Loading...

Tag: European Union

Albania’s European Path

  • June 2019
  • Flamur Gruda

Albania’s European Path

Progress being made in strengthening the rule of law, yet the EU is seeking more

 

Source: Pixabay

 

 

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

Share on social media:

EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

Unlike for the cast of HBO’s Chernobyl, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet.

Ukrainian flag

Source: Pixabay

 

 

 

HBO’s bleak, bureaucratic miniseries Chernobyl has put Ukraine at the top of the cultural agenda. As Ukraine and the EU move into a new stage of their relationship, policymakers on both sides may well empathise with the series’ characters who cooperate to overcome inertia.

 

Indeed, EU-Ukrainian cooperation has been marked by division in recent times. In the economic sphere, European farmers have turned their ire on a Ukrainian chicken breast exporter exploiting a loophole in the EU-Ukraine trade deal. Out of the EU’s desire to preserve a key tool of Ukraine’s European alignment, the resulting agreement largely benefited Ukraine. Members of the European Parliament may provide serious resistance in passing the deal.

Recent elections both in Ukraine and in the EU have given both sides an impetus to reboot their efforts. Although concerns have been raised about newly elected President Zelensky’s populism, it is not the same kind of populism we see in the European Union. Zelensky, for one, is not a pro-Kremlin figure. Putin’s understanding of that fact underlined his offer of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region. A pro-EU and pro-NATO Russophone politician undermines Russia’s narrative that Ukrainian Russophones are loyal to Russia.

 

Zelensky’s political party is ahead in the polls by a substantial margin, before the Parliamentary election in Ukraine scheduled for 21 July. He can expect to have a strong parliamentary majority for reform ahead of the new European Commission coming into office. On the EU’s part, the feared populist revolution failed to materialise. Russia would have enjoyed the emergence of a populist bloc in the European Parliament, large enough to hamstring the EU’s action. In its absence, Ukraine and the EU are free to continue deepening their relationship.

 

This will not be an easy journey. The EU last assessed the implementation of the Association Agreement in November 2018. It noted that progress was being made, particularly in public services – pensions, healthcare and education. Energy is a key area of focus for both sides. Indeed, the Ukrainian Parliament recently ratified amendments to the Association Agreement, laying the groundwork for Ukraine’s integration into the European energy market. The spectre of Nord Stream 2 hangs over these discussions. It has been referred to as ‘Ukraine’s worst nightmare’, and sends conflicting messages about European commitment to energy security and Ukrainian economic development.

 

In addition, reform itself is a difficult path to tread. Challenges persist in anti-corruption measures, economic stabilisation, and the continued conflict and destabilisation efforts by Russia.

 

The Ukrainian public (excluding the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), according to February 2019 polling from the Razumkov Centre, has a negative attitude to the ongoing series of reforms: land, healthcare, pensions, education, judicial reforms, as well as the mass privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The poll also highlighted brain drain from Ukraine as a threat, calling for discussions on partial reimbursement for education spending on emigrants.

 

However, unlike for Chernobyl‘s cast, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet. Global Skills Partnerships are gaining traction in European policy circles to share the benefits of migration between destination and origin countries. For example: two Ukrainians would train at home. One would choose to stay and the other to migrate to the EU. An EU organisation in need of their skills would pay for the migrating student’s training in full, and also pay for half of the remaining student’s. The migrant worker would then commit to work for that organisation for a period of time and pay off the training costs with a fraction of their salary. Both countries gain highly-skilled employees, while their governments do not bear any of the cost – helping to tackle the ‘brain drain’ problem.

Although Ukrainians may have a negative perception of Association Agreement reforms, they remain positive about the European path as a whole. Data from the International Republican Institute, Sociological Group Rating and GfK demonstrate this. When Ukrainians[1] were asked to choose between joining the EU or a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, support for the EU fluctuated between 30 and 40% from November 2011 to February 2014. In March 2014, support for joining the EU shot up to 52% and has had majority backing ever since. Support for the Customs Union has become a minority opinion. The presidential elections have not changed this – support for joining the EU was 57% in May 2019. NATO accession has also gained some popularity after Russian military action on Ukrainian territory began. In May 2019, 49% of Ukrainians stated they would support joining NATO in a referendum.

Support for joining the EU finds majority backing among supporters of all Ukrainian political parties with the potential to win parliamentary seats, bar the pro-Russia Opposition Platform. The picture is similar for NATO. It wins majority support across most party supporters, a plurality among Zelensky’s party supporters, and strong opposition from the Opposition Platform. Although it will not be a straightforward journey, it is one that voters in Ukraine across the political spectrum remain committed to.

 

Overall, the convergence of Ukrainian and EU electoral cycles provides a window of opportunity for both sides to recommit to their cooperation. On the Ukrainian side, the government must use this impetus to continue with structural reform and anti-corruption measures while working with the EU to alleviate citizen concerns. The EU should remain a strong backer of Ukraine’s European pathway and resist the temptation of rapprochement with Russia.

[1] Figures from after April 2014 exclude Crimea. Figures from after September 2014 exclude occupied Donbas.

Share on social media:

What goes around

  • April 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

What goes around

 

Circular economy takes the centre stage in European climate action

 

Source: Pixabay

 

Two weeks ago, a washed-up carcass of a whale was found on the coast Sardinia, Italy with 22 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. The gruesome discovery was yet another indicator for why tackling plastic waste has taken the centre stage of the EU’s environmental action, with the new single-use plastic legislation coming into force soon. The plastic plan is one of the central elements of the Commission’s wider circular economy strategy, which can – if successfully completed – decrease the EU’s carbon emissions by more than a half.

 

‘The Council urges that the main policy foundations for a sustainable future include a decisive transition towards a circular economy.’ Conclusions of the General Affairs Council meeting on 9 April push for the EU to become a “trailblazer” for sustainable development by striving for climate neutrality and promoting safe low carbon energy. The Council recognises sustainability of innovation and health of citizens as the enablers of globally competitive economy and calls for the European Commission to use the relevant funding tools to support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, the conclusions highlight the need for a strong involvement of civil society organisations and the private sector stakeholders in achieving climate action goals.

 

Circular economy proposals have featured particularly heavily in the current legislative cycle with of many of the measures still needing to be implemented under the supervision of the next Commission configuration. Launch with an action plan in 2015, the EU’s circular economy strategy plays a crucial role in the bloc’s efforts to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and has so far resulted in 54 actions being either completed or under implementation in the member states. Over the 2016-2020 period the EU has pledged over €10 billion to support managed transition to a circular economy with a priority status given to the transition within the EU development and cohesion funds in the new 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework proposal. In March, negotiators between EU institutions reached an agreement to ringfence 35% of the proposed €100 billion research budget in 2021-2027 for climate-friendly technologies.

 

The most visible of these measures has been the highly popular proposal to ban and phase out single-use plastic within the EU. With the Council expected to grant its final approval to the legislation soon, the member states will have two years to fully implement the new targets of 90% collection target for bottles and new labels to help consumers to correctly dispose products. The measures also include the banning of certain plastic cutlery and cotton buds with plastic. Supported by the “Blue Planet effect”, the single-plastic use legislation has moved from the drafting stage to being in force within a year – a miracle in the EU, where the decision-making process is often measured in dog years.

 

The EU has set a 50% plastic recycling target by 2025, while some member states, such as the Netherlands and France, have more ambitious national plans in place. The Dutch plan, for example, aims to ensure that 70% of all single-use plastic packaging is recycled by 2025. Currently around 30% of the 26 million tonnes of annual plastic waste in the EU is collected for recycling, of which only about a third is actually converted into reusable material. As a result, producers converting plastics do not at the moment have a stable enough supply of suitable waste. One reason for this is the low local collection rates of plastic. Another is the lack of investment to technology that is capable of converting composites into consistent quality secondary materials. Improving these rates to the target level will require enhanced cooperation between public and private sector stakeholders in the member states supported by the EU.

 

Alongside plastic, a 2018 study by Material Economics, showed that by strengthening the sustainable circulation of also steel, aluminium, and cement, the EU could reduce its carbon footprint by a whopping 56% – or around 300 megatons of CO2 per annum. Globally, the UN has called for greater reuse of materials and recently published a study showing that extraction and primary processing of metals account for 26% of all carbon emissions.

 

Curbing the negative environmental impact of extraction with recycled content would significantly help the common European effort to reach the net-zero emissions target by 2050. Thankfully, significant progress has been made in many sectors. For example, around 83% of the almost 3 million tonnes of stainless steel produced annually by Outokumpu, Europe’s largest steel manufacturer, is made from recycled materials (the current European average stands at around 60%). Ovako, a Swedish engineered steel manufacturer specialising in effective scrap management, currently recycles around 800,000 metric tons of scrap metal each year. Both are signatories to Worldsteel’s Sustainable Development Charter, committing the industry to meet the UN 2030 sustainable development goals.

 

Cement, on the other hand, is in need of concrete alternatives. Since 1970, the global extraction of sand and gravel for concrete production has increased from 9 billion tonnes to 44 billion tonnes – a number that has only continued to soar as concrete has grown to become the second most consumed product in the world after water. Currently the second most polluting European industry after steelmaking, cement manufacturing contains high process emissions, is highly localised, and lacks obvious replacement materials. Nonetheless, alternative fuels and improved energy efficiency of manufacturing plants are readily available options for the industry to improve its environmental impact.

 

As things currently stand, available solutions can help Europe reach 75% of the cuts required to become climate neutral, according to the European Climate Foundation’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: From Whether to How’ report. Innovative technologies and approaches are needed, however, in order to reach the remaining 25%, which will require improved cooperation and increased investment from both the public and private sectors. It is essential for the next European legislative cycle to both encourage the widespread implementation of the 75% and support the research into the remaining 25%.

Share on social media:

Expanding the EU Green Card

  • April 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Expanding the EU Green Card

 

Taking steps towards European migration reform

 

 

There is no more migrant crisis. The number of sea arrivals to the EU is down 90% from the 2015 peak levels, but the crisis mode stubbornly lingers in European political rhetoric. As a result, the subsequent political crisis has significantly obstructed Europe’s ability not only to solve the pressing issues relating to refugees already within the EU’s borders but also to re-think its rules on regular migration. Europe is reliant on workers from outside the EU, which is why the bloc must facilitate both more coherent legal migration routes and the freedom for established migrants to better utilise the opportunities of the single market.

 

Beyond the politics of fear: decoupling regular and irregular migration

 

In order to tap into the politically potent feeling of lack of control experienced by many voters, European leaders have attempted to stoke the negative perceptions associated with “otherness” for personal political gain. Immigration has been successfully framed through the lens of security in European political discourse, which has significantly reduced the success of arguments based on human rights, the economy, and demographic effects of immigration. Importantly, as a result of this securitisation of migration, European policy-makers have been unable to separate the different approaches needed for managing regular and irregular migration.

 

Even the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in his contribution to the Debate on the Future of Europe at the European Parliament on 3 April indicated that security is on the top of his immigration agenda. Stating that the “EU must never again lose control like it did during the refugee crisis”, Löfven highlighted strong cooperation, strengthened control of external borders, and fair distribution of migrants as the three key pillars of a common European response to migration. His focus was almost solely on irregular migration and threat mitigation.

 

Despite the securitisation rhetoric and loud anti-immigration narratives, however, European voters are looking elsewhere ahead of the European Parliament Elections. A recently published European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study, for example, shows that many domestic policy concerns, from corruption and unemployment to housing and living standards, have overtaken immigration as key issues for the European electorate. Thus, despite the statements from Viktor Orbán, Steve Bannon, and Matteo Salvini, these elections will not be the European referendum on immigration. In fact, voters in Salvini’s Italy are more concerned about people leaving the country than coming in, according to the study. The European immigration debate must now move beyond the politics of fear.

 

Foundations of a European migration reform

 

The decline of immigration on the valence scale should provide an opening for those decision-makers and civil society organisation hoping to bring some much-needed nuance to the debate. From the perspective of self-interest, Europe needs immigration for its labour market, to cover skill gaps in many sectors, and to counter decreasing birth rates. Yet, in 2016 75% of highly skilled migrants to OECD countries choose a non-EU destination such as the United States or Australia. The current skill gaps in technology industry, for example, have been a prominent feature of European and national conversations on competitiveness and digitalisation in recent years. Speaking on the topic at an event hosted by the Center for Data Innovation in April, the representatives of Lithuania, Finland, and the European Commission all highlighted the importance of attracting tech workers to Europe and growing European startups as part of their respective strategies. Europe, however, has struggled to even keep its homegrown talent from leaving for the Silicon Valley or Shenzhen.

 

Another development that brings the need to reform the EU’s legal migration rules to the fore is, of course, Brexit. The approximately 1.3 million British citizens living in the EU27 countries are currently at risk of losing their European citizenship rights. The prolonged uncertainty of Brexit has kept these people in an unbearable limbo for over 2 years, even though the European Parliament (EP) committed back in December 2017 to guarantee the future free movement of Britons ‘across the whole EU’. There is a policy promise to be kept.

 

“They have to find a solution, and we are not going to let them off the hook,” said the New Europeans founder Roger Casale when asked for a comment, “the Green Card would be a way to do it”. The New Europeans’ Green Card for Europe proposal, which would maintain the rights of British citizens currently in the EU and EU27 citizens in the UK, promises a practical policy solution to the issue of long-term residents’ rights within the context of Brexit. Well-received in many member states, the EU Green Card would ensure that Britons with permanent residency rights in any EU member state would not lose the rights they currently enjoy as an EU citizen living in an another EU member state, including the right to free movement and the right to vote in local elections.

 

Expanding the Green Card for Europe

 

Combining the EU’s immigration needs and the precedent set by the EU Green Card, the proposed policy instrument could in the future be applied more widely to all third country nationals with permanent residency within the EU. In fact, this possibility was already brought up by the Chair of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Committee (AFCO), Danuta Hübner MEP during a hearing on 18 March. Responding to the Green Card proposal for British citizens, Ms Hübner said that the solution “can have a much broader importance” within the EU beyond its Brexit origins.

 

As the EU Blue Card scheme remains firmly stuck in the negotiations between the Council and the EP, the expanded Green Card would provide non-EU nationals with greater rights without diminishing the member states’ status as the gatekeepers of migration. Because the criteria for obtaining the Green Card would be the possession of a permanent residency permit, it does not interfere with the member states’ competence to determine who can enter their country and who can stay. Unlike for British citizens in the EU, the scheme could even be rolled out in the member states on an opt-in basis for third country nationals – in a similar manner to the Schengen Agreement.

 

After gaining a long-term status in a member state, third country nationals would under the scheme be free to reside and work everywhere in the EU much like EU nationals – be it for work, family, or any other reason. It would make it easier for non-EU citizens to expand a business, launch a startup, or move within a transnational company between EU countries. It would also simplify the bureaucratic process for non-EU nationals with a permanent residency to look for opportunities, move within the European job market, and fill the skill gaps and labour shortages that vary from member state to member state. Simply put, it would reward those from outside the EU who have contributed to the European society for years without them having to potentially sacrifice their passports in member states that do not allow dual citizenships.

 

This is obviously not a blanket solution to the issue of attracting skilled migrants to Europe, as that is mostly dependent on the immigration rules of each individual member state. That would require increased EU investment on legal migration routes. Commission-funded voluntary projects to cover labour shortages in the member states, tying legal migrations routes to Europe with returns of those entering the EU illegally (e.g. Spain and Morocco), and the so-called “Global Skill Partnerships”, are all viable options. Ultimately, the purpose of the expanded EU Green Card scheme is to ensure that the EU can grant the best possible opportunities for long-term migrants in a managed and cooperative manner.

 

This article was featured on the New Europeans on 5 April and on the EFF – European Future Forum on 8 April.

Share on social media:
Next >>
Close
loading...