European integration, only and ultimate choice of Albania 

Prime Minister Edi Rama attended Thursday the State of the Union (SOU), an annual high-level forum on the European Union hosted by the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy, to reflect on the theme ‘Europe in a Changing World. PM Rama was invited to attend the panel “Is the soft power of the EU in the neighbouring regions still effective?, moderated by the Senior Director of European Affairs, The Aspen Institute, and Italy’s former Foreign Minister, Marta Dassu.

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s views on the discussions at this panel:

 

Mrs. Marta Dassu: Let’s start with Mr. Edi Rama. You won these crucial elections. How do you think that this result is going to affect the negotiations with the European Union, because, after all, your people, the Albanian citizens are very much in favour of the EU membership and still this is a highly polarized society at this moment? Which is your feeling now?

PM Edi Rama: Thank you! It is absolutely true that it doesn’t matter who wins or who loses in terms of elections when it comes to the European Union, because the Albanian public opinion is very much in favour of the EU and it is very much Western-oriented. By no doubt the European path is definitely not one of the choices for us, but it is the only and the ultimate choice. And if it is true for some other countries in the region that there are other actors with quite an important influence, I don’t think this is true for Albania, because with all the others we have different kind of relations, but none of them is a potential substitute of the European Union as our national goal, as our destination and our partner. Therefore, yes, I think there are many issues we have to deal with in this period of time.

– Mr. Prime Minister, you bought a lot of doses of a Chinese vaccine, Sinovac, and the guess is whether you see this relationship with China as an important relationship. How is it so, because after all we are trying to realign as Europeans in front of this big and huge competition with China. Don’t you think this is going to become e problem?

Prime Minister Edi Rama: We were initially left out of the COVID-19 vaccines distribution scheme and by ‘we’ I mean not only Albania, but all Western Balkan countries. So, this neighbourhood right at the heart of Europe, surrounded by the EU borders was practically isolated from the rest in terms of the capacities to fight the pandemic. Therefore, we had to make our own run and make our own efforts individually. And for us it went well. We secured a direct contract with Pfizer and AstraZeneca. To be more accurate, we didn’t get the Sinovac vaccine from China, but we got Sinovac from the distributor in Turkey. I would say that our relations with China are absolutely, let’s say, normal and normal in these relations means nothing special.

– The real problems are reforms. When we think in terms of getting a new member into the European Union, we always link all that to important internal reforms and I have to say your country has made a lot of progress and the European Union already recognizes that. Do you think you need something more, especially on the judiciary reform and the fight against the organized crime?

Prime Minister Edi Rama: I think we need to assess first of all who is the most eligible source to talk objectively about our reforms and our results. I think there is none, nowhere in Europe a better place than the European Commission to say objectively, based on facts and based on a very strict and systematic monitoring of the entire process, where we stand.

We have learned in the hard way that, no matter what, there are always two levels of assessment; one is a more technical level from the Commission, which has a whole staffed Delegation to Albania following up 24/7 all the events and the progress, and then there is another level, which is more political and a more subjective one. We stumble there. It’s fine. We understand it. It is important for Albania to keep doing what we are actually doing, because it is not that we have to do it based on what people in Brussels, Berlin and Paris ask us to do, but we have to do it for our children and the future of our country. So, these reforms are beneficial to the country and they are the reforms we need to deliver for the next generations and we are doing so. But then we also have to be patient and we have learned it, and we are really very patient, until the assessment is also made at the political decision-making level at the Council, because we are pretty aware that different dynamics in different countries are increasingly influential on the decisions. And it is not necessarily about what you do, which is definitely important, but it is also very important what these countries need at that moment. So, we have faced it several times and now nothing surprises me.

We can do everything needed and we can still be in limbo. It is fine, no problem. We know it is important we keep doing our job and we know that beyond that we don’t have much power to change things. So, if one country has to hold elections in six months, another country might have to deal with an internal political debate on emigrants, another country needs to issue a statement about the EU enlargement and therefore having everyone in full consensus about the next step for us or other candidate countries is increasingly difficult. 

– You are right. It is actually a bit sad to say so, but it is the reality. Yesterday in London for example, the G-7 foreign ministers actually gave an important backing to the actual opening of these negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, as it was this famous veto imposed by Bulgaria, but this issue has been now overcome. Can you tell us your perception on the Kosovo problem at this point? This is because there is a sort of German and French non-paper circulating around, and there was some polemics about the fact that the Kosovo citizens voted in Albania elections. Do you think this is a double issue at this point?

Prime Minister Edi Rama: I think that first of all our best way to move further is to agree so that we don’t disagree on what is not solvable in the immediate future and work together with all the countries in the region on what is possible. In my view, we have to do to our best to deliver on a regional Schengen area, where the four freedoms of Europe are applied, namely the freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services should be applied for all the countries and this way we would have a much larger space of economic and social interaction. This will also help to make the atmosphere more benign when it comes to the go to the hot topics.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that it is crucial, it has always been and it is crucial what Germany and France would want to do in that regard when it comes to the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, because it has been dragged on for a long time and sometimes I think it has been seen – according to me – no in a correct way, but still this has been the feeling in both countries, as something left in a lower level. And I think bringing it up to the top level and having both the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France fully handling it, with all others involved in the daily job, would be absolutely very important, because otherwise I don’t see how both sides can do it on their own, though this should have been the best, but which I don’t think it is possible.

–Let me involve David McAllister in this conversation about the future of EU enlargement. Hello David from Brussels. May be you can comment on that. Do you think that the enlargement process is still alive or stalled? And do you have a question or a message to pass to the Prime Minister of Albania?

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament David McAllister: Thank you and warm greetings from the European Parliament here in Brussels. First of all, dear Mr. Edi Rama let me congratulate you on your victory at the parliamentary elections in Albania and good luck for the new term, and good luck for the future development of Albania.

As Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament of course I am following the enlargement process very carefully. I believe that enlargement still has a future and all six countries in the Western Balkans have a European integration prospective.  We often talk about what enlargement countries have to deliver and we know how challenging it is to fulfil all the criteria, the political, economic and judicial criteria, but I would like to talk also about European Union’s responsibility. Our credibility depends on our ability to effectively operate as a community, of course based on jointly agreed rules and values and let me be very clear, internally and externally, we have no double standards.

Coherence, the rule of law, reconciliation and solidarity are the foundations on which the European Union’s soft power rests. But these can be undermined. Fragmentation, unilateralism, democratic backsliding and I could add the disinformation campaign would create a completely different perception of what the EU’s enlargement policy stands today.

One point I see critically are the delays in fulfilling the promises made by the EU member states. This doesn’t help the collective EU credibility and I would like to name here the promise given to Kosovo for the visa-free travel, and also the promise to begin the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. So, we also have to deliver and I do hope that we can move forward in this term with opening further chapters with Montenegro and Serbia and also kicking off finally the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

– What Albania has to offer to the EU in terms of security and geopolitics? If you could reply, Mr. Prime Minister, adding two subsets if I may; one on the relationship with Turkey, which is becoming quite an important factor in the Western Balkans, and the other one on the regional cooperation, because you are one of the leaders in this regional cooperation exercise and we would be interested to know a bit more about it.

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: I think that on one side for us and sometimes it is actually struggling to make it clear, because there are different opinions coming from outside about the way we approach to Europe. It is very clear that for us Europe is not an alternative to anything, but Europe for us is a religion and Europe is for us the place that has the same value today that it had when the founding fathers imagined it. We are perhaps a bit naive, we are may be like everyone before marriage, who are really enthusiastic about it and who don’t wish to know about the marriage alternative experiences, but this is it. We don’t see any other factor or actor as an alternative to Europe. For us, the integration process is a fantastic tool to modernize our country and make Albania a full-fledged European state, ready to become member of the European Union, but member or not a member, ready to become a European state.

On the other hand, I strongly believe and this is of course the humble view of the Prime Minister of a small country like Albania, but still it is my strong view that Europe needs us – not only Albania, but whole Western Balkans – as much as the Western Balkans needs the European Union and this is exactly for the same purposes that some players or some actors advocate the contrary, for the purpose of more secure, safer and more integer European Union. It is absolutely not clear to me how there could be a discussion about that; to have this neighbourhood that is surrounded by the European borders, we are surrounded by the EU borders, we are within Europe, and having this neighbourhood not fully integrated, but leaving it just like a possible grey area, where other interests, other actors can interfere, this is I think very obvious that the option of full integration is much more feasible and safer than the option of whatever collaboration by leaving space for others.

As for Turkey, it is my strong view that Turkey is fundamental to security and the safety of the European Union and there is no question about that. The history of this relation is too long and too complicated, but, on the other hand, by no doubt in my view Turkey is key for the safety and security of the European Union and the European Union, in my view, is key for a stronger Turkey.

So, when it comes to the region I have to say, and when it comes to Albania, I have to make it very clear, we have a very good relation with Turkey, as it is a traditional relation. For us, Turkey is a strategic partner. Our relation with President Erdogan is excellent, but I want to make it very clear; there is no sign, not fact but sign of what some sources have claimed and continue to claim that President Erdogan and Turkey are exercising in Albania or in the region – I don’t know some things can be discussed when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, not now, but long time ago – so when it comes to the so-called Ottomanisation or neo-Ottomanisation of the Balkans I would say it is completely nonsense, since there is nothing of this sort. I get sometimes angry when I read and come across total fake news stories about mosques being built in Albania to exercise this kind of influence or about whatever else. No. It is not true.

When it comes to mosques, we are very thankful about a whole project of restoration of national heritage sites, be they mosques, churches or other holy places, where we have had also, among others, from the European Union, from different donors, also the contribution of the Turkish side. This is it. The other thing is the Mosque of Tirana, where they have contributed to the Muslim Community. After having built the big Catholic Cathedral and the big Orthodox Cathedral, the big mosque was the one missing and the Turkish Muslim community contributed to that. So, I don’t see anything like that. We have for example the issue of the maritime limitation with Greece, which is an issue that enters the category of problems that also concern Greece and Turkey, but never ever we had any kind of influence from the Turkish side to do whatever in that regard. We are completely independent, free and sovereign and have nothing to do with that.

Prime Minister Edi Rama: I would also say that politics is a lot about semantic. It sounds not right when some EU member countries discuss future of Europe, not the future of European Union, but the future of Europe, while totally dismissing a whole part of Europe, which is the Western Balkans. And I would say that productive discussions on the future of Europe, again not the European Union because if they discuss the future of the European Union it is up to them to open or not open to others, but when it comes to the future of Europe, productive discussions would absolutely imply inclusion, not only of Western Balkan countries, but also Turkey, to just have an open discussion that would of course lead to conclusions that the European Union will then take stock of, the others would also take stock of them and take things to a whole different level. I think there is a lot of need for open dialogue, an open and inclusive debate even when it comes to the Western Balkan conflicts, because without opening up the debate and without including in a very open and blunt way all the actors, then the risk is to stumble and at the end always we would prefer the status quo instead of going for a change. So there is absolutely a need to have inclusiveness and a need to have everyone feeling being on board, regardless of being or not being fully OK with the final assumptions.

– We really have three minutes left, so give me the possibility to let you know about the results of our polls. There was this first question: Do you think that the European Union soft power has been effective in promoting democratization and Europeanization of the Western Balkans? And to my surprise, a large majority of the respondents say:”yes, it has been fairly effective,” while a 33% of the respondents reply “not effective”. However, the majority thinks it is effective so our idea that the European Union is losing its soft power is perhaps a bit too pessimistic. And the other question was “which of these accession countries would you support for joining the EU sooner?”. Albania comes first on the list with 54%, North Macedonia second with 23% and Serbia to the very bottom with 0%.

PM Edi Rama: You know, with all we are going through in terms of EU accession, there is a fresh joke about Euro-pessimism and Euro-optimism in Albania. The Euro-optimists now say Turkey would become an EU member under the Albanian Presidency, whilst the Euro-pessimistic say Albania will become a member under the Turkish Presidency. So, I think joining the EU is a big word and, frankly, if you would ask me today: Is Albania ready to become an EU member, I would reply: No, we are not ready to become members of the European Union. But, what I don’t understand is the constant postponement of starting real work on the negotiations, given that the decision to open the accession talks has been made in 2018, because this is the real work the country needs. And then when it comes to accepting or not a new member, first, this would need time, second, our European friends can rely to the Turkish model and can say ‘no, wait because we are not ready’. But keeping the countries, Albania in this case, in such position, and telling them ‘no’, and we know very well why it is a ‘no’, this is because certain countries face some other problems, and they add to the pie ‘you have to do this, you have to do that’, but this doesn’t really make much sense and it looks quite schizophrenic, I would say. Now, with this North Macedonia thing and the Pandora box of history being opened and hurting the relations of a country with the EU just because another country has some historic problems to solve, this can become a big blow up for everyone. Just imagine when Serbia will be there and Croatia would say: ‘Let’s see a bit history, because there is something we need to sort out first’, or when Albania, Kosovo or Serbia join. So, we should avoid putting history in the middle of the European integration process.

*Simultaneous interpretation