Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
European Union foreign ministers agreed to give Albania candidate status at a summit in Luxembourg on June 24, but will require Tirana to step up its efforts to tackle organised crime and corruption. Meanwhile, the rest of the Balkans received a mixed report card from Brussels.
The decision to grant candidate status is due to be formally signed on June 27, after Britain and France dropped their objections to putting Albania on the path towards EU membership, and a dispute between Tirana and Czech power company CEZ was resolved.
The news was enthusiastically greeted in Albania, where over 77% of the population want EU membership according to a Albanian Institute for International Studies poll. On taking office in 2013, Prime Minister Edi Rama made gaining candidate status a priority, but Albania was turned down for the third time in December 2013 when Brussels asked for clearer evidence of the fight against corruption and organized crime.
In a televised address on June 24, Rama stressed the work ahead. “[T]he road is more difficult and the challenge becomes bigger … [but] we are convinced that we shall do it despite the conditionalities,” he said, according to EUobserver. Still, the nod for Albania is likely to encourage investment and boost the economy, which is expected to grow by a modest 2% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“The decision today is a positive signal, not only for us but for all Western Balkan countries, and for all of united Europe,” said a statement from Albania’s Ministry of European Integration. European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule also welcomed the decision, which had previously been recommended by the European Commission. “Today is a good day for enlargement and a great day for Albania's EU integration. Albania is one step closer to the European Union, another important milestone on the EU path has been reached,” he said in a statement.
However, the commissioner added that Brussels needs to see more from Tirana. “For Albania to further advance on its EU-integration path, major challenges still lie ahead. Albania will need to continue and consolidate its systematic approach to reforms, address existing shortcomings and tackle remaining EU-related challenges,” he continued.
Ministers from several EU member states voiced concerns about Albania’s entry to the bloc. The UK withdrew its opposition at the last minute, but Prime Minister David Cameron threatened his country could still block the accession process unless new rules on freedom of movement are adopted. Several other EU countries - including France, Germany and Spain - are also taking an increasingly hard line on immigration. The May 2014 European Parliament elections saw a surge in support for Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties.
Other, more specific obstacles to Albania’s ambitions of candidate status also needed to be overcome. A lengthy dispute with Czech power company CEZ over its local distribution unit was finally settled on June 24. Prague - which owns almost 70% of CEZ - had previously threatened to block Tirana's progress over the issue, which had seen CEZ apply for international arbitration over the revocation of CEZ Shperndarje's licence.
Crime and punishment
While such roadblocks have now been removed - for the time being at least - Tirana now needs to up its efforts to tackle corruption, organised crime, drugs and human trafficking.
In a dramatic show of the government’s commitment to cleaning up the country, police in June launched a large-scale attack on the village of Lazarat, which is estimated to produce marijuana with a total value of around €4.5bn a year. Around 800 police were involved in the operation, which resulted in several arrests and the destruction of more than €30m worth of drugs.
However, despite that high-profile campaign, Albania continues to perform poorly in international assessments of crime and corruption. Albania is the lowest-ranked European country on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index, dropping to 116th place among 177 countries in 2013, which puts it on a par with Nepal and Vietnam.
Human trafficking is another serious issue. The 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report report published by the US State Department on June 20 says Albania does not fully comply with international standard on trafficking victims protection, although it admits the government is making significant efforts. Within the last year, Tirana has increased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, improved legislation, and “sufficiently punished” convicted offenders, the report says.
Elsewhere in the Balkan region, Montenegro's progress towards the EU also moved forward, with the EU opening three new chapters for its accession on June 24. Serbia’s new government under Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has also set EU accession as a priority.
However, talks between EU officials and Turkey’s EU Affairs minister Mevlut Çavusoglu on June 23 were less productive, as EU criticism of Ankara’s increasingly authoritarian stance sours relations. Meanwhile, Bosnia is backsliding on its path towards EU membership, an EU official told EUobserver.
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