The member states are expected to vote next week on whether to open accession talks with Albania, as the Commission has recommended. The Balkan country has made progress in improving the rule of law but its EU prospects remain vague as several EU capitals have called for caution in planning the bloc’s next enlargement.
“If the opening of negotiations won’t happen, the Albanians will lose their faith about their European perspective,” Albania’s Justice Minister Etilda Gjonaj told journalists on Thursday (21 June), ahead of a crucial EU summit in Brussels on 28-29 June.
“We are in the first phase, it does not mean that we become a member straight away, we are willing to commit to begin discussions with the EU, we are ready to show that we achieved some results, and the initiated reform process will help us with that,” Gjonaj said.
She further pointed out that the next six months might prove to be crucial for Albania:
“We are currently in a state of implementating the justice reform – it is difficult to design a new justice system, but it is even more difficult to implement it – this is why support from the EU is needed.”
In 2017, Prime Minister Edi Rama launched a series of reforms meant to pave the way towards EU membership. The country has inserted an international monitoring operation in its constitution, made up of retired judges and prosecutors from EU member states, who are assisting their Albanian colleagues in vetting the country’s judges.
Vetting process in progress
The Albanian justice minister pointed out that first results of the justice reform are already visible: Seven judges (including high-level judges and prosecutors) were dismissed and 19 resigned as they did not want to accept the vetting process.
“We are waiting for the establishment of new institutions; we have designed a justice system where politics has nothing to do with justice anymore,” she said.
One of these institutions is Albania’s long-awaited Special Prosecution Office (SPAK). It is meant to investigate organised crime and high-level corruption. The body is modelled on the good experience of Croatia’s anti-corruption agency (USKOK) as well as Romania’s anti-corruption directorate (DNA).
A ministers’ meeting in Tirana in October is meant to see a cooperation agreement with EUROJUST in order to strengthen the efforts of Albanian authorities in the fight against transnational organised crime. Previously, there have been joint approaches in the fight against extremism and terrorism with countries like France.
“We have done more than the other accession candidate countries have done, we even have done more than some current member states have,” she said, implicitly pointing the finger at member states with “a fragile justice system” in Europe’s East.
Hollowed accession hopes?
However, Albania’s membership bid faces a divide in support between the northern and southern member states. France is reportedly among those that are rather sceptical towards a possible enlargement deal to be agreed at next week’s European Council.
Addressing the European Parliament earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU first had to be reformed before new members could be brought in and he will only support enlargement after there is a deepening of the Union.
“I don’t want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, but I don’t want a Europe that, functioning with difficulty at 28… would decide that we can continue to gallop off, to be tomorrow 30 or 32, with the same rules,” he said back then.
France, however, is not alone in having reservations, there is also the Netherlands, Denmark and partly also Germany. It is expected that the Foreign Affairs Council on 25-26 June, the eve of the European Council, will bring more clarity.
Impact of the migration issue
Meanwhile, based on a draft proposal by European Council President Donald Tusk, Albania has apparently been tentatively considered to become one of two host countries for “regional disembarkation platforms”, migration centres outside the EU. Under the draft, one is to be built in North Africa and one in the Balkans, with the aim of gathering and processing immigrants seeking to enter the EU.
“Until now it has been not decided yet, the Albanian government will consult with EU member states. The decision will be based on our capacity and on the needs of the asylum seekers, but before a throughout analysis has to be done for that,” Gojnaj emphasised.
She ruled out any possible link between the migration issue and the prospect of a “green light” for the accession talks.
“Usually it is not fair to make deals. If something will be decided, it is not because of a deal but because we believe in human rights, from the EU side it should not be only a ‘deal’.“