Barroso’s Albania snub signals EU’s exasperation

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In an unprecedented gesture, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso cancelled a trip to Albania, a country entangled a new row over voting. High-ranking Commission officials told EURACTIV that patience with the EU hopeful was wearing thin in Brussels circles.

Tension in the wake of 8 May mayoral elections (see 'Background'), closely watched by the European Union, prompted Barroso to cancel his trip to Albania, part of a wider Balkan tour.

The latest developments appear to be a sad repeat of the situation following national elections held on 28 June 2009, which saw the opposition socialists refuse to accept the results and accuse the government of corruption and vote fraud (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU-Albania relations).

High-ranking Commission officials told EURACTIV that they they were losing patience with Albania and that the country was gambling with its historic chance to chart a course towards EU membership.

Natasha Butler, spokesperson for Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, admitted that a "lack of political maturity" had characterised recent developments in the Western Balkans, citing Albania but also Kosovo and Macedonia.

In Kosovo, several officials have openly voiced anti-European messages, in particular against EU law enforcement mission EULEX. In Macedonia, Albanian parties recently questioned the Ohrid Agreement, on the basis of which the international community saved the small landlocked country from violence and chaos in 2001.

Officially, spokespersons said that Barroso would visit the country when the political climate was more congenial to discussing EU matters.

Asked by EURACTIV to reveal whether Barroso had abruptly cancelled a visit on other occasions, his spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said she could not recall such a case.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday urged politicians in Albania to remain calm and warned them "not to put lives at risk".

After an opposition party called for an uprising amid an election row, Ashton said that a narrow poll result in mayoral elections in the capital, Tirana, meant "both sides need to reach out, overcome differences and find solutions".

"Developments today have shown the fragility of the political situation," she added in a statement.

The Tirana mayoral contest, between Edi Rama, the incumbent and head of the opposition Socialist Party, and a former interior minister from the ruling Democratic Party, has taken on added significance because it follows bitterly disputed national elections in 2009.

An initial tally of quarter of a million votes cast in Tirana found Rama had won by just 10 votes, but counting of "misplaced and stray" votes, which is still under way, has so far given his opponent Lulzim Basha a lead of 24 votes, Reuters reported.

There are 37 more cases of stray ballots to be counted and observers say the result will not be known for several days.

Several thousand Socialist supporters protested outside the election commission offices for the second day running, saying that their election victory had been stolen.

Some of them jostled police lined up in front of the building to prevent Socialist parliamentarians from entering.

News reports said the Socialists had launched sympathy protests in several towns where they had held on to power.

In north and central Albania Socialist supporters burned car tyres and blocked roads in protest against the reversal of the initial Tirana result.

Rama has accused the election commission, appointed by parliament, of stealing votes. Calling on the people to take their revolt to the streets, he accused the government of abusing the will of the people.

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