Albanian foreign minister: EU enlargement ‘lacks soul’

Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati is confident about the path his country is on. [Austrian Minister for European Integration/ Flickr]

Brexit hasn’t damaged the European project and the Balkan region is geopolitically crucial to the EU, particularly when it comes to tackling terrorism and the refugee crisis, according to Albania’s foreign minister. EURACTIV Germany reports.

In November, the European Commission recommended the opening of accession negotiations with Albania. The country’s foreign minister, Ditmir Bushati, believes that Albania is going in the right direction. Its fellow Balkan candidate countries, FYRO Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, also want closer ties with the Union.

Ditmir Bushati has been Albania’s minister of foreign affairs since 2013 and previously chaired its parliamentary committee for European integration.

He spoke to’s Christoph Zeiher.

The European Commission has given its stamp of approval to beginning membership talks, as long as judicial reform is carried out. What would that entail?

Even before the summer, the parliament adopted a comprehensive reform with a focus on the justice system. The goal is to set up a completely new system. The law on reviewing judges and prosecutors is central to Albania’s membership bid. It is going to be checked by Albanian and international experts.

The reform could be used as a model by other countries in the region, not least because it takes into account security concerns. The Balkans have been important partners to the EU when it comes to security policy.

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We already have close cooperation on law enforcement agencies; this has to be transferred to the judiciary now. To this end, we have to purge our institutions of any corruption. From the very beginning, we have made it clear that we don’t want to take any shortcuts or half-heart our membership bid.

Do the Albanian people support EU membership?

About 90% of Albanians support the judiciary reforms. A majority also support us seeking EU membership. The European Union is more attractive in the Balkans, and generally outside of the bloc itself, than in the countries that are already members. But we should not forget that this is a long process. We estimate that it is going to take between two and three years to get these reforms done.

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Many observers think that the EU has been damaged as a result of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Some even say that it could be the beginning of the end for the Union. But Albania still wants to join. Why?

In crisis, I always see opportunities for new policies. We have already carried out a significant number of reforms and the EU’s requirements have helped us carry out the process of democratisation. The biggest challenge now is to stay on this path.

We really expect these reforms to have a noticeable and tangible effect on society. By making our justice system more credible, we expect more investment to come into Albania.

I think that the EU and the Balkan countries can mutually benefit from each other. Past crises have shown that the Balkans can be important partners in security matters. Now, we have to ensure that cooperation goes beyond mere crisis management. We need to build a more stable relationship and provide the people with a compelling narrative.

How important are the Balkans to Europe on security?

Radicalisation and violent extremism is an international challenge that goes beyond the borders of our individual countries. Cooperation in the region has, so far, been very effective. That goes for the refugee crisis, but also for other situations that have a direct bearing on our safety and the safety of the rest of the continent.

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We were involved from the beginning in the fight against Islamic State and any kind of radicalisation. The efforts we have all made have to be recognised by the final prize of EU membership though. That is vitally important.

Do you get sufficient support from the EU?

There is a good level of cooperation between the EU member states and the Balkans. But when it comes to accession negotiations, there is often a lack of political soul. The process lacks soul in general. Sometimes, we forget that EU enlargement in the Balkans is a symbol of a whole and free Europe.

The UK is on its way out, passing countries like FYRO Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania queuing at the door. Do you see a shift of the EU towards the east?

I don’t think that the focus of Europe is shifting that way, no. Besides, I do not think our countries will be ready for EU membership anytime soon. It’s more about putting together a responsible strategy so that our societies are prepared for accession when it does arrive.

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