European Integration is the national priority agenda for Albania since the fall of the communist regime in 1991, backed as well by 86% of the Albanian population1. Together with other Western Balkans (WB) countries it participated in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) and was offered a process based on merits in meeting the Copenhagen criteria and the conditions set for the SAP2 and a rigorous but fair conditionality to be applied to all candidate and potential candidate countries3 Every step forward would depend on country’s own progress in meeting the necessary conditions at each stage of the accession process. After 2 decades from the SAP that only one WB country managed to become a member of the EU, it is important for the Thessaloniki promise to be still in place and further reinvigorated.
In the past year Albania embraced the opportunity and delivered on EU-related reforms, in particular in the areas set unanimously by the Council conclusions of June 2018, in order to organise first Intergovernmental Conference by the end of 2019. The significant progress achieved especially with the justice reform aimed at increased independence, accountability, professionalism and efficiency of the judiciary was recognised by the Commission which recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with Albania. Nevertheless this was not the decision of the Council. Lack of decision in the 2019 October’s Council to open the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia was another disappointment to the hopes of speeding up the accession process and avoid a possible political vacuum in the WB region. This was the third time, after Council meetings in June 2018 and June 2019 that the bloc's leaders couldn’t reach the required unanimity in order to make the decision.
What is/are the main obstacle/hurdles/challenges for negotiations or accession?
I personally see as the big challenge the current situation in the EU; the internal reform agenda prioritising deepening over widening of the EU, the ever-changing political dynamics and debates about the future reform of EU which are clearly affecting the most successful policy of the EU, i.e. Enlargement.
The EU must maintain and further deepen its own development while pursuing a credible enlargement agenda, not by completely freezing it. Strong positive interactions exist between enlargement and deep institutional reform of EU. While EU membership perspective has been the most important leverage in the Western Balkans region to promote democracy, rule of law, and consolidate stability, history has shown that Enlargement is also a constructive influence for transformative pressure for the EU and its institutions.
What is the Albanian take on the length of the pre-negotiations status?
Albania is strongly committed to its European perspective. For decades, it has been the key driver for vital reforms which assisted the political, economic and societal transformation of the country. However, for the EU to continue being the strongest factor in the country’s transformative agenda, accession should remain a merit-based process fully dependent on the progress achieved by each of the enlargement countries evaluated upon objective criteria. It should be the quality and speed of drafting and implementing reforms to determine the accession agenda rather than internal politics and dynamics of the Member States.
Rules should not be changed in the middle of a process. Altering the assessment criteria or imposing additional stages in the Enlargement process, as it is being currently suggested by some Member States would further discourage reform efforts and momentum in the whole region.
What work has been done and must still be done to make Albania ready?
Albania has come a long way since the beginning of the Stabilisation and Association Process. The European perspective had a real transformative effect by assisting and supporting the country’s reforms to majorly transform its legislation, institutions, and overall societal culture. Nevertheless comprehensive and convincing reforms are still required in crucial areas, notably on the rule of law, fight against corruption and organised crime, economic criteria and many other important fields. But it is also very important to be rewarded for the achievements made so far.
2020- New hopes for Albania and North Macedonia?
Year 2020 seems so far as a big turning point for enlargement process and the membership perspective of the Western Balkans. The political agreement reached in the General Affairs Council of 24 March 2020 and endorsed by the European Council on 26 March, finally turned the tide for the negotiation bid of Albania and North Macedonia and for their hopes for a closer membership perspective. This decision was actually heralded by the publication of the Commission Communication on "Enhancing the accession process -A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans" in February 2020 – a dynamic reform plan for Enlargement aimed at reinvigoration of the process by making it more predictable, credible and subject to stronger political steering, based on objective criteria and rigorous positive and negative conditionality, and reversibility.
The decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia might be overdue, but it is a very strong signal that implementation of bold and transforming reforms is rewarded. Going back in time, it is undisputable that the decision to offer the membership perspective to Central and East Europe immediately after the fall of iron curtain was a historical, courageous and geostrategic decision that brought an end to the division, prevented the crisis, and by widening the EU to the east enhanced the security of the whole continent. Same vision was shown in the Council’s decision revealing also the ability of EU to function even in times of global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. This is great news for both countries but also a strong signal for the whole region that the enlargement process will continue to be credible, based on merit, clear criteria, good neighbourly relations, mutual trust and solidarity. Thus reaffirming that the future of WB lies in the EU!
After having examined the Commission's updated report of 2 March 2020 on the progress made by Albania, the Council welcomed country’s demonstrated determination to advance the EU reform agenda and to deliver tangible and sustained results, in fulfilling the conditions identified by the June 2018 Council. Thus, in light of the progress achieved the Council, subsequently endorsed by the European Council, decided to open accession negotiations with Albania.
To this end the Council invited the Commission to submit a proposal for a framework for negotiations in line with the European Council's December 2006 conclusions, integrating also the enhanced approach to the accession process. The first intergovernmental conference should be convened as soon as possible after the adoption of the negotiating framework by the Council. Yet, as the saying goes, no detail is too small. As a concrete date is lacking for both countries, Albania has a set of recommendations to fulfil prior to the first intergovernmental conference, such as:
-adopt the electoral reform fully in accordance with OSCE/ODHIR recommendations, ensuring transparent financing of political parties and electoral campaigns,
-ensure the continued implementation of the judicial reform, including ensuring the functioning of the Constitutional Court and the High Court, taking into account relevant international expertise including applicable opinions of the Venice Commission, and finalise the establishment of the anti-corruption and organised crime specialised structures,
-further strengthen the fight against corruption and organised crime, including through cooperation with EU Member States and through the action plan to address the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.
-tackling the phenomenon of unfounded asylum applications and ensuring repatriations
-amend the media law in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission remain important priorities.
It is a detailed and long list but it will without any doubt put a lot of positive pressure on Albanian authorities to start delivering on each of the enlisted reforms. At the same time providing greater clarity on what the EU expects in this new phase, leaves no room for excuses from the government to shy away from conducting deep irreversible reforms. The increased monitoring from the Commission, the introduction of reversibility and also the reinforced and systematic political steer and engagement at the highest levels of member states in monitoring, as guaranteed by the enhanced approach to the accession process will further encourage reforms, restore trust in the process and assist further advancement by determining the overall pace of negotiations.
Jorida Shytaj is gepromoveerd aan de Universiteit van Maastricht op het gebied van vergelijkend staatsrecht. Ze is tevens werkzaam voor "the National Council of European Integration", het hoogste adviesorgaan voor Europese integratie in Albanië.
 2019, Balkan Barometer
 ‘The Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans: Moving towards European Integration’
 Renewed consensus on enlargement presented by the Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2006 – 2007