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Oct 17, 2013 | 20:25 GMT

6 mins read

Albania's EU Aspirations

Albania's EU Aspirations
(THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

While the European Commission's Oct. 16 recommendation to grant Albania EU candidate status marks a significant step forward in the country's bid for EU membership, Tirana is unlikely to join the European Union this decade. The recommendation comes a decade after the Balkan country began negotiations with Brussels and four and a half years after it formally applied for membership. This recommendation is not definitive, as it has yet to be approved by the 28 members of the European Union. Furthermore, several enduring problems in Albania including corruption, the lack of economic and governmental reforms and the presence of organized crime in the country will remain key obstacles to Albania's eventual EU membership.

Albania's path toward EU membership has been similar to other Western Balkan nations. Like its neighbors in the former Yugoslavia, Albania became a Communist country by the end of World War II. Following trends elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, popular protests began in 1989 and led to the fall of the Communist regime between 1991 and 1992. Like most of its neighbors, Albania sought to align itself with the West after the end of the Cold War in a very slow process that saw Tirana sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (the first step toward EU membership) with the European Union in 2006, and join NATO in 2009.

European Union and Albania

European Union and Albania

Like some other Western Balkan countries, Albania's mountainous terrain makes it difficult for Tirana to unify a clan-based society, which is also divided by language. Linguistic and cultural differences are reflected in Albanian politics, as the country's political parties often reflect the divisions between Tosk-speaking Albanians in the south and Gheg-speaking Albanians in the north.

These divisions were largely suppressed during Communist rule, but the collapse of the Communist regime allowed these underlying fissures to emerge, along with numerous other problems. In the mid-1990s, Albania went through a phase of financial turbulence and extremely high social unrest. The country's rudimentary financial system became dominated by fraudulent investment operations, while pervasive political corruption and a worsening quality of life led to massive demonstrations and a short-lived armed rebellion. In early 1997, the United Nations intervened and sent a multinational military mission to Albania to restore order and the rule of law. Political instability also led to a proliferation of armed criminal gangs in Albania, as well as significant waves of emigration to Western Europe, most notably to Italy and Greece.

Relative stability had returned by the early 2000s when Tirana began formal negotiations to join the European Union and a slow process of economic reforms. However, Brussels expressed concerns about Albania's economic and political environment. From a political perspective, the European Union pushed Albania to reform its electoral and judicial systems to ensure more transparent elections and the rule of law. It also warned about the country's high levels of corruption and the size of its public sector. On economic matters, Brussels urged Albania to speed up its process of liberalization to become a functioning market economy. Additionally, the bloc is concerned about organized crime in Albania, in the form of money laundering and drug and human trafficking.

Albania's Strategy

While Albania's mainstream parties support EU accession, Tirana's progress on the issue has been slow, and political infighting has severely undermined it. The losing party traditionally contests election results, and political violence is quite common in the country. For example, the European Union rejected Albania's candidacy status in 2010 because of insufficient economic and political reforms. After that, several reforms requested by the European Union, including changes to the public sector and judiciary and changes regarding news media independence, were delayed because of the country's political paralysis after the disputed general elections of 2011.

Albania's mainstream parties reached an agreement in mid-2013, and some of the laws that had been delayed since 2011 have been approved in the past few months. Then in June, the country held general elections that the European Union considered to have been "conducted in an overall smooth and orderly manner." The elections led to the end of eight years of rule by the center-right Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Sali Berisha. Edi Rama, the leader of the Socialist Party, replaced him as prime minister.

Rama began a diplomatic push to get his country closer to the European Union. Albanian officials were sent to several EU countries, and Tirana made special efforts to get support from Italy and Greece. In early October, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino expressed Rome's support for Tirana's EU membership. In Oct. 14, Greek Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos also expressed support for Albania's negotiations with the bloc. Italy and Greece have traditionally had political, economic and security interests in the Western Balkans, and Rome and Athens believe that Tirana's EU membership could improve the business environment for Italian and Greek companies operating in the region. Additionally, in early October Albania hired former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to lobby in support for Tirana's EU aspirations.

However, Tirana's EU bid is facing several obstacles that will be difficult to surmount. EU members are still very concerned about corruption and the lack of legal transparency in Albania, while pervasive illegal activities in the country seriously undermine its pretensions of joining the European Union. Additionally, the Albanian economy is slowing down. Albania avoided recession despite the European crisis, but its economic growth went from 7.5 percent in 2008 to an estimated 1.7 percent in 2013. In its September assessment of Albania, the International Monetary Fund said that stagnating credit, troubled corporate balance sheets and declining remittances are undermining the country's economic performance. According to the IMF, fiscal slippages, combined with rising unpaid bills and central government arrears will push public debt to 70 percent of gross domestic product this year, compared to 59 percent in 2010.

EU countries are similarly worried about the security impact of Albania's membership. Since the end of the Communist regime, Albania has become one of the most important origins of illegal immigration in the European Union, most notably in Italy. Albanian illegal immigrant trafficking rings (trafficking not only Albanian citizens, but also refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) have been detected in countries as far from Albania as France and the United Kingdom. Albanian organized crime groups have strong links with the Italian Mafia, and are connected to arms and drug trafficking elsewhere in the Continent. EU members fear that Albania's accession could lead to an increase in the arrival of legal immigrants (since Albanians would become EU citizens) and a spread of illegal activities to Western Europe.

At a time when the European Union is pursuing a slow and selective expansion of its membership, Albania will have to wait at least another decade to enter the bloc. Brussels is interested in keeping close ties with Tirana, to make sure that reforms are approved and that the social, political and economic situation in Albania — and in the Western Balkans as a whole — remains relatively stable. Tirana is also interested in maintaining good ties with the European Union, and candidacy status means the arrival of EU funds. However, political fragmentation and economic weakness in the European Union and persistent political, security and economic issues in Albania ensure that Tirana's aspiration to EU accession still has a long way to go.

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