EU enlargement: cui bono?
Several Foreign Ministers from EU countries visited Tirana and the North Macedonian capital Skopje in the last weeks to meet local officials and address the public. Their main message was that the EU should soon call an intergovernmental conference or, in other words, essentially start accession negotiations, since Albania met all of the conditions set by Brussels in March 2020. Some added that the European Union’s credibility might suffer if it fails to do so.
The 27 members of the European Union, which were previously skeptical about the prospect of Albania and North Macedonia becoming EU members, now seem to privately signal that they would no longer object to its accession. Provided that all outstanding disputes between North Macedonia and Bulgaria are resolved, there is hopefully a fair chance that the European Council will issue a positive decision in late June.
Of course, I should be thankful to these ministers and other officials who have been pushing for my country’s further integration into the EU at a time when enlargement isn’t popular in nearly every part of Europe.
Albania was granted the status of a candidate country in 2014, but several proposals by the European Commission to start accession talks were not approved by the other members of the bloc until March 2020, after the Council agreed to launch them upon fulfilment of 15 conditions.
They were meant to show that Albania will be serious about the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities,” the first of the well-known Copenhagen Criteria. As the Treaty states “For EU accession negotiations to be launched, a country must satisfy the first criterion.”
While some of the conditions are of a general nature and could easily be considered as fulfilled, others are more thorough and specific and thus deserve a closer look.
Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas (Plato is my friend, but the truth is a better friend)
Here are a few conditions from the Conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council from March 25, 2020:
- “a final decision on the lawfulness of the local elections of June 30, 2019”
There has been no final decision to date, but the Constitutional Court has announced it will consider the matter by the end of June; a complete ruling is usually published a couple of weeks after.
- “a solid track record regarding the fight against corruption and organized crime at all levels, including the initiation of proceedings and completion of the first proceedings against high-ranking public officials and politicians”
Unfortunately, there is nothing positive to report on regarding this matter as international reports point to increased state capture by the ruling party, the centralization of political power by Prime Minister Edi Rama and corruption in the highest offices.
So far, there has only been one conviction of a former general prosecutor for failing to properly declare personal assets.
A notorious interior minister of Rama’s government charged with drug trafficking and corruption got away with a mild suspended sentence for minor offenses following huge government pressure.
- “implementation of electoral law reforms”
International observers of the April 25 general elections criticised the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources and expressed concern over widespread reports of vote-buying. This surely presents clear evidence that no improvements have been made when compared with what observers reported following the last general elections in 2017. When considering that the purpose of the 2020 electoral reform was to prevent the ruling party from abusing the state’s power, its implementation seems rather poor given that the same issues have continued.
- “Albania should also further strengthen the fight against corruption and organized crime, including through cooperation with members of the EU and through the action plan to address the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.”
According to an April 2021 report by MONEYVAL (CoE), Albania has failed to significantly improve the measures it employs to combat money laundering and terrorist financing to bring them in line with the recommendations set down by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Meanwhile, dirty money obviously funds the ongoing construction boom in the capital and along the Albanian coast.
- “initiation of proceedings against those accused of vote-buying,”
Of the two well-known judicial files 339 and 184 on vote-buying/rigging, which gained international notoriety, only 184 is being addressed in court and with watered-down charges as accusations of vote-rigging have been dropped against four local officials. The relevant judicial wiretaps featured several cabinet ministers and MPs who were involved in the scam.
The opposition has decried government interference in the case, while the General Prosecutor has initiated disciplinary proceedings against the case prosecutors for stalling the investigation. Meanwhile, many voices from the international community have called for a proper inquiry into the reported election crimes that took place during the April general elections.
- “amending the media law in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission”
The December 2019 media amendments package was adopted in Parliament, despite the EU, CoE, OSCE, and domestic stakeholders loudly opposing it. Rama claimed they were misled and never really read the legislation.
The President returned it to Parliament for revision and, under increasing EU pressure, the government agreed to wait for and abide by the “pinion” of the Venice Commission.
The Commission issued its opinion in June 2020 and basically requested that the core of the package—which allowed the government to arbitrarily shut down any news website—be scrapped.
Since then, the government has left the package in limbo, while the Commission has publicly and repeatedly asked for the package to be brought in line with the opinion after an open consultation process that included the relevant stakeholders.
In a recent about-face, the Commission told the Albanian media that only if Parliament (re)voted on the package, the latter would have to be in line with the Venice Commission’s Opinion, otherwise, the status quo would be satisfactory.
Meanwhile, the government majority has been using machinations in Parliament to fill all board positions of the public broadcaster and media regulator with their own political appointees. The 2013 media law, which reflected the relevant EU acquis, mandated balanced, non-political appointments filled and which must include the equal involvement of the opposition. The media regulator is the key institution to execute the draconian measures foreseen in the media package.
- “Tackling the phenomenon of unfounded asylum applications and ensuring repatriations”
This condition has actually been met. Let’s hope this will remain unchanged once the COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.
The First Copenhagen Criterion is a legitimate goal, per se
This is not the best time to highlight that Albania might not have properly met the conditions for opening EU accession talks.
Segments of public opinion that widely support a future in the EU might not always appreciate the revelation of inconvenient truths. The government will lambast every critical voice as anti-European, and therefore unpatriotic. Officials from the EU who claim Albania has met all conditions, might not necessarily welcome third-party scrutiny of the above facts.
However, I believe that the First Copenhagen Criterion is too important to be left exclusively to other people. The ideals of Human Rights, democracy, and the rule of law were central to the movement that brought down the Communist regime in Albania nearly 30 years ago, and were generally embraced by society and its political class, even if preaching is sometimes easier than practicing.
The aforementioned tenets are historically European values that should become universal. Very rightly they are a conditio sine qua non (not conditional) for starting membership talks with the EU, but they remain central even if, God forbid, the perspective of a future in the EU doesn’t happen to be there.
As they are for Switzerland and Norway (which don’t aspire to EU membership), for the United States, and other countries across the globe, these values need care, continued observance and demonstrable and enduring adherence in order to be consolidated and fully interiorized.
Albania’s membership in European and Euro-Atlantic organizations, such as the OSCE (1990), the Council of Europe (1995), and NATO (2009), was seen as an affirmation of these organizations’ underlying values as well as a means to develop and consolidate these values at home through proper interaction. The same goes for EU membership with, of course, enhanced expectations.
The EU officials in question are in their own right to consider the conditions they themselves set on Albania to be fulfilled. They may have their own reasons, tactical or otherwise, to overlook details such as those described above.
One of the reasons that is often mentioned as the motivation behind the EU’s rush towards enlargement is that Brussels is trying to fend off encroachment by unfriendly third powers. While this might be an issue in other parts of the region, there is no ground in Albania for such concerns. Opinion polls steadily demonstrate a strong pro-EU societal consensus upon which the political side relies.
Often, Brussels officials say they need to deliver on their promises otherwise people in the Balkans will grow disenchanted and the EU will lose credibility. My sense is that people first and foremost expect support in consolidating a rules-based democracy and market economy with the other important benefits following suit, regardless of the advent of the intergovernmental conference.
Other EU officials believe that once accession talks have started, Brussels will have much stronger leverage to hold the government of any aspiring country accountable. Some in Albania think that way too. I would very much like to throw some doubt into this received wisdom.
First, we have the experiences of Serbia and Montenegro, who used to be EU integration front runners. Both kept backsliding on the First Copenhagen Criterion as they negotiated chapter after chapter with the Commission (the latest government change via the ballot box in Podgorica provides hope for progress).
In Albania, we have seen continuing state capture on the rise, while the Commission has mentioned steady progress in their periodical country reports, the much-praised Justice Reform has yet to deliver and to prove the non-existence of political capture in its newborn institutions. The 15 conditions set by the Council in March 2020 were a breath of realism and raised expectations that, finally, there would be some fruitful conditionality. Rama, however, remained unimpressed. He repeatedly denied, sometimes in the presence of EU officials, their existence. He has repeatedly stated that his government has completely finished its required homework and has talked about how, according to him, the start of accession talks was unduly blocked by the ill will of certain EU politicians and members of the bloc who were motivated by domestic electoral concerns or prejudices.
Between December 2020 and March 2021, as his government failed to provide a promised vaccination campaign rollout against COVID-19, Rama found no other scapegoat than the EU itself. In a bizarre and irrational twist, he kept calling the EU’s position, which at the time didn’t yet grant vaccines to the Western Balkans (but already helped the region through their financing of the COVAX mechanism) immoral and shameful.
Just recently, in major European media outlets, Rama labelled the EU’s failure so far to open accession negotiations as “cynical and divisive.” He signalled that he could find other economic opportunities and perhaps political allies elsewhere. Overall, one should be forgiven for seeing in the EU an incoherent union that keeps giving in when faced with the transgressions and insults of an arrogant Balkan autocrat.
The EU integration process was ideally meant to be a transformational procedure during which candidate countries would embrace the values, norms, and legislation of the bloc, and share in the Common Market. However, the current candidates, perhaps even a few EU members, are stuck in a transactional mode.
Acknowledging this helps to formulate an effective policy.
If the rather solemnly set EU conditions were practically ignored to a meaningful extent, and became the object of public ridicule at the highest level in the receiving candidate country, who in his/her right mind would believe that in the next stage behaviour will improve? Why would pressure about the non-opening of cluster B and chapter 17 or even a reopening cluster A and chapter 16 would impress a Balkan autocrat, as his main interest is only retaining power and reaping the benefits?
With its sticks so far missing and its carrots being abused, the EU’s approach isn’t working. While the intergovernmental conference will hopefully be called soon, it is more important to focus on current policies that are in dire need of transformation. The EU should not undermine its legitimate dialogue with the governments of candidate countries. However, if it wants to be more effective than it has been so far, it should reach out to civil society and every entity committed to the values of the EU. And, especially, it should be able and willing to call a spade a spade for every obvious transgression. Otherwise, it will sow disillusionment in the European project and cynicism about itself.