In Brussels next week on Tuesday 6th February, President Juncker is due to publish the European Commission’s long-awaited strategy for EU accession prospects for the six countries of the Western Balkans.
Meanwhile across the Adriatic in Tirana, Albania’s opposition Democratic Party seems to be doing everything possible to spoil the party and obstruct the country’s aspirations to start negotiations with the EU.
Last weekend the opposition leader Lulzim Basha organised a rally at which he addressed his supporters in central Tirana. The meeting was peaceful enough, but with fiery rhetoric, he accused the Albanian Cabinet of links to organised crime and called for them to resign.
This was part of an orchestrated “come-back” propaganda campaign for his opposition party, initiated earlier this year to attack the Edi Rama Government. Paradoxically, it risks backfiring badly and in the process undermining the EU dream of the majority of Albania’s citizens.
Last Saturday’s political rally was a test of popular support for the opposition, which lost heavily in last year’s general election, winning less than one-third of the seats in Albania’s parliament.
Addressing his supporters at the rally, Basha called for “an anti-Mafia government that will fight organised crime, take the justice reform ahead in line with the constitution.”
But puzzlingly earlier this year his party actively opposed reform of the justice system, and obstructively boycotted the Albanian parliament.
The major reform of the justice system which is being pursued by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s administration is, in fact, an EU requirement, and involves the removal of corrupt judges and prosecutors.
His government is making steady progress in all of the five areas Brussels has specified as prerequisites before accession talks can be opened:- administrative reform, protection of human rights, the battle against corruption, reform of the justice system and tackling organised crime. In contradiction to the Government’s active programme, the opposition appears determined to derail these efforts, without regard for what is best for the country as a whole, as the political battle for power continues between the country’s two main parties.
Some commentators have suggested that the recent intensification of this political rivalry actually provides clear evidence that the implementation of reforms in Albania is working, and having an impact on real change.
Last year the Albanian parliament passed laws to reform the judicial system which radically changed the constitution and established a new vetting procedure for the judiciary. The process to reform the judiciary started with the establishment of vetting commissions, and Albania is working hard to show the EU its potential as a partner so that accession negotiations can start this spring.
Next week the European Commission is expected to publish its strategy for the Western Balkans, which will address the question of EU membership for six countries, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia; Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Bulgaria holds the Presidency of the Council and has set a priority for their programme of work on providing an EU accession perspective to these countries. They will host on 17th May a conference in Sofia that will focus on the timetable and methodology for the enlargement of the EU to embrace the countries in the region.
The Bulgarian Presidency deserves credit for bringing forward the question of opening the EU up to the Balkan countries. The Western Balkans have been ignored for too long, and it is now time to give these countries a clear roadmap and perspective to answer their EU aspirations.
Accession negotiations are already underway for Serbia and Montenegro, which are currently tipped as the leading candidates for the next round of enlargement, and Montenegro, in particular, has made good progress.
But enlargement ambitions are anything but straightforward; there are deep ethnic fault lines that run through the Western Balkans. Progress is still needed on the peace process between Serbia and Kosovo, something that has been made more difficult following the assassination of the popular Serbian politician Oliver Ivanovic in Kosovo last month.
Meanwhile, Albania also has a strong consensus amongst its citizens to join the EU and has been consistently taking positive steps towards alignment with EU standards. The work they have achieved so far gives them a strong platform for further work to be carried out in the framework of the accession negotiations. In this respect, Albania can be considered a regional leader and deserves recognition for its progress.