Albania’s many EU challenges

Detailing the challenges Albania faces in its EU accession process may seem like an insurmountable task for a short opinion piece, but in considering some often overlooked concepts we can gain a better understanding of the situation. The tendency to focus solely on EU accession criteria and conditions has created a myopic view of Albania’s challenges.

It has distracted from what I would argue are the true challenges: the political process, the Albanian inferiority complex, and cultural integration. Too often the focus has been on making sufficient progress on judicial and anti-corruption reforms. This in a way has prevented moving talks along beyond the technical conditions and making meaningful strides.

Why did the EU Council in June opt to delay the process and not to fully approve the EU Commission’s recommendation in April to start talks with Albania immediately? In order to understand why it only reluctantly agreed to open accession talks with Albania in June 2019, we must first understand the reasons why the accession criteria were set up in the first place.

The Copenhagen criteria were defined during the European Council summit in the Danish capital in 1993 to ensure that future member states would not destabilise the EU and to persuade anti-enlargement member states. Apart from the political, economic and legal criteria, a fourth criterion was added: the absorption capacity of the EU.

The first three criteria are both supra-national and technical in nature where the EU Commission and the EU Parliament are involved. This is the technical process that includes measurable indicators. Albania at this stage fulfils these technical conditions and received a yes vote.

The fourth criterion is inter-governmental and political in nature where the EU Council and the Parliaments of member states are involved. It guarantees member states with asymmetrical power in the negotiations with candidate countries. This is the political process. And for this process Albania received a yes but not now vote.

Could it be that Albania is not perceived as a capable nor as a deserving European nation-state? I cannot provide an answer here but what I can say is that the reverse was true for Romania and Bulgaria. They received a no vote for the technical conditions in 2006 but a yes vote for political conditions in 2007.

Albania received a yes vote from the Commission in 2016 too, but the Council’s decision was put on hold because of national elections in France and Germany in 2017. Are national elections in key member states now an official criterion too?

The truth is that the Copenhagen criteria are a myth in the sense that the demands are politicised and the goalposts keep on being moved. They are conditioned by the geo-strategic interests of key member states. The challenge for Albania is not solely to fulfill the criteria but to convince everyone that is a deserving and a serious European partner.

Albania must work much harder than its Serbian and Montenegrin neighbours to join in the next decade. But let’s not forget that both Serbia and Montenegro, which have begun accession negotiations, also have huge problems with organised crime, corruption and the rule of law.

Nonetheless, Albanians share the blame for this delay. On the one hand, the previous governments arguably did not take the accession process seriously. On the other hand, Albanians suffer from the Impostor Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people are convinced that they do not deserve the success they have achieved.

Delays in EU accession talks, whilst watching neighbouring countries make important strides, has fuelled this inferiority complex further creating a vicious circle; many Albanians are now saying that they don’t deserve to join the EU. How can Albanians expect to be legitimised as a European nation-state when they themselves are in doubt? This is a Hamletian problem!

That’s unfortunate as Albania has a very rich history, which is in fact European and without historical deficiencies. Also, it is one of few nations in Europe to have two states (Albania and Kosovo, Greece and Cyprus, Germany and Austria, etc.). This shows resilience, not weakness.

How symbolic it would have been if the accession negotiations would have begun this year, which marks the 550th anniversary of the death of Albania’s emblematic national hero George Kastriot Skanderbeg? He is irrefutable proof that Albanians are a genuine European nation with historic state-building aptitude.

Lastly, it should be highlighted that the integration challenge is multifold and universal; in addition to the technical and political dimension, there is also the decisive yet implicit criterion of cultural integration. Therefore, it is vital to showcase Albanian history conceptualised as European cultural history.

This would demonstrate that Albania is in fact a European nation with citizens from many different backgrounds and religious beliefs living harmoniously. Thus dispelling the idea that Albania is simply a Muslim-majority nation (who came up with this erroneous concept?); a point that is crucial as anti-Muslim sentiments continue to rise in the EU and in the US.

This would also help address the perception of Albania as one of the biggest exporters of gangsters in Europe. Crime is not a gene, it is not part of the DNA of any nation including the Albanians, Serbians, Montenegrins, etc. It is simply a symptom of post-communist transition which has created systemic economic inequality.

The technical challenge of the next stage could be met by Albania. The biggest challenges remain the political process, the inferiority complex, and cultural integration. The EU would gain from Albania joining; it has a secular nationalism rooted in language not religion (unlike Serbia for example). Could this be the missing puzzle piece to build a multicultural Union?

Albania’s role is to help the EU understand this. All energies and knowledge should be focused on this objective. In this regard, and in fulfilling the technical conditions, the current government has seriously done a much better job than the previous government. But now it must mobilise everyone to increase the pressure on the EU Council to start accession negotiations as soon as possible. 

Post scriptum

Albania became a member state of Comecon, a quasi-Eastern European Economic Union in February 1949, only one month after the organisation was established by the USSR. Of course, the EU is way more complex and more comprehensive than Comecon ever was or wished to be; the EU is a sui generis liberal development in human history.

Having said that, the fact remains that even today, 27 years after the fall of communism in Albania and 15 years after the Thessaloniki Summit that gave Albania an EU perspective, it is still uncertain when and if it will join. The brutal communist regime lasted 47 years, only 20 years more than the dramatically ongoing post-communist transition.

How much longer do Albanians need to wait to join the EU? Another 20 years? This delay is unacceptable. The EU talks about enlargement fatigue, but they should also be wary about integration fatigue. This delay highlights the weakness of the EU. A weakness that is being exploited by China, Russia, Turkey and other monolithic great powers.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy, nor those of the Municipality of Tirana.