How a think-tanker’s vision, backed by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, secured the College of Europe’s presence in Tirana.
In November last year (2022) Albert Rakipi, a prominent figure in Albania’s international relations and think tank circles, contemplated a pressing question. With the European Union membership process losing momentum and leaving many disillusioned, he sought a way to ensure Albania’s enduring connection to the EU. His solution: bringing the College of Europe to Albania.
The last time the College of Europe expanded, it was more than three decades ago to Warsaw’s Nanolin suburb, with its second campus opening before Poland’s EU membership. It was an anchor in the process. It was also a story that could be replicated in Albania, Rakipi believed.
He then first shared the idea with trusted colleagues, including at the Albanian Institute for International Studies, Albania’s top-rated think tank where Rakipi serves as chairman and where he has been a civil society leader for nearly 30 years. There was some disbelief, but not easily discouraged, Rakipi prepared a concrete project proposal and was looking for an opening.
It came in early December 2022, at the massive EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Tirana, shortly before which Rakipi had secured a private meeting with Prime Minister Edi Rama to seek his support in making College of Europe’s campus in Tirana a reality.
“It’s the type of thing that can happen only once in a 1000 years — or never,” Rakipi says as he recalls how his idea drew the support of the Albanian prime minister who immediately moved to include Rakipi’s project proposal in the folders of the EU leaders attending the meeting. By the summit’s end, the idea had received “in principle” support from the EU’s top leaders.
Rakipi says it would not have become a reality without the support of Prime Minister Rama, who understood the project’s importance for Albania. Rama’s extensive connections with EU member state leaders and at times unorthodox lobbying efforts also played a significant role. “I am very grateful to Prime Minister Edi Rama for enthusiastically supporting the project. Having the College of Europe in Albania would have never been possible without Edi Rama as Prime Minister,” Rakipi says.
Rama has spoken highly of the EU’s reaction, calling it a “great gift” and something “exceptionally important and significant for us.”
The proposal had come at a strategic moment during the EU Summit with the Western Balkans in Tirana, which was an ideal opportunity to signal the importance of the enlargement policy in the Balkans.
Rakipi firmly believes that Tirana was the perfect location for the College’s third campus in the Balkans.
Apart from the geopolitical dynamics and the prime minister’s personal involvement, Rakipi emphasizes the role of the College of Europe’s Rector, Federica Mogherini, an Italian and a friend of Albania, was also invaluable. He suggests that the educational institution might not have come to Albania without her involvement.
“I am grateful to Federica Mogherini, a friend of Albania, who said ‘yes’ without hesitation and with special dedication and passion,” Rakipi says. “The College probably would not have come to Albania if the Rector had not been Mogherini.”
With the official ceremony, Tirana is ready for the College of Europe
For her part, Mogherini was clear-eyed and full of smiles as she delivered her speech at the official opening ceremony at the Tirana Pyramid, which will host the College and its first 31 students.
“We are inaugurating today in the beautiful Tirana, the first office of the College of Europe here in Tirana, which will lead the way for the establishment of our campus, which will start activities next September 2024-2025. It’s really an honor for me, I’m very proud, you see my smile, it’s a real smile, ” Mogherini said. “I would first like to thank all those who made such a thing possible.”
Of course, beyond Mogherini, it took the support of EU’s top leaders, including EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who viewed the establishment of the College of Europe in Tirana as a strategic investment and vision for the Balkans.
“This is fantastic. First and foremost, it is fantastic because adding a College of Europe in pursuit of higher education and excellence can only contribute to Albania’s and the region’s development and prosperity. But also, because the College of Europe will also reinforce all the efforts being made to bring Albania and the region into the European Union,” President von der Leyen said in a statement.
At the ceremony on Oct. 16, Von der Leyen described the college as a gift that Europe gives to Albania, but also a great gift that Albania is giving to Europe.
“Here we will have students from Albania, from all over the Western Balkans from the EU. They will lay the foundations as leaders of the future. This college will be the third campus because we have the first in Belgium, the second in Poland and the third here. This college came before Poland became a member country and I am convinced that the same will happen with Albania. Yesterday they opened the application process. Now students from all over Europe can apply. You can do these fantastic studies while exploring the fantastic Europe. This campus is a great gift from Europe to Albania. But not only this, but a great gift that Albania is giving to Europe,” von der Leyen said.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, during his speech at the inauguration ceremony, said that this project is something wonderful and that it happened faster than he thought it would happen.
“Who would have thought that this would happen so quickly? Yesterday the president of the Commission announced the opening of applications, today the doors of the representative office are opened and next year people will start studying at the College of Europe in Tirana. Something is happening and it is so amazing. This is a path full of lessons, and the European Union is a blessing for all our countries, it is a great blessing because it is the deepest source of how to build institutions.
“In the end, it is the institutions that matter,” Rama said. “Our past has been characterized by many bad things that are the result of the lack of institutions, even when some institutions were built from scratch, so the building of democratic institutions cannot be done unless you have the European Union to learn these. Knowledge is the most extraordinary gift that the European Union can give us.”
Tying Albania permanently to the West
The EU Summit with the Western Balkans in Tirana back in December 2022 was an ideal moment because of the state of EU’s relations with the Western Balkans. The European Union opened the campus in Natolin in 1992. “It was a very symbolic action to integrate the former East. In a way, the time had come to give a signal for the enlargement policy in the Balkans, after almost a ‘freezing’ of the enlargement process in the Balkans. And the idea of the College of Europe project in Tirana was right. And there is no doubt,” Rakipi says, “that Tirana was the capital where the third campus of the college of Europe in the Balkans should be located.”
“President Ursula or President Michel and anyone else in Brussels or Tirana can now see the College of Europe in Tirana as a strategic investment and vision in the Balkans. But the idea and the project was born in Tirana at the Institute of International Studies, a leading reputable think tank that has been contributing to Albania’s bilateral relations during the last two decades. It’s all like a dream,” says Rakipi. “Since December of last year, nine months have passed and the College of Europe is like a baby that has just been born. I am very proud to have helped the country with a beautiful, useful and unrepeatable idea and project.”
For Rakipi, this is ultimately “extraordinary and historic” because it is another step in tying Albania permanently to the West, said Albert Rakipi, the chairman of the Albanian Institute for International Studies. “Bringing the College of Europe to Tirana means bringing the first truly Western post-university educational institution since the creation of Albania’s modern state. It is the biggest development of its kind in education in 100 years, and will have the same impact in Albanian history as the pre-WWII French Lyceum in Korca and Harry Fultz’s American school in Tirana,” Rakipi said.
The College of Europe is the world’s first university institute of postgraduate studies and training in European affairs. It was founded in 1949 by leading European figures in the wake of the Hague Congress, which led to the creation of the European Movement. Its original campus is in Bruges, Belgium. A second Natolin (Warsaw), Poland campus of the college was established in 1992 ahead of Poland’s accession negotiations with the EU.
“It is first and foremost a signal of hope, a symbol of the serious commitment that the EU has towards the region despite all the doubts cast by the delays and stagnation of certain milestones,” Rakipi says “It will also bring forward academic, social and cultural cooperation between the countries in the region, with their peers in the EU as well as naturally foster the process of reconciliation.”
The think tank where the project was written
AIIS, the think tank where the project was written by Rakipi, is a non-governmental, non-profit research and policy institute created in recognition of the need for independent, in-depth analysis of the complex issues surrounding Albania’s security. AIIS was founded by a group of academics and analysts with extensive experience in foreign policy and policy-making issues. Over the three decades since its establishment, AIIS has sharpened its technical capacities to become a leading think-tank trusted by Albanian policy-makers and international partners in the fields of security studies, democracy, Euro-Atlantic integration and regional cooperation.
To promote discussion and debate among the policy community, AIIS engages Albanian and international scholars as well as provides its products free of charge on its website. These services are made possible by the contributions of national and international donor communities to fund its activities. As a results-oriented, methodologically interdisciplinary team, AIIS aims to produce timely advice as well as analysis of the challenges facing Albania’s policy-makers.
As of March 2023, AIIS is a member of the College of Security and Defense of the European Union. AIIS is also internationally ranked as Albania’s top and among the region’s top think tanks by the University of Pensylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index.
In the words of Daniel P. Serwer, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, “Albania has made tremendous progress in the last thirty years and is moving smartly towards its European home. AIIS is both a cause and a consequence. Its sharp analytical focus on the world beyond Tirana has helped what was once one of the most isolated countries on earth, become an active contributor to the international order. These have been marvelously productive years for both Albania and its leading institute!”