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Albania Faces Bumpy Road to EU Accession

1 July 2014

As Tirana struggles to satisfy membership criteria, internal dynamics in EU member states add a new burden to hopes for a smooth and speedy accession.

Gjergj Erebara BIRN Brussels

Eduard Kukan | Photo by : European Parliament

Albania secured the status of EU candidate country last Friday, after the recommendations from the European Commission and the Council of Ministers were approved during the summit of EU heads of state in Brussels.

However, Tirana had to overcome the skepticism from a number of EU member states, whose objections toward Albania’s candidate status were not necessarily tied with EU membership criteria, officials in Brussels have told Balkan Insight.

According to a member of the European Parliament and officials in the European Commission, the lesson learned from negotiations is that the need to satisfy immediate political and economic interests of EU member states will play an increased role in the process of integration.

Eduard Kukan, Chairman of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with Countries of South East Europe, told Balkan Insight that “six EU member states, including the UK, France, the Czech Republic, and Spain, were skeptical in granting Albania EU candidate status”.

Among these states, the Czech Republic had the strongest objections, due to a dispute between Tirana and Czech power giant CEZ over the ownership of an Albanian electricity distribution company.

“Albania was right about that issue, but the Czechs were tough”, Kukan noted.

In January 2013, Albania’s Energy Regulatory Agency stripped the local CEZ subsidiary of its operating license, taking it back into state control.

The decision, which effectively nationalized CEZ Shperndarje, was the latest twist in a long dispute between Tirana and the Czech company over unpaid debts.

A few hours before the EU Council of Ministers met on June 23, Albania’s Ministry of Energy announced an agreement to end the dispute with CEZ amicably and pay the Czech company €95 million.

Following the deal, Prague dropped its objections toward Albania’s EU candidate status and voted in its favor.

This is not the first time that Albania has faced quid pro quo diplomacy in its process towards EU accession.

According to US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, in 2008 Tirana accepted an unfavorable agreement regarding Albania’s southern maritime border in exchange for the approval of the Greek Parliament. The deal also included a controversial cemetery for Greek soldiers killed on Albanian soil during WWII.

The border agreement was struck down one year later by Albania’s Constitutional Court as illegal.

Albania first applied for EU candidate status in 2009. Their bid was rejected three times by the European Commission due to the confrontational political climate in Tirana and lack of progress in the fight against organized crime and corruption.

The Commission finally issued an unconditional positive recommendation for candidate status in November, but the EU Council of Ministers delayed their approval until June, seeking a longer track record on key reforms by the centre-left government of Prime Minister Edi Rama.

According to Kukan, Spain also had objections toward Albania’s EU candidate status, due to Tirana’s lack of support for its bid to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The vote for the Security Council will be held in October and Spain is competing against Turkey and New Zealand.

Apart from bilateral disputes, Albania faced challenges due to the growing skepticism toward EU membership in a number of member states.

According to an official in the European Commission, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the anti-EU sentiment championed by tabloid media outlets in countries like the UK is putting a strain on the enlargement process.

“You have to take into account for the future not only the progress of your country in fulfilling criteria for the integration, but also the domestic considerations of the member states”, the official said.

As Albania gets closer to EU membership, British tabloids have published a number of articles in the past month claiming that 3 million Albanian workers will invade the UK.

According to the 2011 population census, Albania has a population of 2.8 million, including children and retirees.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has recognized that the rise of euroscepticism and far-right parties in Europe will increasingly burden Albania’s accession process.

“It’s clear that the rise of extremism is worrying, in the way that people’s simple feelings are being manipulated and how totally wrong arguments are gaining ground”, Rama declared in a recent interview for France 24 TV.

“This should serve as motivation for progress toward what we have not yet achieved as  part of our European project, rather than forcing steps backwards,” he added.

Kukan, an experienced diplomat, said that aside from rhetoric, Tirana has no choice but to make amends with the domestic political climate of EU member states in order to advance its membership aspirations.

“The European Commission can recommend and the European Parliament can vote in favor, but in the end it’s the heads of EU member states who decide on Albania’s membership”, Kukan said. “Albania needs to have good relationship with each of these countries”.

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