Albania’s European Path
Progress being made in strengthening the rule of law, yet the EU is seeking more
Would you rather have a constitutional court that is filled with corrupt judges, or a court that is composed of vetted and trusted officials? This is the dilemma that Albania faces, on top of the prospect of starting membership talks for EU accession.
Albania is a young democracy: its transition from a communist state occurred during the early 90s. The transition to a free market economy and a fully-fledged democracy has been difficult yet promising for the Albanians. The European Union (EU) officially recognized Albania as a potential candidate country to the Union in 2000. In 2009, the Council of the EU asked the European Commission to start an assessment on possible membership. On June 23, 2014, Albania was granted candidate status. In 2018, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission gave a positive assessment for Albania to start full membership negotiations.
The Council of the EU, however, did not want to proceed with the negotiations. Notably, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands preferred to wait until June 2019. They hoped to see Tirana implement further reforms – including judicial reform, and especially the fight against organised crime and corruption.
The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the European Parliament held a conference hosted by MEP Knut Fleckenstein, the EP’s standing rapporteur on Albania.
This conference reminded the relevant stakeholders that Albania had made progress towards integration in justice reform, combatting organised crime, and overall, had seen improvement on the rule of law.
Albanian Interior Minister of Albania Sander Lleshaj, Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Artemis Malo, and the Minister of Justice, Etilda Gjonaj, were invited to demonstrate the progress and improvements that the Albanian government had undertaken in order to allow for accession talks to begin.
What does Tirana have to say about its progress?
Some important steps have been taken by Albania in order to strengthen justice reforms and to consolidate an independent and impartial system.
Albania was a known cannabis producer and exporter. In 2016 alone, according to Minister Malo, more than 500,000 plants were seized by Albanian authorities. Albanian special forces, with Italian assistance, have been able to reduce those figures drastically. By 2018, Albanian and Italian surveillance found evidence of only 750 remaining plants to be seized. This represents a dramatic improvement and the success of the observation missions.
FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has launched its first ever deployment outside of an EU member state in Albania. This also represents a strengthening cooperation between Albanian and EU authorities. Minister Lleshaj highlighted that Albanian authorities stopped more than 20,000 people from crossing the border illegally last year, and this is seen as positive not only for Albania but also for the EU, as migration flows are being halted.
Albanian citizens show very high approval rates in social surveys regarding perception of the EU and willingness to integrate. According to Minister Malo, almost 93% of Albanian citizens support further integration and membership into the EU. This is particularly striking compared to other countries in the region, such as Bosnia and Serbia.
With regard to foreign policy alignment with the EU acquis, Albania has been 100% aligned with EU foreign policy positions. This is staggering when compared to current candidate member Serbia, which is only 51.8% aligned.
Minister of Justice Etilda Gjonaj; Photo: PS Alb 2019
CFEP: What are the main conditions to ensure accountability and transparency when it comes to the vetting process in the judicial system?
Minister Gjonaj: There are two main levels of transparency, firstly the vetting process has the same jurisdiction as the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court of Albania. If an appeal is needed, then it can go to the ECHR, the European Court of Human Rights for validation. The second mechanism is entrenched in the Albanian Constitution through the IMO (International Monitoring Operation). It is responsible to verify the candidates to make sure they meet all of the requirements. The Ombudsperson is also responsible to verify the criteria.
Albania is also the only country that has been required to have a judicial monitoring program like the IMO from the European Commission.
The main aim of the vetting process is to guarantee the functioning of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Albania
The vetting process Albania is currently undertaking involves three criteria:
- Inspection of Assets: all judges and prosecutors in duty are obliged to fill out and deliver an official declaration of assets and all relevant documents justifying their authenticity and lawfulness
- Background Information: to verify whether the person in question has (or has had) inappropriate contacts with persons involved in organised crime. Intelligence agencies will be responsible for helping the vetting bodies undertake this assessment
- Proficiency Assessment: to evaluate if the vetting subjects have performed their ethical and professional activities in compliance with the legislation in force. Starting from January 1st, 2006 for subjects who have had more than 3 years of professional experience or, for those with less than 3 years of experience, from the moment in which they started their mandate.
Albania has undertaken comprehensive justice reforms, such as the vetting process mentioned above, which initially benefited from assistance by the US State Department, the FBI, and the European Commission. The vetting process has been put in place in order to ensure transparency and build trust in the judicial system. Out of a potential 800 candidates, judges and prosecutors, around 148 have gone through the vetting process. To date 118 public officials have been dismissed and another 36 cases are under investigation. This proves that the vetting process is actually working, although slowly. The Albanian government has also doubled the salaries of judges and prosecutors in the justice system to incentivise justice officials to carry out honest and sincere work. Nowadays, justice officials are paid some of the highest salaries in the country. Minister Gjonaj stated that Albania does have the political will to implement justice reforms, as demonstrated through the vetting process.
“The implementation of the justice reforms is about sustainability in the long run, and also for the greater benefit of the Albanian citizens, regardless of whether Albania receives an opening date for accession talks this June, or at a later time”, said Minister Gjonaj.
One of the main sticking points for Albania has been the nomination of Constitutional Court Judges. Currently there is only one sitting judge that has been able to pass the vetting procedures. All eight other remaining seats are vacant, and this has created a constitutional crisis. Minister Gjonaj said that the vetting procedure would take some time and they are hopeful that the vacancies will be filled by July of this year. Albania is currently moving towards a more transparent judicial system and a high degree of accountability. However, they remain in the transition phase, which is inherently time consuming.
Has enough progress been made for the Council to give Albania the green light?
Both the European Parliament and the European Commission expressed a positive opinion towards Albania’s accession talks in both 2018, and the new report in 2019.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has urged EU members to start the negotiation process with Albania and North Macedonia without further delay. President Juncker of the European Commission has stated: “Albania made considerable progress on this road towards the EU. This is a testament of a determination and strength of the Albanian people”. Juncker also added that “any decision on the opening of the negotiation is based on merit and tangible results in the necessary areas, adding that for the European Commission based on an objective assessment Albania is ready for the next step.”
Edi Rama & Jean-Claude Juncker; Photo: European Union 2019
The decision now rests with Member States in the Council. The Dutch Parliament voted 105 out of 150 against the opening of accession talks with Albania. The Dutch Parliament has voted to deploy the ‘ Emergency Brake Mechanism‘ because of concerns about rising criminal activity by Albanian nationals in the country. They passed a motion asking the Dutch government to request that the Commission launches the visa waiver suspension mechanism. This could potentially lead to a suspension of Albanians’ Schengen travel rights.
The Albanian government has been working to alleviate the concerns of the Netherlands and the other member states, with respect to combatting organized crime. The progress against organized crime is highlighted throughout High Representative Federica Mogherini’s Report for the Council, and so this is clearly a top priority for the EU.
Inviting Albania into the negotiating process may create an impetus for reforms, which could in turn increase the level of accountability for the state structures.
Many challenges still remain for Albania and more needs to be done in order for Albania to join the European Union. The fight against corruption, organized crime, and creating a completely independent judicial system are the main priorities for Albania. Albania has taken heed of the advice given by the Council last year. The Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, during his meeting with President Juncker, noted “the EU should act geo-strategically, geopolitically, and based on the merit of the countries. If the countries deserve it, the EU should not deny it”.
Published by: Flamur Gruda at the Centre for European Progression in Brussels