Written by EU Integration, Featured, in depth

Albania’s rocky road to the European Union: How far from joining the club?

Mirela Bogdani[1]

                  Abstract

The paper, which analyses Albania’s long and tumultuous journey to the EU, is structured into four distinctive sections: the first focuses on the democratisation road that Albania embarked after the collapse of communism and the impact of legacies on this process. The evolutionary path from an isolated authoritarian political system towards a liberal democracy went through a “dual transformation” process, combining political democratisation and economic transformation. However, the democratic transition in Albania, as the paper argues, proved to be quite challenging and painful, mainly as a result of certain historic, political, cultural and socio-economic legacies. These legacies from the past, as well as the setbacks of 1997-98, were responsible for hindering Albania’s successful transition to a modern liberal democracy, in particular in the first decade. The paper points out, however, that the main factor that has prevented Albania achieving good results in democratic reforms, has been the poor, incompetent and irresponsible political leadership.

The subsequent section analyses Albania’s path to Europe. On its road of democratisation, Albania was immediately oriented towards integration into the EU and North-Atlantic structures. “Return to Europe” became the most important ideological orientation for masses, intelligencia, youth and even political parties. The paper highlights the main milestones of Albania’s journey to the EU, starting with her inclusion in 2001 in the regional framework of the Western Balkans, known as the SAP, the efforts to fulfil the EU conditionality and criteria, the completion of SAA and the bumpy road of the visa liberalisation and candidate status.

The third part focuses on the domestic obstacles of Albania in the journey to the EU. The next milestone was the start of accession negotiations, but the EU was reluctant for many years to give the green light for that, due to not completion of key priorities in five areas, namely: the rule of law, judicial system, organised crime, corruption and public administration. This section of the paper analyses two of them, the judicial system and the organized crime.

The last section of the paper describes the efforts for launching the EU membership negotiations, which finally happened in 2022. The paper then identifies three factors upon which the pace of the negotiations is depending, including the speed of the domestic reforms and alignment of the country with EU laws; the political will, both the domestic and the European; and the EU absorption capacity and geo-political situation concerning the Ukrainian war. The paper concludes that lots of work still needs to be done to tackle all the current political, economic and social problems, including the further reform of the judiciary and the other stumbling blocks: the rule of law still weak, the corruption remains pervasive in many areas, the organized crime has become even more problematic (most notably in the areas of drugs and money laundering), public administration continues to be plagued by lack of professionalism and high levels of corruption and politization. Hence, Albania seems a long way off to join the club.

Collapse of communism and impact of legacies on the first decade of democratic transition

Albania is considered one of the weakest of the former communist states and one that has been amongst the least successful in negotiating the transition to democracy. In Albania the communist regime collapsed in 1990, providing the opportune conditions for the process of democratisation and transformation. Change came as a result of a “velvet revolution”, as in most of the other countries of the Eastern communist block, avoiding, in this way, the bloodshed of similar scenarios such as Tienanmen Square or Romania.[2] Because of the determination of the Albanian old communist caste not to follow the other Central Eastern European countries in their path towards democratic reforms and to open up, and because of terrible isolation and lack of information about what was going on in the rest of Europe (most Albanians did not even know that the Berlin Wall had fallen), the wind of change started to blow late in Albania. It started with the “invasions” of foreign embassies in the summer of 1990, followed by the students’ movement (their protests and hunger strikes),[3] street demonstrations and protests by the masses (mainly in Tirana) and in 1991 with a nation-wide strike of workers. Finally, the last bastion of Stalinism fell in 1991 (officially on the 4th of June with the resignation of the last communist government), bringing to an end forty- seven years of communist rule in Albania.

According to Pridham[4] democratisation is the whole process of regime change from totalitarian rule to the setting up of a new liberal democracy. It is a multi-stage and multi-dimensional process, which involves the following stages: authoritarian regime collapse, pre-transition liberalisation, democratic transition, democratic consolidation and, finally, the entrenchment of liberal democracy. Since 1991, Albania started the evolutionary path from an isolated authoritarian political system towards a liberal democracy. However, the democratic transition has been long, painful and tumultuous. This has been, mainly, as a result of certain historic, political, cultural and socio-economic legacies.

Political legacy is related with the fact that Albania endured one of the toughest dictatorships in the communist bloc, being considered Europe’s most Stalinist country. There was an extreme degree of totalitarianism, which attempted to control every aspect of life. Albania was considered a ‘special case’ and an ‘exception’, even within the communist bloc. Political and civic pluralism and democratic institutions were forbidden, freedom of expression and independence of thought were completely crushed and ‘class struggle’ was invoked in a paranoid manner. It was also the country’s infamous self-imposed international isolation. The lonely ‘fortress Albania’ with its sealed borders, was even more isolated than its communist sister-states, which made it perhaps the most isolated country in the world, never mind Europe. Isolation thus became the keynote of Albania’s foreign policy. This meant that for decades the country was cut off from any kind of economic, political and cultural links with the outside world, being turned into a “gigantic prison”, with its people “locked” inside barbed wire fences.[5] This pathological isolation imposed by a xenophobic communist dictatorship prohibited the free movement of people and information (media, literature and art) and did not allow the existence of any international organisations in the country until 1991.

In terms of the economic legacy, Albania had a very low socio-economic starting point in the ‘90s with a background as the poorest country in Europe. Albania came out from communism as a very backward country, where feudal-medieval features were combined with those of a tough communist regime. The extreme poverty was a consequence of the communist regime’s centrally planned and collectivist economy, the full collectivization of agriculture, state ownership over everything and regulation of business, paranoid adoption of the principle of national self-reliance, and the worse of all, the abolishment of private property. The economy and society in general depended on a Spartan egalitarianism and on the Marxist-Leninist dogmatic ideology, the highlight of which was the creation of the ‘new socialist man’, indoctrinated with the communist ideology. A socialist society ‘blessed with social and economic equality’, forbade all religious institutions and beliefs, following the model of Chinese Cultural Revolution, and proclaiming Albania ‘the only atheist country in the world’.

Besides short-term legacy of the communist period, there was, however, an important longer-term historical dimension. Albania was, for 500 years, part of the Ottoman Empire, with its sultanate imperial system and legacy of patrimonial and personalistic rule. From this, it inherited an agrarian and largely feudal country with a great mass of peasantry, an under-developed state-society relationships, weak institutional capacity and a fragmented civil society. Albania, unlike Visegrad countries, who had been under Prussian and Hapsburg empires, did not share some of the history of Western Europe and experiences such as the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and 19th century urbanisation.

Albania, therefore, did not have a strong tradition of capitalism and democracy, unlike some of the other Central and Eastern European former communist countries which embarked on the ‘era of changes’ with varying potential levels of these traditions.[6] Albania was experiencing democracy for the first time in its history and was clearly the country with the longest journey to travel from a rigid Stalinism to democracy.[7] Albania’s task of overcoming this legacy and ‘catching up’ with the West was therefore, challenging, even compared to other former communist states.

Subsequently, the first decade of democratic transition was turbulent and with some serious political setbacks, where the most notable were the unrest of 1997, caused by the collapse of pyramid schemes which brought the country on the brick of a civil war, as well as the Kosovo crisis in 1999 which provoked a huge flow of refugees into Albania.

These legacies from the past, as well as the setbacks, were responsible for hindering Albania’s successful transition to a modern liberal democracy, in particular in its first decade. However, the main factor that has prevented Albania achieving good results in democratic reforms, has been the poor, incompetent and irresponsible political leadership.

On the other hand, compared to other Western Balkan states, Albania has had some advantages on its road to democratisation. There is, for example, the fact that it has been a state (for more than 100 years), unlike other former entities of the Russian and Yugoslav Federations, which, after 1990, had to create new states as a result of the disintegration of their federations. Furthermore, in the Balkans, some of its neighbouring states managed, only recently, to sort out their constitutional and territorial status as well as their borders. Albania, on the contrary, has a strong advantage of having been, for a century, an independent state.Secondly, Albania, despite its location in a region of Europe that is a mosaic of overlapping ethnic and religious communities, has itself no major domestic inter-ethnic problems. The reason for this is that it is almost entirely ethnically homogeneous. Thirdly, Albania is also remarkable in that it has experienced little if any of the religious conflict between its three religious groups, Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims,[8] which has been an important factor in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Albania remains a country of a good religious tolerance where the three main religious communities have lived in peace and harmony for centuries and still do. The mutual harmony of the religions in Albania is thus a factor of stability in an ethnically and religiously divided region. Albania can give a good example to Europe as a country with one of the most moderate Muslim populations in the world and a country of inter-religious understanding and tolerance, within a secular state. Unlike elsewhere in the Balkan countries and societies, where politics, religion and ethnicity are three key elements, in Albania and for Albanians only the first one has a big importance.[9]

In the beginning of the 1990s, Albania found itself having to build a system of democratic governance from scratch, starting the so-called “dual transformation”, which according to Pridham combines political democratisation and economic transformation.[10] Despite its dreadful history of paranoid self-imposed international isolation and dictatorship, Albania got off to a good start in the early years of the transition. Albania committed itself to political pluralism and on the 31st of January 1991 the first multi-party elections were held. The initial phase of transition saw speedy and surprising progress, which won Albania a place among the most advanced former communist countries in terms of the rate and intensity of the reforms. Within a few years democratic institutions were set up and a democratic legal framework was introduced. Albania was accepted as a member of international political and financial institutions such as CoE, IMF, WB, and EBRD. Good results were also seen in the economy over a three-year period, about 70% of the economy was privatised, prices and trade were almost entirely liberalised and tight monetary and fiscal policies led to an admirable micro-economic stability. The newly emerging private sector proved to be highly dynamic, making the greatest contribution to overall economic growth. During 1993-1996, Albania experienced an annual growth rate of 9.5%. The analysis made by foreign experts and institutions during this period considered Albania a special case of successful transition and it had been seen by many mainstream commentators in the West as a model for post-Communist economic development.[11]

The path to Europe

In terms of foreign policy, Albania was immediately oriented towards integration into the EU and North-Atlantic structures. ‘Return to Europe’ became the most important ideological orientation for masses, intelligencia, youth and even political parties. It was synonymous with the rejection of communism and ‘Europe signified ‘democracy’. The ‘Land of the Eagles’, about which everyone knew so little, re-appeared on the European political map. The EU as the most important foreign policy goal was not only a priority of domestic politics, but also a matter of national interest, because it was perceived by all as might will offer tremenduous political, economic and socio-cultural benefits. Therefore, successive Albanian governments placed European integration as a priority on their political agendas. Relations between Albania and the (then) European Community (as the European Union was called before the Maastricht Treaty) started in 1991. In 1992 a “Cooperation and Trade Agreement” was signed between Albania and the EU. Albania was the first South-Eastern European country to conclude such an agreement. This agreement was established mainly to encourage trade and democratization with Albania, but it was also a response to the humanitarian crisis of 1991. Right after signing the agreement, Albania became eligible for funding under the EU Phare programme.

At the beginning of 1995, Albania officially asked for the opening of negotiations for an accession agreement with the EU. An evaluation undertaken by the Commission on the possibilities of free marketing of goods, services and capital in Albania, concluded that a ‘classic’ agreement like those that most countries have with the EU about their membership would be a premature step for Albania.[12] In January 1996, the EU Council of Ministers asked the Commission to compile a proposal for a new agreement that would strengthen Albania-EU relations (even though this was not on the level of a “European Agreement”). Unfortunately, the events that followed that year with the disastrous parliamentary elections in May and a year later after the collapse of pyramid schemes put a serious question-mark over Albanian democracy and the readiness of the country to progress towards integration, leaving this issue in stagnation. 

Three years later, in 1999, a very important step was undertaken by the EU: the European Commission proposed a “Stabilisation and Association Process” (SAP) for five Balkans countries, named the Western Balkans (WB) including Albania.[13] This was endorsed by the Fiera Council in 2000, which confirmed that the EU’s goal was the fullest possible integration of all WB countries into the economic and political mainstream of Europe, as well as recognized them as potential candidates for EU membership. The 2000 Zagreb Summit was also an important step in the commitment of the EU to the WB. It confirmed all of them as ‘potential candidates for EU membership. The Summit also established the SAP and its two components: a tailor-made contractual relationship called the “Stabilisation and Association Agreement” (SAA) and a new economic aid, called CARDS programme, both specifically designed for the SAP countries.

The SAP represented a historical turning point for Albania, because, for the first time, a concrete path was offered to Albania in its rapprochement with the EU. The SAA offered stronger incentives for pushing ahead with the reform process and also created more demanding political and economic conditions for the country. But, rather than pressures, they had to be considered more as opportunities that Albania could take or leave.

After the Zagreb Summit, Albania made considerable progress in fulfilling the commitments for opening negotiations. At the European Council Meeting in Gothenburg in June 2001, the European Commission concluded that it was appropriate to proceed with the negotiation of a SAA with Albania. In November 2001, the President of the Commission, Romano Prodi, declared in Tirana that the opening of negotiations would be in March 2002, but the political stability of the country was made a condition for these to start. This, unfortunately, did not happen, because of a severe internal crisis within the Socialist Party in power during the second half of the year, which had negative implications for the reform process and the country’s political stability.[14] Nevertheless, the Council adopted the directives for opening the negotiation of a SAA with Albania at its meeting in Luxembourg in October 2002. The negotiations were officially launched on 31 January 2003.[15]

This was followed by three years of negotiations and finally the SAA was signed in June 2006 in Luxembourg. The next step to be taken was the ratification by all the Member States. However, it took three years for the ratification process to be completed and on 1 April 2009 the SAA entered into force.

The signing of the SAA and its ratification lasted long, respectively six and three years, longer than the other WB countries. Albania had a tough time also for reaching two other important milestones in its rapprochement with the EU. One was visa liberalization. The other was its acceptance as a ‘candidate country’.

Albania and Bosnia were the only countries in the WB to be rejected the visa liberalization request, which was granted only the second time. In November 2006 the European Commission decided to start visa facilitation negotiations with Albania, which was the first step toward a full abolishment of the visa requirements. In April 2007 the visa facilitation agreement was signed in Zagreb and on 1 January 2008 it entered into force.  In March 2008 EU Commissioner Franco Frattini opened in Tirana the dialogue toward the liberalisation of the visa regime between Albania and EU, which would enable citizens of Albania to travel to Schengen countries without needing a short term visa. On 27 May 2010 The European Commission proposed visa free travel for Albania and on 8 November 2010 the Council of the European Union approved visa-free travel to Schengen Area for Albanian citizens. After 4 years since the process started, on 15 December 2010 visa-free access to the Schengen Area entered into force, making it possible that the long dream of Albanians for the free movement in the EU to finally come true.

The ‘candidacy status’ had an even more complicated journey. Albania was the only applicant country in the whole history of the EC/EU to be rejected the candidacy’ three times ,[16] in December 2010, in October 2012, and in 2013. The EU countries, most notably Holland, decided not to grant the status to Albania due to not completion of 12 key priorities in five areas, which were conditions to be met in order to achieve official candidate status and start accession negotiations. On 24 June 2014, under the Greek EU Presidency, after 5 years, Albania was finally granted the ‘candidate status’.

The persistent obstacles in the journey to the EU

On 28 April 2009 Albania formally applied for membership in the EU. In November 2009 the Council of the EU asked the European Commission to prepare an assessment on Albania’s readiness to start accession negotiations. Five months later, in April 2010 Albania submitted answers to the European Commission’s questionnaire. Five years later, in March 2015, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement notified Albania the setting of a start date for accession negotiations to begin. It still required two conditions to be met, firstly, the government needed to reopen political dialogue with the parliamentary opposition, and secondly Albania must deliver quality reforms for all the five key areas, namely: the rule of law, judicial system, strengthening the fight against organised crime, developing a solid track record in the fight against corruption, and depolitisation of public administration. I have focused my analysis on two of them, the judicial system and the organized crime.

Judicial system

The most imperative reform was the one on judiciary. Many reports by international organizations (European Commission, Transparency International, Council of Europe, Freedom House, British Foreign Office, US State Department, Amnesty International etc.) have repeatedly pointed out that the judicial system in Albania is weak and continuous to be plagued by three problems: corruption, unprofessionalism and not independent (from politics and organized crime). Apart from lack of efficiency, the political influence on the institutions of the criminal justice system, as well as corruption in the judiciary, continued to be major causes for concern. The European Commission has constantly identified corruption in the judiciary as the No.1 obstacle of the progress of Albania towards the European Union, “the new legislation tackles many shortcomings related to the justice system’s lack of independence, efficiency and professionalism. However, corruption is widespread and remains an issue of concern”.[17] The justice system has been considered as the sector with the highest level of corruption in Albania. According to the 2018 annual study of the Freedom House “Nations in Transit”, Albania’s judicial framework and independence rating remained unchanged at 4.75,[18] with no progress made, since 2012. The report states, “High levels of corruption, combined with low levels of efficiency, characterized the Albanian judiciary”.[19] The problems in the judicial system were also identified in the US Department of State “Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Albania”, which noted that “Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, widespread corruption, and limited resources sometimes prevented the judiciary from functioning independently and efficiently”.[20]

Therefore, one of the concerns of the Socialist government after coming to power in 2013 was the reform of the judicial system. However, the genuine call for the reform has not been led by Albanian political party leaders, but by diplomats in Tirana, most notably the then US Ambassador Donald Lu. Mr. Lu has been the most outspoken person for the judicial reform. In an interview to BIRN, Lu described it as “the most important reform in the 25 years since the fall of communism…It has the possibility of ridding the Albanian judicial system of corrupt judges and prosecutors who steal the money of ordinary citizens and allow organized crime figures, murderers and corrupt politicians to buy justice”.[21]

The justice reform process launched in July 2015 with a set of amendments that changed one third of the Albania’s Constitution. The reform aimed to tackle existing shortcomings in the sector, including weaknesses linked to independence and accountability of judges and prosecutors, lack of efficiency and professionalism.[22] The justice reform is being implemented ever since and its main features have included measures to fight corruption, by establishing a new Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Structure (SPAK); measures to reduce the influence by the parliament and the executive on the judiciary; measures to increase accountability of judges and prosecutors, measures to increase justice efficiency and access to justice.[23]

In addition to the institutional restructuring of the judiciary and as part of measures to fight corruption and re-establish public trust in the judiciary, the reform process foresaw the launch of a generalized re-evaluation of all currently serving judges, prosecutors and legal advisers, called the ‘Vetting’. The vetting started in October 2017, firstly with the establishment of the first-instance vetting body, the ‘Independent Qualification Commission’ (IQC), as well as the International Monitoring Operation (IMO), deployed under the aegis of the European Commission, which is supervising the Vetting process and exercising independent oversight. Since the Vetting started, over 800 professionals have been undergoing scrutiny. At the very start of the process a number of high-ranking judges and prosecutors resigned, refusing their assets to be verified, and some asked to retire.[24] By 2020, more than 286 dossiers have been processed, resulting in 62% dismissals, mostly for issues related to unjustified assets, or resignations.[25]

Even though the justice reform had the cross-party support, the Opposition has contested the follow-up process as being biased and controlled by the Socialist Party in power, starting with the individuals selected and appointed as the members and heads of the Vetting bodies, such as the IQC, the High Judicial Council (KLGJ) and the High Prosecutorial Council (KLP). They are the main self-governing bodies of the judiciary that are supposed to be independent from the government. The Opposition pretended that the dismissal of judges and prosecutors from the part of Independent Qualification Commission has been selective and biased, favoring the ones who have the support of the Socialists. As the opposition paper Exit.al points out, “It is becoming increasingly clear that the Independent Qualification Commission is not, in fact, completely independent. Now that nearly a hundred judges and prosecutors have passed through its ‘filter’, it seems that certain figures fulfilling ‘key roles’ in the recent capture of the judiciary are able to slip through the cracks”.[26] All this have put into question the credibility of the current “reform of the Albanian judiciary”. The vetting process and its results remain crucial to restore public trust in the judiciary and law enforcement bodies of the State.[27]

The other step in the judicial reform has been the “Law on Decriminalization”, which consists on barring people with criminal records from holding public office or most civil service jobs. The law, approved by the Albania’s parliament in December 2015, was in fact proposed by the Opposition, in response to a series of political scandals in which MPs with criminal convictions or facing serious charges (the so-called “law-breakers turned into law-makers”) have been exposed by journalists and political opponents. However, the “decriminalization law” has had only minor results in removing incriminated officials from public office and has not yet made a dent in the problem of state infiltration by organized crime.[28] Law breakers continue to be / become law-makers.

The then EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, while on a visit to Tirana, warned that Albania cannot be considered for EU membership until it thoroughly cleanses the justice system, “A deep reform of the judicial system will open the way to the beginning of negotiations for Albania to become part of the EU.” [29]

Organised crime

Organized crime gangs in Albania and abroad operate mostly in the areas of drugs, money laundering, human trafficking and smuggling. I will be focused on the first one, the drugs, which has been quite problematic during the last decades of transition and for which Albania has been heavily critisised by the EU and international organisations.

After coming to power in 2013, the Socialist government started a huge police operation in the village of Lazarat,[30] known as Europe’s “marijuana mountain”, the home base of gangs that produced marijuana with an estimated street value of $5.9 billion in 2013, equivalent to roughly half of Albania’s gross domestic product.

However, as the Freedom House “Nations in Transit” 2017 report pointed out “Two and a half years after the start of a government crackdown, drug dealers managed to plant at least 2.4 million cannabis seeds across the country, and to traffic across Albania’s borders tons of marijuana worth billions of dollars. The opposition accused the Prime Minister and Interior Minister of protecting drug lords in exchange for illicit proceeds and support”.[31] The report continues saying that “Albania still has a poor track record in investigating, identifying, prosecuting, and convicting key figures in drug trafficking and other organized crime activities. Despite police raids and crackdowns, financiers and traffickers managed to extend their cannabis plantations across the country, taking advantage of poor farmers and corrupt state officials”.[32]

The opposition called this ‘Cannabization of Albania’ and accused the ruling Socialist Party for turning Albania into a ‘Columbia of Europe’. According to an article of Independent Balkan News Agency, “During 2017, at least 2.5 million roots of cannabis were cultivated in Albania, according to official sources. This quantity was four times higher than in 2015. Furthermore, this reported quantity is based on police information which are believed to be several times lower than the real cultivated amount”.[33] The State Police and Interior Ministry leaders were consistently targeted by the opposition Democratic Party, which accused them of implications and involvement in this criminal activity, spreading cannabis enclaving or co-operation with organized crime. What was worse, the opposition has made repetitive allegations that the huge revenues from cannabis were used to buy the votes in the June 2017 parliamentary elections, which according to them explained the unexpected big victory of the Socialist Party in these elections. Over the last two years, large amounts of narcotic substances of cannabis, worth of billions of euros, were seized by Greek authorities while crossing Albanian-Greek border, or caught by Italian “Guardia di Finanzia” in the Adriatic waters, or while transported by small helicopters. This “historical record in cannabisation of the country”, has been reported almost every day in the media. According to the above article, “Recently, many quantities of processed drugs are being attempted to be trafficked to EU member countries. In different operations conducted in the recent days, Albanian, Italian and Greek police have seized several tons of marijuana. Many people believe that this is a small part of the quantity that is being taken out of Albania”.[34] 

The prestigious British newspaper “Independent” in an investigative article also describes Albania as a ‘Columbia of Europe’ and the country the HQ of drugs in Europe.[35] Both US and European law enforcement officials, says the article, have described Albania as the largest provider of cannabis to the EU, as well as an important transit point for heroin and cocaine. Based on the value of drug seizures, some estimate that the marijuana alone generates up to $4bn (£3bn) a year, half of Albania’s GDP. Cocaine comes in shipments of bananas and palm oil from Colombia. On 28 February 2018, authorities intercepted 613kg of cocaine disguised as a banana shipment from Colombia. Heroin is smuggled into Albania via clothing and shoe imports brought in from Turkey, one of the world’s largest textile exporters.[36] The article notes that “the traffickers now use the same networks they established to move vast amounts of bulky cannabis to distribute cocaine from Latin America and heroin from Central Asia via Italy to the rest of Europe. Albanian gangs are considered among the world’s top heroin, cocaine and cannabis traffickers. The drugs are loaded on high-speed zodiac inflatable boats bound for the Italian coast from Albanian ports. Also shipped back to Turkey, along the same networks used to bring heroin into the country. Traffickers have also taken to the air, with what some officials estimate as between five and 10 small planes”.[37] What more disturbing is, as the article points out, that “it’s quite clear that all these gangs operate with a certain level of political and police protection and support. Many fear the money has thoroughly infected the political elite. While the government denies it, experts say the traffickers have thoroughly infected politics and commerce, at the deepest levels. Scores of high-level Albanian officials – from mayors to ministers – have been implicated in the drug trade, and perhaps enable it”.[38] Not only politicians, but also “police are directly involved in the growing, cultivating, packaging, transport and selling of drugs” and the cannabis plantations have become like “so-called ‘no-go’ areas, taken over by armed drug traffickers bound together by clan ties”. “Albanian officials concede that they only intercept 10 per cent of drug shipments in and out of the country. One Western diplomat said the number was more like 5 per cent, leaving traffickers with enough wealth to buy up port authorities from Rotterdam to Izmir. The sophisticated trafficking groups have gotten so powerful that they have networks all over the world”. The drug industry is influencing everything – all strata of society, says the article, that includes money laundering, and party financing. “Albania is no longer a hub of cultivation,” said one EU official. “It’s become a center of investment, distribution, and recruitment”. The article, quoting some Western diplomats, concludes that, “Albania, the drug producer and distributor of Europe has become a narco-state and they’d lose too much money getting out of trafficking to get into the EU”.[39] 

The Italian television RAI 3 broadcasted a long documentary about the widespread of cannabis cultivation and production in Albania, titled “Narcotics”.[40] Despite the Albanian government and the State Police declarations that cannabis cultivation dropped drastically in 2017 and 2018 and the plantations had been almost wiped out, as a result of government anti-cannabis strategy and successful police operations, the RAI documentary revealed the shocking news that “This year the cannabis plantations have extended to one third of the country territory”.[41] Guardia di Finanza officers declared that massive cultivation and production of marijuana have re-started again this year, five times more than last year and using more refined genetic modified varieties of cannabis.[42] The Italian prosecutors noted that in addition to cannabis, Albania has become one of the most important suppliers for cocaine to Italy from Columbia and Ecuador, competing with the notorious Italian mafia organization Ndrangheta.[43] Albania also has become an important route for the Afghan opium, which is brought through Balkan networks and is processed at the heroin laboratories, found in several places in Albania and Kosovo and managed by Albanian mafia.[44]

Efforts for launching the EU membership negotiations

Albania hoped to open membership negotiations by December 2016. The Commission recommended the launch of negotiations on 9 November that year, but Germany announced that it would veto the opening accession talks until 2018. In early 2017, the European Parliament warned the government leaders that the parliamentary elections in June must be ‘free and fair’, before negotiations started, to admit the country into the Union. However, the situation before elections was complicated with the discovery of million roots of cannabis being cultivated everywhere and Albania, as mentioned above. A few months after the elections, the shocking scandal of the alleged links between an Albanian–Italian mafia group (which had trafficked huge amounts of cannabis and guns) with the then Interior Minister, shattered the politics and public opinion, and shed lights in the gravity of the link of Albanian government with organized crime.[45]

Three years later, in March 2020, the Council of the EU decided to open accession negotiations with Albania. But France blocked the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia until a new methodology for future enlargement was agreed at EU level. Even when that was sorted out, Albania could still not start accession negotiations because its candidacy was linked to that of North Macedonia, which was vetoed by Bulgaria. In June 2022, Bulgaria’s parliament approved lifting the veto on opening EU accession talks with North Macedonia and subsequently the two countries received the green light to start accession talks that could ultimately lead to EU membership.[46] Finally, 11 years after the application, Albania managed to start the accession negotiations, officially launched on 19 July 2022.

The EU held its first intergovernmental conference with Albania in July 2022. The screening process is underway and no chapters have been opened thus far. Since the change of the enlargement methodology in 2020, the 35 negotiating chapters of the acquis Communautaire are now grouped into six clusters. In terms of the level of preparation, Albania is somewhat behind the rest of the candidates with active negotiation processes, at least according to the European Commission reports.[47]

The pace of the negotiations seems to depend on three factors: Firstly, the speed of the domestic reforms and alignment of the country with EU laws. A lot of work still needs to be done to tackle all the current political, economic and social problems and the five priorities set by the EU. Apart from the reform of the judiciary (which has produced some results), the four other priorities remain stumbling blocks: the rule of law still weak, the corruption remains pervasive in many areas, the organized crime has become even more problematic (most notably in the areas of drugs and money laundering), public administration continues to be plagued by lack of professionalism and high levels of corruption and politization. Secondly, the pace of the process will mostly depend on political will, both the domestic and the European. Thirdly, the EU absorption capacity: after the last enlargement – the ‘Big Ben’, when 10 countries joined at once, there has been a certain degree of reluctance for further enlargements. However, the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with fears over Moscow’s influence in the region, has increased the strategic importance of the Western Balkans to the EU. Therefore, an early decision to accept Albania and the other WB countries might be more for geo-political reasons, rather than fulfillment of the criteria and completion of reforms.

However, the prospect of EU membership and the whole process of integration and Europeanisation has proved to be very useful for Albania. Albanian democratization could have had a different trajectory without the presence of the EU pushing for and directing reforms. If it were not for the role of the EU and international community, Albania would continue to be a “Balkan Banana Republic”, left in the hands of irresponsible, incapable and egocentric politicians and governments, where corruption and organized crime would flourish, with the mafia, criminals and politicians, the country’s ‘nouveaux riches’, enjoying privileges, wealthy and luxurious lifestyles on the one hand, and the majority of the population living in poverty on the other.[48] 

Therefore, the EU remains the primary locus of Albania’s efforts in managing the difficult period of transition and its goal for the future, mostly because the prospect of EU membership is a credible prospect in its political horizon, a strong incentive and a powerful driving force for carrying out domestic reforms.

It is a positive fact that the EU is the only element of consensus that unites all political parties and all social groups. This leads us to believe that the two types of pressure:  the external one from the EU and from other international organizations on one hand, and internal pressure from the various domestic actors and the public who are interested in progress and EU membership on the other, will probably help Albania eventually to achieve the goal of accession. The help and support of external actors is important and necessary, but the reforms and all the steps of a successful integration process should, in the first instance, be the responsibility of the domestic actors, in particular the politicians. Putnam argues that “the quality of democracy depends on the quality of its citizens, so that every people gets the government they deserve”,[49] so hopefully Albanians will not continue to be labelled as ‘a people undone’ and be the last ‘catching the train to Europe’.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Balkan Insight “US Diplomat urges Albania to end judicial corruption”, 6 January 2016.
  • Bogdani, M. “Contributing actors to the regime change in Albania: The first phase of transition and the role of the Student Movement” in Rama, Sh. (eds) The end of communist rule in Albania: Political change and the roe of the Student Movement. Routledge, NY & London. 2020.
  • Bogdani, M. and Loughlin, J. Albania and the European Union: The Tumultuous Journey towards Integration and Accession. I. B. Tauris. London – NY, 2007. 
  • Bogdani, M. and Loughlin, J. Albania and the EU: European Integration and the Prospect of Accession. Dajti 2000. Tirana, 2004.
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http://europa.eu.int/external_relations/see/sap/rep2/com03_341.htm

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http://europa.eu.int/external_relations/see/sap/rep2/com03_339.htm.

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https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/albania_report_2020.pdf

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https://exit.al/en/2019/02/05/vetting-commission-again-confirms-government-favorite/

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http://old.balkaneu.com/one-and-a-half-tons-of-drugs-goes-through-albanian-customs-greek-customs-officials-discover-it/

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[1] Author and Scholar of EU Politics & European integration, Prof. Assoc. Mirela Bogdani , currently teaching at University of New York Tirana

[2] Bogdani, M. and Loughlin, J. Albania and the European Union: The Tumultuous Journey towards Integration and Accession. I. B. Tauris, London – NY. 2007. 

[3] Rama, Sh. “Who slew the dragon? The collapse of communism, political change and the student movement in Albania” in Rama. Sh (eds). The end of communist rule in Albania: Political change and the roe of the Student Movement. Routledge, Ny & London. 2020.

[4] Pridham, G. The Dynamics of Democratization: A comparative approach London and NY: Continuum, 2000, pp.16.

[5] Bogdani, M. “Contributing actors to the regime change in Albania: The first phase of transition and the role of the Student Movement” in Rama, Sh. (eds) The end of communist rule in Albania: Political change and the roe of the Student Movement. Routledge, Ny & London. 2020.

[6] Bogdani, M. and Loughlin, J. Albania and the EU: European Integration and the Prospect of Accession. Dajti 2000. Tirana, 2004.

[7] Biberaj, E. Albania in Transition: The Rocky Road to Democracy. Westview Press, 1998.

[8] According to a poll conducted in the time of Monarchy the religious composition in Albania was: 70 per cent Muslim, 20 per cent Greek Orthodox and 10 percent Roman Catholics. However, these figures are not only out-dated, but also inaccurate and unreal, given a history of 30 years of imposed atheism during communism, when two generations grew up without any religious faith whatsoever, and then the religious’ revival after 1990 when lots of people have been embracing various religions sometimes totally different from that of their roots.

[9] Bogdani, M. and Loughlin, J. Albania and the European Union: The Tumultuous Journey towards Integration and Accession. I. B. Tauris. London – NY, 2007. 

[10] Pridham, G. The Dynamics of Democratization: A comparative approach London and NY: Continuum, 2000.

[11] Zeneli, F. “Sektorët prioritarë të ekonomisë dhe investimet e huaja”. Shekulli, Tirana, 4 October 2003.

[12] Meksi, E. “The Albanian dimension of integration” in Debating Integration, AIIS, 2003.

[13] European Commission, “The Stabilization and Association Process for South East Europe”. Second Annual Report. Brussels, 26 March 2003.

[14] Milo, P. Bashkimi Europian“. Tirana:Albpaper, 2002.

[15] European Commission, “Albania: Stabilization and Association Report 2003”. Second Annual Report. Brussels, 26 March 2003.

[16] Only Turkey was rejected once, in 1997.  

[17] European Commission, Albania 2018 Progress Report”. Strasbourg, 17 April 2018.

[18] Freedom House, Nations in Transit. Albania 2018 Report.

[19] Ibid.

[20] US Department of State “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Albania”. April 2018.

[21] Balkan Insight “US Diplomat urges Albania to end judicial corruption”, 6 January 2016.

[22] European Commission, Albania 2016 Progress Report. Brussels, 9 November 2016.

[23] Ibid, pg.3.

[24] European Commission, “Albania 2018 Progress Report”. Strasbourg, 17 April 2018. pg.3.

[25] European Commission, “Albania 2020 Progress Report”. Brussels, 6 October 2020, pg.5.

[26] Exit.al, “Vetting Commission again confirms Government favorite”, 5 February 2019.

[27] European Commission, “Albania 2020 Progress Report”. 6 October 2020, pg. 24.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Transitions Online “Albania urged to reform Judiciary”. 4 March 2016.

[30] Lazarat, a village in the south of Albania, had been effectively off-limits to local police for over a decade, becoming synonymous with uncontrolled crime.

[31] Freedom House, Nations in Transit”. 2017 Report Albania.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Independent Balkan News Agency, “One and a half tons of drugs goes through Albanian customs, Greek customs officials discover it”, 17 February 2017.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Independent, Colombia of Europe’: How tiny Albania became the continent’s drug trafficking headquarters”, London. 27 January 2019.

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid

[40] Exit.al, Prokuroret italiane per RAI 3: Ne Shqiperi lulezon trafiku i droges, ka rifilluar kultivimi masiv i marijuanes”. 8 August 2019.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Balkan Insight, Albania ex-Minister accused in drug-smuggling scandal”, 17 October 2017.

[46] Brzozovski, A. “Next steps for Albania and North Macedonia, as the EU agrees to start accession talks”. Euractiv. 19 July 2022.

[47] Ivkovic, A. “What is the EU perspective of North Macedonia and Albania a year after opening negotiations?”. European Western Balkans,14 August 2023.

[48] Bogdani, M. and Loughlin, J. Albania and the European Union: The Tumultuous Journey towards Integration and Accession. I.B.Tauris: London – NY, February 2007. 

[49] Putnam, R.D. et al. Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1993. pg.3.

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