say, the qualification requirements, so that people with less qualifications can also basically go down that route.

Q: I want to bring it back to the issue of EU integration. Albanian media outlets have reported that Prime Minister Rama told a German press conference, he was visiting Germany this week, that journalists should ask Chancellor Merkel as to when Albania would join the EU -- not him, not the Prime Minister. It's the latest in a series of remarks that shifts blame on Germany and the EU for Albania's slow progress toward EU integration. Is Mr. Rama right?

A: Let me say yes and no. Yes in the sense that it is actually the member states that decide who becomes a member. It is in a sense like a tennis club. It is the members of the tennis club and not the applicant who decide who can join the tennis club. What is not right, of course, is that Albania shouldn't have to ask only the Chancellor, they should ask the other 27 heads of government. And I really mean that. It is a decision take collectively by all EU member states and their governments.

And I have to say, tied to this, I have often detected a fundamental misunderstanding also in Albania about the role of the Commission on this, because the Commission makes recommendations. They recommended, for instance, to give candidate status to Albania, and then there was no positive decision from the governments. The Commission only recommends – the governments decide.

In general, I would say it is not a matter of the whim of governments whether a country is admitted or not. There are clear benchmarks which are defined, and countries have to make sure that they the progress required to be able to join, and of course I know that sometimes there are different interpretations as to whether the benchmarks have already been fulfilled or not. People may have different views on that, but I would say one should not approach this with a 'we ticked the boxes' approach, because people, lets say in Germany, have a clear idea of what is means in terms of substance that certain benchmarks have actually been achieved. And this is the real debate – to what extent Albania has done its homework, and I am sure that Germany, like the other EU member governments, will take a look at that when the time is right.

Q: On another hot topic, there has been a series of news items related to people with murky pasts holding elected office in Albania. Does the fact that Albania has people with alleged and/or proven criminal ties serving in public office hurt the country's relations with Germany and the EU?

A: Look, it's a bit like when you have 27 tenants living in a house, and someone applies to join and become the 28th tenant. And of course these 27 tenants look at this application, and say, how does it look, and whenever such a potential tenant brings with him or with her a bag of problems, that certainly does not help – to start with.

On the substance itself, everybody knows that Albania has a reputation problem for many reasons and this has been going on for many years, and I am very pleased to see that perceptions are changing for the better know. But this issue of a rather sort of unsavory connection between what you call “murky” characters in politics is certainly doing no good for the reputation of Albania. And I would indeed say if you want to become the twenty-so-and-so tenant as soon as possible it is certainly not a bad idea – I would use a rather strong term now – to attack this cancer as efficiently and as soon as possible.

 - Interviewed by Andi Balla





Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 16, 2015 11:46