Paralysis halts progress
There is a general feeling in Brussels that Albania belongs with the most troubled would-be members of the European Union, Kosovo and Bosnia, even though, unlike them, it has already submitted its membership application.
The application, made in April last year, was considered premature by European Commission officials and many member states, which tried to dissuade Prime Minister Sali Berisha from taking the step. It came two months before a parliamentary election and was seen as an attempt to boost the electoral chances of Berisha's Democratic Party. (The DP fell short of an absolute majority and entered a coalition with a smaller partner.)
Since the election, Albania's political troubles have deepened. The opposition has been demanding the re-opening of ballot boxes to verify alleged fraud; the government says that it cannot do so without breaking its electoral code. As a result of the stand-off, the Socialists boycotted parliament outright, then refused to participate in important votes, paralysing legislative work.
In July, the European Parliament called on the two sides to end the paralysis by setting up a parliamentary panel to look into the allegations of electoral fraud, but the two sides have not been able to agree the mandate of such a panel. As a result, the Commission's assessment next week will be negative, and it will not be able to recommend that Albania be made an official candidate or that accession talks begin.
“Political dialogue is confrontational and unconstructive, not least because of the political stalemate since the June 2009 elections,” the Commission says in its progress report, seen by European Voice. “This obstructs parliamentary work and prevents necessary policy reforms based on consensus, which are needed on the country's EU integration path.”
A Commission official said that the paralysis was a sign of Albania's lack of political maturity. The paralysis extends into society at large: a survey in October, conducted by the Open Society Foundation Albania, found an even split between respondents who thought that the opposition's demands were legitimate and those who did not.
Albanian officials say that the Commission's position handed the Socialists a veto over the country's future. “It is short-sighted to punish the entire country for the failure of the opposition to engage in political dialogue,” a source said. “The EU should offer Albania candidacy but not the opening of [accession] talks – that would send the right signal.”
Albanian sources do, however, concede that, unlike the factors holding back Bosnia and Kosovo, Albania's problems are almost entirely home-made. One of them is corruption, which is significant despite recent improvements such as the complete digitalisation of public tenders.
In the past few months, Albania has met all EU conditions for the lifting of visa requirements, a major boost for the government. But while that will make it easier for Albanians to travel to Europe, it has not brought the country any closer to the EU. Even if the political paralysis can be overcome, Albania is very far from the EU.