Despite having an image problem and being stuck in a political stalemate, Albania has a lot to offer the EU – including model religious tolerance, skilled workers and energy resources – and must continue its steady progress towards the adoption of European standards, Ylljet Aliçka, the Albanian ambassador in Paris, told EURACTIV France in an interview.
Ylljet Aliçka is a diplomat and writer. He is currently Albania's ambassador to France.
He was speaking to EURACTIV France's Clarisse Bargain.
European integration has been on the Albanian agenda for a long time. This perspective was reinforced by the signing of an EU association agreement in 2006 and the country's membership request in April 2009. How is this process viewed in Albania today, both among political elites and the population at large?
Albania is a European country, with a European culture and a European identity. I take all its history into account when saying this. Ottoman domination disrupted it, but the troubles of the communist era permanently reoriented Albania towards European values. Europe is a symbol of economic development, but Albania's desire to join reflects above all the commitment of its people to freedom, human rights and the rule of law.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, support for EU membership has always been around 98%. In the last few years it has fallen, because the hardening of the EU's stance on accession criteria for candidate countries has led to a certain amount of scepticism in Albania. Today, popular support is 89%. Albania remains a very pro-European country. For the government, EU accession is the number one strategic priority. It is one of the few subjects that have a strong political consensus.
What are the main challenges to overcome before accession can be realised? What progress has been made since your EU membership request was tabled a little under a year ago?
The accession questionnaire given to us by the [European] Commission should be completed in April. We hope we will then obtain official candidate status.
Corruption and organised crime remain a problem in Albania, but there is a strong desire to tackle these issues and the results are encouraging. Judicial reform is also a priority, along with increasing foreign investment. Albania coped very well with the economic crisis, with a growth rate of over 3% in 2009. But we have to speed up the pace of reform in economics, infrastructure and tourism.
The legislation is in place, but these measures need to be properly implemented.
Is the political system mature enough to deal with these reforms?
Our administrative capacity is more mature than the political class. Recently, the socialist opposition party boycotted the parliament formed by the last elections for more than six months. Political dialogue in the parliament is not yet functional. But Albanian political life is maturing all the time. All parties favour compromise and dialogue now: politics is no longer characterised by violence. The philosophy of the new governing coalition – mainly democratic centre-right but with a small left component – is a sign of promise.
The last elections came at a crucial moment and the strategic objective of EU integration won the day. The parties immediately agreed on a common position. Albania is a small country and if the political will is there, the country can very quickly take the right steps.
Unlike some of its neighbours, Albania was excluded from the EU visa liberalisation process last December – quite a controversial decision in your country. Do you think the EU's enlargement policy towards the Balkans is consistent?
For the citizens, the liberalisation of visas is one of the key issues concerning European integration. For an isolated country like Albania, which has a history of migration, being able to travel freely in Europe is very important.
A few days ago, the governing majority proposed a document aimed at uniting all those involved in visa liberalisation in Albania in an effort to speed up the process.
Albania has satisfied all of the Commission's technical criteria for the process, so it is now a political decision. But we cannot judge the EU – its messages towards the Balkans are still positive. If certain Balkan countries join the Schengen zone before others, it is not a problem. More importantly, and historically speaking, this will be a decisive year.
The Commission has just re-assessed the visa situation in Albania. Is an imminent date for liberalisation being talked about?
Last month, the Commission sent a new mission to verify that all the criteria have been fulfilled. Based on the information available, the outlook is very positive. The European Parliament, which wants a quick resolution, should make an announcement soon. The interior ministers of the EU will then meet to make a decision.
Border control, biometric passports […] we have all the latest technologies and we deserve this liberalisation. There will be no more delays now – it will happen either before or after the summer.
The Europeans are particularly worried about a flood of Albanian migrants…
We have taken all possible measures imaginable to avoid misuse of visas. We were among the first to adopt the readmission agreement and have created welcome centres for illegal immigrants in accordance with European standards. In addition, the normalisation process has been accompanied by a specific communication campaign explaining the significance of this liberalisation to Albanian citizens. There should not be any misapprehension.
What's more, secularism is very prevalent in Albania. Only 2 or 3% of citizens are churchgoers. It is one of the only countries in the world to have constitutionally banned religion during the communist period. My generation grew up in a society void of any religious references. If there is one value that Albania could bring the EU if it joins, it is that of religious tolerance.
In your view, how do Albania's accession prospects look today? Are you optimistic?
Papandreou [the Greek prime minister] talks symbolically about 2015, seventy years since the Second World War. The ball is in our court. I simply want us to enter at the moment when our development is sufficiently in line with European standards. We know very well that the EU will make an objective judgement. The date is not very important – we just want to develop and improve the daily lives of our citizens. We do not want to be a burden for the Europeans.
What could Albania bring to the EU?
Religious tolerance, secularism, cultural diversity, tourism, young people, skilled workers…Albania's energy resources are also very important – only 20% is currently exploited.
In France, Albania's role in promoting stabilisation and openness in the Balkans is very much appreciated. We have good relations with our neighbouring countries. I am convinced that European integration is the best way to move on from all the religious, ethnic and nationalistic tensions that exist in the Balkans.
Unfortunately, Albania has an image problem that is immediately recognisable here in Europe.