Albania PM: We expect green light to open EU talks this year

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. [EPA-EFE/Pawel Supernak]

EXCLUSIVE / Albania has done most of its homework on the judiciary, crime and corruption and expects a “straightforward recommendation” to open EU accession talks this year, its prime minister told EURACTIV.com on Friday (26 January).

Edi Rama also said that another delay in opening negotiations with Tirana would set back the Western Balkans and send a wrong message because “thinking that the EU can sleep quietly with the Balkans outside its doors is a terrible mistake.”

Edi Rama is the prime minister of Albania. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Albania became a candidate country in 2014 and not much has happened since then. Why, who is to blame?

A lot has happened, we have done a mountain of things, first and foremost justice reform, constitutional changes, the whole new legislation about justice, and we are now building totally new institutions. So it is a revolution in terms of what has happened. Now we are expecting to open accession talks finally, and I hope it will be the right time and the right year.

 Could you point to some of the changes that are significant?

We have fulfilled our obligations, and have made big progress in all five areas, which was not easy. What we have done in the area of justice is practically the whole work given to negotiating countries, which are to do with chapter 23-24, which are the most difficult. Now we have started the vetting, judging procedures with a big clean-up, and people that will not be able to justify their wealth or not be able to justify certain decisions made in the past will be dismissed. This is major.

We have also finally cleaned the country from the 25-year phenomenon of cannabis cultivation. We had a big fight, with a lot of wins and some losses, some backfires but in the end we did it. Now we will be out of the map of countries that cultivate cannabis and traffic cannabis and it is major. Same in the fight against crime and corruption, we are making good progress. Of course, there is still a lot left to do. We are not yet there and that is why we need the accession talks as a process that will deepen our reforms.

Will the accession talks start this year?

I hope so, we have done everything to get straightforward recommendations and to get the vote of the European Council.

What is in the way of starting accession?

We need a recommendation and the European Council needs to approve.

During the Bulgarian presidency?

I think it is the right time, I think this Commission should end this job because there is no reason to wait for a new Commission and to pass through all the hell of new elections and all the hell of different countries’ inner-political dynamics.

If there is another delay, there would obviously be another period of uncertainty…

I don’t even want to think about another delay, I simply think it is the right time and what we expect is nothing more than a straightforward recommendation from the Commission and an approval from the European Council.

If there is a delay, how harmful will it be for Albania?

I never like to talk with “ ifs” but if there is a delay, it is not harming Albania, but it will be harmful for the region because it will legitimise the fracture because of the countries that are negotiating: Serbia and Montenegro, and the countries that are still not negotiating, although they fully deserve to negotiate.  And they are fully entitled to say that there is nothing that practically differentiates Serbia/Montenegro and Albania/Macedonia and we are very happy that our friends and neighbours are negotiating, but we think that it’s a very unfair picture of the Balkans to have, this division between negotiating and countries that are not yet negotiating, although they deserve to.

Do you think that the next three years are crucial to unlocking the region’s new integration? I am saying that because we have presidencies that are very much prone to solve the western Balkans, to accelerate the western Balkans’ integration.

Practically the western Balkans has been unlocked since Angela Merkel started this Berlin Process initiative and things are going in the right direction and what we need is not to miss any steps.

Do you think Albania can play a constructive role in Serbian Kosovo?

Albania did play and will continue to play a constructive role, we are fully committed to do whatever it takes to facilitate the process.  I am fully convinced that it is time to get out of this historical swamp by getting Kosovo to Kosovars. Kosovo deserves to be recognised and of course, it is a painful process to Serbia. I have great respect for Aleksandar Vučić who has recognised the problem, and who has changed the course by not accepting to live in denial, but by having the courage to face the problem. I very much hope that he is brave and firm enough to go until the end, and of course, it has to happen through whatever settlement between the two countries and it will be fully supported.

But do you think Serbia will recognise Kosovo before joining the EU or will it be a compromise?

Serbia cannot join the EU if it doesn’t recognise Kosovo, and that’s why it’s important and that’s why it is in the interest of both sides to find a solution. So of course, finding a solution won’t be easy and it will be painful but it has to end.

I heard you say recently that the window of opportunity for Albania and for the Western Balkans is closing unless there is really a growing momentum to get them in.

I never said the window of opportunity is closing, because I never saw it closing. The window of opportunity isn’t open enough and it needs to be. Between the threats of closing and the need of opening for sure, we need to take lead, that’s what I said. It is very clear because the EU is as important to us as we are to them in terms of safety, security, and full control of the European land and space. We should not allow third actors to play around, and conceive and create a grey zone in the middle of Europe.

Because of the Western Balkan’s ethnic composition, some Europeans are reluctant to move faster on accession, how do you convince them?

It’s a matter of educating them, it is a matter of patiently informing them because this is due to a lack of knowledge, it is a matter of their lack of strategic view based on a very superficial understanding of the Balkans and of Europe itself in relation with the Balkans. So underestimating the Balkans is a big mistake and thinking that the EU can sleep quietly with the Balkans outside its doors, is a terrible mistake.