Genc Pollo: "Albania – EU- Why we need to go back to the basics"

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times April 28, 2020 16:39

Genc Pollo:

 Genc Pollo " Albania – EU:  Why we need  to go back to the basics

"Our fifteen conditions are unprecedented in the last two decades" 

Greta Shima from Tirana Times talks in an exclusive interview to the former Head of the National Committee for European integration, Genc Pollo, on the topic of accession negotiations and what Albania needs to do to move past the crisis. Previously  Genc Pollo (DP) has served as Education, Telecommunications and Deputy PM in the years 2005-2013. In the legislature following 2017 he chaired the EU Integration Committee 

TT: Finally the EU, namely the European Council, decided on March 26th to give the green light to Albania and North Macedonia for starting the accession talks. It took Albania almost 6 years after being granted the candidate status, to have a chance to start a new chapter on its way to the European Union. What is your take of the European Council decision?

Pollo: Well, thanks first for looking beyond Covid19 with your question; can't wait to return to normal life and deal with regular issues. We all are glad about the Council positive decision; we look forward to the negotiations commencing after the two preceding EU intergovernmental conferences; generally speaking it is a very positive development in a process that earlier appeared stalling; and we hope for a new dynamism and additional incentives, dare I say pressure, on our side to adhere to EU standards. And this in verifiable, measurable implementation rather than in just published legislation. 

TT: Yes, we can easily agree with you. But still it took 6 years for Albania. Does it seem a bit long to you?

Pollo: It depends. Macedonia has waited much longer but her obstacles were external and  thank God were recently resolved. Albania's hindrances are domestic. And an optimist well-wisher would hope that they start decreasing now. Because unfortunately, in the last years they have been on the increase. I think the fifteen conditions set by the Council last March reflect this. 

TT: We will certainly talk about these conditions but let us go back to the last three years during which the Commission  unconditionally recommended three times the start of the negotiations with Albania only to be rebuked by the Council. Why was that?

Pollo: That has been debated a lot in Albania. You would remember. I would have wished this wouldn't be necessary. The issue has been discussed within the EU; I understand more privately than publicly. There is no point in dwelling on it again. Suffices to note that the current Enlargement Commissioner has repeatedly stated that his Commission has restored the credibility of the enlargement process.

But one thing might be said clear and loud: the 15 EU conditions are a needed helping hand for Albania to overcome the severe constitutional crisis and revert back into democratic and institutional normality. I believe, there is a wide consensus on this in the Albanian society and public opinion. Of course the Rama government and their immediate entourage try to play them down or dismiss them in silence. But this is nothing more than a cynical power retention exercise. 

TT: You speak of a European helping hand. But shouldn't it be the Albanian political class held responsible for the failures that have slowed down the EU integration?

Pollo: Of course the paramount responsibility lies with Albanian politicians and society in general. The failures and perhaps also successes are chiefly ours. I think also our domestic political debate is generally based on this right premise; the bill goes mostly to the government but also proportionally to the opposition and civil society. But I thought you wanted to discuss the EU influence in all this. And we all very well know that the EU plays an important role in assessing the accession countries (and sometimes reassessing member states) and helping them to overcome the present shortcomings and be fit for accession in due course. Starting with the Copenhagen criteria approved in 1993, which in relation to Albania are being mentioned again. According to the Commission's website they are:

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

-a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU;

-ability to take on the obligations of membership, including the capacity to effectively implement the rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law (the 'acquis'), and adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

For EU accession negotiations to be launched, a country must satisfy the first criterion."

It would be useful to have a domestic debate on how do we fare with the first criterion. Even as the decision on commencing the accession talks lies with the EU. 

TT: The opposition has been criticized for somehow complicating the negotiations start as it painted the situation bleak thus, perhaps unintentionally, playing in the hands of the anti enlargement forces in the EU. Your comment please? 

Pollo: This is a very untruthful and dishonest trope of the government propaganda. If the concerns voiced by the opposition since 2014, would have been seriously considered and not dismissed out of hand, we would have spared ourselves the repeated postponements of the negotiations start and the 15 Council conditions. I checked out the conditionality placed on the accession countries in the last two decades: it looks very much like our 15 conditions being very unprecedented. 

TT: Our government and a few others say the conditions are an extension of the rather conventional Commission's five key priorities. If so why the fuss? 

Pollo: Our government and a few others celebrated with champagne the opening of the negotiations in July 2018; they also pretended loudly there was no cannabis plantation in 2016. But let us check please the specific 15 conditions: there are some like for instance the media legislation, the conviction of the vote buyers/riggers and the  flood of asylum-seekers  that are not only new problems created under the Rama government but also created almost singlehandedly by this government and its ruling party. Other conditions relate to the full establishment of the judiciary bodies which has been delayed beyond imagination. The delay derives not simply by misconceptions and judgment errors at the inception of the justice reform; it is mostly a direct consequence of the ruling party machinations to capture the new judiciary institutions. And a much touted electoral reform under the new concerns of massive vote buying and widespread use of criminal networks in which the opposition has to play her part. In a way the 15 Council conditions epitomize Albania's backslide regarding the Copenhagen criteria in the recent years.

TT: But there are many voices within the EU which praise the progress achieved during the Rama government.  

Pollo: Again, I have to stress that the Council 15 conditions are most welcome by the large public opinion here as a needed helping hand for Albania to overcome the severe constitutional crisis and revert back into democratic and institutional normality. Overlooking the crisis is as unhelpful as it was unhelpful overlooking the widespread vote buying or the government ordered cannabis plantation. Or to say it with Aristotle: Plato is a friend but truth is a greater friend. We ought to be thankful to the CDU/CSU group in the German Parliament, to the French Government and to the Government and Parliament of the Netherlands for leading the way to the Council conditions. Of course other members had best intentions about Albania: they thought strategically, as we in opposition also initially also did, that the negotiations process would more suitable for exerting benign influence. However the crisis became so overwhelming and acute so that business as usual were seen increasingly as a no go. Rightly so!

TT: Let us return to European Commission's recommendations repeatedly rejected by the Council. What could they have done better? 

Pollo: I have been very critical of PM Rama's periodic rants at the EU. You might remember Rama kept criticizing it as a paralyzed entity incapable of getting its act together. It is irrelevant whether this criticism has merit or not. If you apply to become a club member it doesn't help to loiter around and call club members names; or badmouth the club itself. Especially if you committed to do some homework in order to join the club and you are not doing great with it. And I don't want to be inconsistent so I will try to answer you obliquely. I admire greatly Montesquieu's or America's Framers' vision of the separation of powers and of the checks and balance as the best protection against tyranny and the best guarantee for human freedom. I guess in this spirit the European Treaties empowered the European Parliament as a democratic control body towards the Commission. In our case the Parliament, which is practically the MEPs dealing with Albania, mostly echoed certain executive officials. Perhaps with the exception early on of the help for the "decriminalisation" agreement. In these circumstances the buck stopped at the member states and we ended up with the Council postponements and the 15 conditions. The rest is lived experience but also hope that it might be different with the current Commission and Parliament. 

TT: I understand your praise for the conditionality but researchers such Andi Hoxhaj of Warwick University claims that the 15 conditions might divert attention and energy from essential issues such as unemployment, mass migration or healthcare? How do you answer him?

Pollo: I am glad to see native Albanians such as Dr Hoxhaj gain academic reputation in Europe with studies that concern the whole continent not just their country of origin and I am glad to see the positive reception of his new book on corruption within the EU. However the EU conditions mean strengthening the rule of law without which neither the individual nor society can flourish;  neither the unemployment nor mass migration or healthcare can be properly dealt with. Furthermore I will invite you to quantify how much attention and energy would require for instance to Parliament to rescind the media muzzling laws? Or to the ruling party to candidly and loudly condemn vote buyers in their ranks and seriously pledge to refrain from it in the future. 

TT: So the conditions are there! What next?

Pollo: There are six specific conditions to be met before the first EU intergovernmental conference is called. The electoral reform is the only one of them in which the opposition has a  role to play and we should play it constructively and, if possible, proactively. All other lie with the government and authorities. I would have wished the Government coming up with a short term  plan how to deal with the six and then the nine conditions and a more comprehensive plan how to prepare for the negotiations. I don't see anything like this unfortunately. 

TT: The Commission however has publicly criticized the anti libel media laws. Do you think it has helped?

Pollo: Certainly and I thank them for it. The EU's and international criticism to the muzzling media laws has been a precious support for a wonderful mobilization of civil society against the legislation. I have noticed the statements in the Committee and some tweets by the EU delegation. But to me it is also telling how the action/reaction standards have changed. In 2012  the then Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle devoted a detailed interview to a conflict between Top Channel TV, close to the Rama opposition, and a former owner who got his property back and wanted to terminate the rent contract with the tenants including this TV. The parties eventually settled and the government had little to do with it but still the interview hint was of media freedom issues. Since then much more serious government violations have occurred and no whisper has been heard from these EU levels. I can't get out my head the bizarre thought that if the muzzling media laws had been initiated in 2012 the sensitive Commissioner would have  protested through a hunger strike under PM Berisha's window. 

And a note on the last Reporters without Borders findings: the Western Balkans countries most advanced on the EU path fared worse in the ranking and vice versa. I hope it will be considered in Brussels. 

TT: The Commission has announced help for the Western Balkans to overcome the Covid19 crisis. What do you think of its impact?

Pollo: It is great news to see  the Western Balkans are considered more or less as part of the Union in the Commission's efforts to deal with the pandemic. We are very grateful as we were for the post earthquake help. 

Still there is need to asses Albania's capacity to take the (soft) loans offered as the public debt has shot up in the last years. It was also very cheerful to see the Commission et al lifting the export hurdles for personal protective gear and other medical equipment to the Western Balkans. 

Genc Pollo (DP) has served as Education, Telecommunications and Deputy PM in the years 2005-2013. In the legislature following 2017 he chaired the EU Integration Committee 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times April 28, 2020 16:39