- Michael Gove indicated Albania was an inspiration for post-Brexit Britain
- The Balkan state was responsible for just 0.1 per cent of European trade
- Almost half of Albania's population live below the global poverty line of $5 a day
Qemal was sitting in the shade of a peach tree in the village of Gërdec, trying to find a buyer for a dishevelled donkey munching on the kerbside grass nearby.
When I stopped to chat, the father of four explained he was having to sell his animal because he was broke. ‘There is no state help here,’ he said. ‘If you do not work you die.’
No wonder both owner and beast looked a bit disconsolate. Then I asked Qemal whether his nation might be a role model for Britain.
He looked at me as if I was mad, then gave a big gap-toothed grin. ‘That sounds very weird,’ he said. ‘This is a very poor place. The situation is very bad. Why would you want to follow us?’
A good question.
Qemal was sitting in the shade of a peach tree in the village of Gërdec, trying to find a buyer for a dishevelled donkey munching on the kerbside grass nearby
Albania is an impoverished Balkan state, still struggling to escape the legacy of cruel communism and infamous for crime and corruption. Britain, by contrast, is one of the world’s richest nations, the birthplace of the industrial revolution and mother of democracy.
Yet that is precisely the preposterous proposal put forward last week by Michael Gove, when the Justice Secretary indicated Albania was an unlikely inspiration for post-Brexit Britain.
Never mind that Britain has 20 times more people – and they are on average almost ten times richer; indeed, the Albanian economy is smaller than the size of Tesco. Nor that the Balkan state remains heavily reliant on small family farms while Britain is a leading global financial centre.
For when Mr Gove gazes across the Adriatic, he sees an alluring vision of Britain’s future if our nation opts to abandon Brussels in June. In a keynote Vote Leave speech, he highlighted Albania as part of a continent-wide free trade zone yet supposedly free from meddlesome interference.
That bemused donkey-vendor was far from the only local here to laugh at talk of Britain emulating their country. ‘This is just a joke, surely,’ said Donika Mici, the nation’s biggest shoe exporter with five factories and 1,000 workers. ‘You can’t want to be like Albania. We are a democracy in name only.
‘It would be crazy to follow us. You respect the law, you follow the rules, you start work in the morning instead of drinking coffee in cafes. We need to follow your country.’
There were similar sentiments from Zef Preci, former government minister and executive director of the Albanian Centre for Economic Research, who struggled to stop smirking at the idea anyone might want to mimic an ‘Albanian model’. ‘It’s a joke – we do not even have a model,’ he said, pointing out his nation was responsible for just 0.1 per cent of European trade. ‘We are like a colonial economy that relies on cheap labour and cannot exploit its own resources.’
This is not entirely true. Two years ago, hundreds of armed police backed by helicopter gunships stormed a mountain village employing 3,000 people to grow marijuana for the European market.
Almost half of Albania's population live below the global poverty line of $5 a day
After a five-day advance against villagers armed with an anti-aircraft gun, grenades, mortars and machine guns, the police destroyed more than 80,000 marijuana plants and 23 tons of cannabis. An official report suggested the illicit enterprise was equivalent to about one third of Albania’s GDP.
But certainly Albania has struggled to escape the legacy of Europe’s most paranoid and suffocating Communist dictatorship, which cut off the country from outsiders before coming to an end 25 years ago.
There are few visible signs of those 45 years when private cars were banned and even the number of chickens a family could own was controlled by the state, beside thousands of concrete bunkers littering the landscape and a derelict rocket-shaped museum to former despot Enver Hoxha.
Yet several analysts told me that the old mindset remains strong despite the transition to democracy, with endemic corruption and politics used often for self-enrichment.
‘We are still ruled by the past,’ said Preci. ‘People taste freedom but we do not have the institutions yet to deliver it.’
The country frequently belies its bad reputation thanks to its friendly people, fine food and glorious scenery, encompassing rugged mountains and golden beaches. But these deep-rooted issues explain its struggle to develop.
Club Med, for instance, gave up on a £50 million resort plan after a five-year dispute over land ownership, while the cheap flight revolution that transformed travel failed to touch down in Albania.
And one American billionaire gave up on discussions to invest in the oil industry earlier this year, reportedly fuming it was ‘easier to do business in Iraq than Albania’.
I apprehended one of the most notorious political operators in a smart hotel, a wealthy man said by local journalists to be more powerful than any of the organised crime chiefs. He shook hands, but when I started asking questions he just stared at me then strode off with his burly minder.
So yes, it may have an enviable top rate of tax at 23 per cent (a recent rise from the previous ten per cent flat tax, a progressive measure I heard blamed on the prime minister’s pal Tony Blair). But for all its quirky charms, Albania seems a strange place to pick as anyone’s post-Brexit nirvana – especially when growth has slackened; a quarter of the population emigrated; and almost half those remaining live below the global poverty line of $5 a day.
Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, indicated last week that Albania was an unlikely inspiration for post-Brexit Britain
In Ndroq, a short drive from the capital Tirana, I found 75-year-old Vushe sitting on the ground outside a whitewashed bungalow as she cradled a sick baby with sunken eyes. Nearby, an outside toilet stank of urine.
‘Look at us – this is no life,’ she said. ‘There are no jobs. We do not even have enough food to eat, so we go without bread.’
Over the road, her neighbour Serme, 64, was collecting firewood to cook dinner with her grandchildren. ‘We are poor people who would die to get to Western Europe,’ she said.
And there’s the rub. The Out crowd do not really seek to emulate this impoverished corner of our Continent. But they are struggling badly to define the shape of Britain if it quits the Brussels club, stumbling with each flawed example they pick from Canada to Norway.
Mr Gove highlighted Albania alongside other strange paragons of peace and prosperity – Serbia, Bosnia and Ukraine – because they have access to European markets without having to accept all those pesky rules from Brussels pen-pushers.
Yet Albania’s deal took six years to negotiate with the EU, which does not bode well for British stability. There is no free movement only because visa-free travel was rejected. And ironically, almost all Albanians see this as a stepping-stone to the full membership they crave so badly.
Ilir Zhilla, a businessman and former head of the Albanian Chamber of Commerce, told me they sought integration with the EU because they wanted the imposition of higher standards.
‘By joining we will get pressure put on us to drive reforms and do lots of good things for our country,’ he said.
This puts a different spin on that ‘Albanian model’. Yet for all the mirth this provoked from rural donkey-traders through to owners of the biggest businesses, the debate over Britain’s role in the world should not be a laughing matter.
Perhaps the Brexit campaigners should listen to Besart Kadia, British-educated director of the Foundation for Economic Freedom think-tank, which promotes free-market policies in Tirana.
‘You can’t compare the countries for many reasons,’ he said. ‘But we are acting out of a sense of inferiority to improve Albania – so they are not doing any favours for Britain with this absurd comparison.’
You would need the stubbornness of a mule to disagree.
Voting to stay? Then prepare to obey EU's every whim
By Kwasi Kwarteng
If the bookies are right, on Friday, June 24, the British people will wake up to find themselves committed to membership of the EU. This will be a momentous step, and there will be consequences.
The EU will rightly say to Britain: ‘You have had a long debate. You have voted with your eyes open and you have voted to stay with us, within the EU family.’
After three years of speculation, and a four-month campaign, those countries will have no interest in our ‘plans’ for substantial EU reform. Why should they?
Their attitude will simply be that of neurotic adults who have grown tired of having their time wasted by squabbling children. ‘You have had your argument, now please keep quiet,’ they could justifiably say.
Or, as the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee once said to the Left-wing intellectual Harold Laski: ‘A period of silence from you would be welcome.’
If the bookies are right, on Friday, June 24, the British people will wake up to find themselves committed to membership of the EU. This will be a momentous step, and there will be consequences
The truth is, if we vote to stay, Britain will have no bargaining position whatsoever.
The EU will be able to push through any policy, safe in the knowledge that we will continue to be members under almost any circumstances. There will be no more negotiation, no debate, no treaty reforms, at least for a very long time.
Not known for its lack of confidence, the EU will take an ‘In’ vote as a ringing endorsement of the project.
ANY subsequent British complaints will be taken as seriously as the whining of a small child in the back of the family car, crying as daddy drives purposefully to the holiday resort.
Many people in my Spelthorne constituency and beyond say to me that they were only voting to stay within the EEC, the European Economic Community, in the referendum of 1975. They ‘just didn’t know’ it would turn into the European Union.
Of course, they are right. At a time when we commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, you don’t need his mastery of the English language to understand that the phrase ‘European Union’ has a very different meaning from ‘European Economic Community’.
The organisation we know as the EU changed beyond recognition between the British referendum of June 1975, and the launching of the European Union 17 years later in 1992. Who knows where we will be in another 17 years’ time, in 2033?
UK Work and pensions minister Priti Patel speaks at a 'Vote Leave' public meeting in Birmingham
This is why, after much consideration, I have decided to vote to leave the EU.
Anyone who wants to reconsider the terms must surely vote ‘Out’. The idea that they will pull up a drawbridge, cast us out into the mid-Atlantic and never speak to us again is not credible.
These islands are not going anywhere. The EU isn’t going anywhere either. Whatever happens, we will have to have some kind of relationship with it.
Discussion, compromise, trade deals, arguments – all these things are part of an ongoing relationship. Signing up to the EU as it is, under the current terms, is simply a rubber stamp for the status quo.
Pretending that you can renegotiate terms, once you have signed up to the programme, is rather like trying to reopen discussion about your employment contract on your first day at work.
The time for negotiation is before you start work.
Once you sign up, you simply start your new job and try to make things work out.
If we do vote to remain, this is exactly the approach that I, as a Member of Parliament, will adopt. It’s no use crying after the event.
If we sign up, we have got to make the best of it.
We will do best simply by being reliable and obedient members of the club, on their terms which, of course, they can change at their own will.