Flexibility and responsibility for the common EU future of the Western Balkans should come first and Serbia and Kosovo should sit at the same table in a forthcoming regional forum, leaving country names and flags behind, Albanian Foreign Minister Ilir Meta told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Ilir Meta was prime minister of Albania from 1999 to 2002. He has been deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs since September 2009. In 2004 he founded the Socialist Movement for Integration, which won five seats at the 2009 elections and became a coalition partner of the Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
He was speaking to Georgi Gotev and Paul Hutchison.
Mr Deputy Prime Minister: You are here in Brussels – it seems that there is a diplomatic offensive. Your prime minister was here a few days ago and he presented the answers to the European Commission's accession questionnaire. How many pages long were those answers?
It's a question of thousands of pages, but I think that it's fundamental that it has been a huge commitment by all our administration and experts within our public administration, civil society and private sector.
We are proud that we could answer more than 2,000 questions and we are in very close cooperation and constructive relations with the European Commission in continuing this process, because they are going to examine our answers and will probably raise some additional questions. This is an ongoing process, but for sure in a very constructive way and we are eager to go ahead as fast as possible.
2,000 questions, some more difficult than others…which were the most difficult?
I think that this process is very complex – it concerns all areas without any exception. I cannot tell you which was the most difficult because each one is challenging. I can tell you which was the easiest: the international relations of Albania and regional policy [laughter].
Which basically means that you have no difficulty aligning with EU foreign policy. But let's take justice and home affairs: this is an area where the Commission is very demanding, so what did you tell the Commission? That the Albanian mafia doesn't exist anymore and that everybody is in jail?
No, no, we cannot say this. But we can say a lot: about the legislation that has been adopted, about its implementation and also about our statistics, which have been improved. Not only Albania but also our neighbouring countries can say a lot about the successes in cooperation with Albania in the fight against organised crime and the fight against every kind of trafficking, human and drug trafficking.
Recently, we approved a law on the confiscation of assets of organised crime and terrorism, which is going to be implemented and is fundamental not only for prosecuting criminal individuals, but also destroying the economic and financial ground that finances their activities.
We have also made great steps in the fight against money laundering, strengthening our capacities and making them more professional in the fight against drugs, and in many other areas of main concern also for the European Union.
All of this is impossible without international cooperation – you have to deal with partners.
Yes – all the progress that we have made has also been very much the result of very close cooperation with EU countries and other partners such as the United States. Without their support, assistance, training of our people in some difficult areas not known before and support in technology, I think it would have been difficult for us to have made such progress.
And, of course, we count on their support for the future, because it is in our interests to have a safer country but it is also in the interests of the EU to have a safer Albania and a safer Balkans.
Building trust among law enforcers is an achievable task – it is perhaps more difficult to convince public opinion in Western countries that Albania is a safe country.
This will come, in time. We should work more to make our progress clear, but also it can be very helpful to make more advertisements about our tourism and bring more tourists from EU countries to Albania, because it will help them to change forever the perception of Albania – which is a very safe country with fantastic beauty.
Albanians also wish to travel abroad, and that's why the EU is putting in place a visa liberalisation programme, leading to the lifting of visa requirements. Do you expect such a decision to be taken this year?
We believe that we have met almost all the benchmarks and we are continuing to report. We believe that these efforts are going to be recognised by the European Commission and we hope for a positive step in this direction. We think that it is very possible that within this year, such a decision could be taken and implemented.
Do you think that it is more difficult for the Commission to decide on Albania because your country is known to be one with high emigration pressure?
I think that this can be an argument in favour of Albania, because almost one third of our people are living in Europe as emigrants – in Italy, Greece, Great Britain, Belgium and of course in the United States, Canada and other countries.
There are a considerable number of Albanians that have a Schengen visa in their passport, so in this case I don't think that this is a negative argument, it is positive: all the people that wanted to leave the country in the last 20 years found opportunities and I exclude that we are going to have problems and misunderstandings with visa liberalisation.
Also, the government is undertaking steps to explain publicly to all citizens what visa liberalisation means, that they cannot come and stay forever, that they cannot be employed, and this explanation through TV advertisements is going on until the day that the decision will be taken.
Albania is stuck in a political stalemate, with the opposition having boycotted parliament since last year over fraud allegations. Do you expect any good news for Albania, like visa liberalisation or receiving EU candidate status, before this problem is solved?
I think that the current political situation has nothing to do with the visa liberalisation process, this is a purely technical process based on strict and fair principles.
But it is of high political importance…
I think that this is something that concerns the citizens – not one side or the other. The opposition is also in favour of visa liberalisation and concerns the benchmarks. Almost all have been met and we are also intensifying our efforts to strengthen the implementation of some benchmarks.
So you say visa liberalisation can go its own way, but do you expect that Albania will receive candidate status before the parliament starts working?
Of course. We think that getting candidate status is fundamental to improving the political climate and restore dialogue between the majority and the opposition. The government is very committed to satisfying all the requests of the opposition, which mainly concern investigating the recent elections. We have guaranteed to them the majority in an investigative parliamentary committee, to have a chairman for this committee, to investigate every issue of their concern about the dispute over opening the ballot boxes.
We have made clear that everything depends on government and on political will – this is going to be offered from our side. But this is an issue that has to do with the independence of the courts and the judiciary system. So, we have made clear that it is very important for them to address the Constitutional Court and if the Constitutional Court gives a positive interpretation for their request, then we will respect this request.
Also, we have been open to giving them the possibility of addressing the Venice Commission, which is a very credible international institution on law and democracy that has provided our country with expertise on the constitution, etc.
Also, they have raised concerns but not facts about fraud in the last elections. We have made clear that if they want to investigate these claims professionally and legally, they should address the prosecutor’s office, which is completely independent from the government. We have made clear that the government will finically assist the prosecutor's office to set up a task force of prosecutors – as many as are needed in this case in order to investigate all the claims that they are presenting about fraud and manipulations in the elections and also prosecuting people.
So the Constitutional Court or the Venice Commission will act as arbiters, but this process could take a very long time…
First of all, these are only the institutional ways to overcome this dispute. But it doesn't mean that the parliamentary investigative committee should wait until that moment. The committee can start working and investigating all the issues and when an interpretation comes from the Constitutional Court or the Venice Commission, they can continue to investigate or not, according to the ruling on this request to open and recount the ballot boxes.
Countries in the Western Balkans appear to be very inventive in blocking their EU membership bids, such as Macedonia with its name dispute with Greece, Bosnia with its constitutional stalemate, and Serbia and Kosovo with an ever more complex dispute. Is the Albanian blocked parliament part of the same scheme?
We want for sure to overcome this situation. We are trying to give positive and constructive messages of cooperation but we should respect the constitution – which is of the country, not the ruling majority. We should also avoid that politics overrules court decisions, because for the integration of our country into the European Union, the strengthening of the rule of law is a fundamental requirement.
On 2 June, there will be a meeting in Sarajevo – a summit of the Western Balkan countries – and your country is helping to avoid a repetition of the situation where the Serbian president boycotted a similar meeting held in Slovenia. What do you advise your Kosovar friends, your friends in Belgrade?
We say to both of them that the success of every regional initiative has to do with the participation of everyone. This is the first thing. And we don't want someone to be excluded or self-excluded. It is fundamental to find a practical way.
Like no flags, no names of countries?
For us, these are not important. For us, it is important that both sides agree to be involved in such an activity and the way we do it is not important. But it is important to show mutual flexibility and responsibility for the EU future.
You must have great influence in Pristina. How do you see Kosovo – as your sister nation, as the same nation? What kind of relationship do you have?
We have excellent relations with Kosovo. We are building a highway to Kosovo but we are building highways and new roads to all neighbouring countries, including Montenegro, Greece and Macedonia.
The most important thing is that we don't only support an independent Kosovo. First of all we support a European Kosovo, because this is fundamental also for our European integration and of the whole region. This is the basic view of our relations.
And we strongly support the full integration of the Serb minority in Kosovo and our government is investing €400,000 in infrastructure and social projects in the Gracanica commune – which is a new commune where the Serb community is dominant – because we want to give the message that the Serb community in Kosovo can be better integrated if their economic and social conditions are improved.
Your first name is Ilir – the ancient Illyrians were the ancestors of the Albanians of today. How old is your nation?
Our nation is both – it's very old and it's very young. We are one of the youngest nations in Europe in terms of the young generation, which helps us to look forward.