On December 2013, the Council of the European Union decided to decline Commission’s recommendation to grant Albania candidate country status. The decision is left pending on country’s “continued implementation of anti-corruption and judicial reform strategies”, which will be re-assessed in June 2014. In a way, Council’s decision is nothing new. Since its application for membership in April 2009, Albania has collected a rather unique three-year saga of refusals from the EU –an explicit negative opinion in 2010, an adverse assessment in 2011, and a tentative, conditional offer in 2012. Additionally, since its 2010 opinion, the EU has identified a 12-item list of priorities where the country needs to progress, in order to attain candidate status. The list identified in the opinion, and refined in later EU reports, has increasingly focused on different aspects of rule of law.
“Reformation of public administration, independence of the judiciary, fight against corruption and organised crime, and protection of human rights” have been put forward as must conditions in assessing Albania’s readiness to open accession negotiations. The General Affairs Council meeting of December 2013 reiterates that Albania must intensify its efforts on the area of rule of law before starting accession negotiations. In this meeting the Council also requires a re-examination of Albania’s track-record regarding rule of law reforms in order to grant candidate status. Although, neither the EU conditions on rule of law nor the withholding of the “reward” are particularly new, the December 2013 decision establishes new trends in EU relations with Albania, and other Western Balkans hopefuls.
The first remarkable feature about Council’s decision, is the sceptic response of EU member countries to Commission’s enthusiastic recommendation that ”Albania made good progress … by adopting measures identified as essential for granting candidate country status…” When presenting the 2013 annual assessment, the EU Enlargement Commissioner further stated, “I am impressed by the way the new government is prioritising its efforts in the fight against corruption and organised crime, and I am equally impressed by the results achieved in the months since it has taken office, which confirm the positive trend.” The Commissioner’s speech entitled “Albania has delivered and so should the EU” was very much in line with the widely shared role of the Commission as an active promoter of enlargement. Yet, the referral of candidate status by key member countries in the Council –the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany and UK–shows that the political mood across European capitals might not be that favourable to country’s eventual membership.
As the EU unveiled its 2013 progress reports, polls from the Austrian Society for European Policy indicated that public support for accession had hit an all-time low. Albania’s accession was supported by merely 20% of respondents, one of the lowest scores among the Western Balkans candidates. Enlargement fatigue; domestic outcry against the opening of borders to Romanians and Bulgarians; and the general economic crisis in the Union have not helped to ease the declining appetite for a new wave of enlargement. Even if commitment to membership is not been disputed at the political level, member countries seem to share a common position, which was clearly paraphrased by the Danish Minister of European Affairs: “we need to see long-term results”. The clearest implication of this approach, for countries in the waiting room of enlargement, is that they will be held under exceptionally close scrutiny during all stages of membership application. Indeed, the EU’s “gatekeeping” process is become increasingly supervised and demanding to keep murky candidates from getting through.
A second, rather technical feature of December 2013 Council’s conclusions on Albania, has to do with the application of a more rigid and comprehensive conditionality, especially on the area of rule of law. The new approach reflects the evolution of EU policies on the one hand, and lessons learned from former experiences of enlargement, on the other. In line with the enhanced policy of conditionality, the 2013 enlargement strategy brings forth the concept of “fundamentals”: rule of law, economic governance, strengthening of democratic institutions, fundamental rights and good neighbourly relations. A new addition to enlargement tools, fundamentals stand for challenging areas, which candidate countries must address head on and from early stages of accession. Placing fundamentals, particularly rule of law, first establishes additional parameters of assessment, and heralds a demanding process of domestic reform.
This is indeed very pertinent in the case Albania, which has gone through a bumpy democratic transition, and shows weak progress in most measures of rule of law. International indices rank the country consistently low in the area of rule of law, particularly independence of judiciary and corruption. Nations in Transit 2013, evaluates judicial independence in Albania at 4.75 on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 presenting the highest level of progress, and 7 the lowest. Not only is this score lower than Western Balkans’ regional average of 4.50, and much lower than EU average of 2.35, but it has also deteriorated since 2004. Meanwhile, corruption has stood at a fixed low level of 5.25 during the last decade, which is also the second worst score in the region, and much worse than the 4.75 regional average for 2013.
The rotation of power, and the creation of a new government led by Edi Rama, after June 2013 elections, promised to push forward lingering progress on critical areas of rule of law. The European Commission has recognized that “the new government made a strong commitment to fighting corruption and has prioritized this issue in its programme.” Yet, member countries’ political exigencies and the evolution of rule of law criteria, on the EU side, have raised the bar. The stickiness of the problems throughout unruly democratic transition, on the domestic side, make it all the more difficult to tackle the issue. This will certainly be one of the most challenging reforms and one of the major frontlines in the battle for European integration in the years to come.