On February 26, 2014 the Peace Island Institute organized a panel discussion "Intergovernmental Relations among Balkan Nations and the European Union". Following are the remarks of H.E.Mr. Ferit Hoxha, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, during this panel discussion:
I am very pleased to have this opportunity to provide a broad as possible picture of our relations with the EU and the prospects of getting further closer to the EU. I would like to thank the Peace Islands Institute to provide this platform of discussion.
What has happened/where we are now: Albania is part of the Stabilization and Association Process —or, otherwise known as the stretched version of the EU enlargement process. SAP provides a comprehensive roadmap toward accession for the Western Balkans. Every country moves toward the EU through a series of steps, each conditioned on progress on reforms that is closely monitored by the European Commission. The Thessaloniki declaration of June 2003 – a decade ago – is the SAP Constitution. It sanctioned a privileged relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans, and promised no less than full integration into EU for all countries.
The yearly progress report produced by the Commission is the mantra; it makes a detailed yearly picture of where the country stands in complying with requirements and provides concrete recommendations.
Our relationship with the EU is more than two decades longand full of rich political, institutional, legal as well as economic and trade interaction. A timelineof the most important moments of our relations with the EUwould include:
- In 1992 we signed a Trade and Co-operation Agreement and Albania became eligible for funding under the EU Phare programme.
- In 1999 the EU proposed the new Mechanism – the SAP for five countries of South-Eastern Europe
- In 2000 duty-free access to EU market was granted for products from Albania. In that very same year, the European Council stated that all the SAP countries are "potential candidates" for EU membership,the “hat”you wear until you become a Candidate country.
- In November 2000, at the Zagreb Summit, the SAP was officially endorsed by the EU and the Western Balkan countries and a year later the EU launches CARDS programme, specifically designed for the SAP countries.
- In June 2001 the Commission recommended the undertaking of negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Albania. The European Council invited the Commission to present draft negotiating directives for the negotiation of a SAA, which were then adopted in January 2003.
- June 2003 - the Thessaloniki Summit, I mentioned earlier.
- In 2006 the SAA was signed. The same year the European Commission decided to start visa facilitation negotiations with Albania, which was signed a year later and entered into force in January 2008.
- In 2009 the SAA was ratified by all the member states and on 1st April 2009 the SAA entered into force. Within that month Albania formally applied for membership in the European Union, in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria.
- In 2008 we engaged and successfully concluded in 2009 into negotiations for visa liberalization. The new visa regime entered into force on January 2012.
In the meantime, our 2009 formal application, did not receive a favorable response for three years in a row by the Commission.
Lately,the 2013 Progress report found that Albania had made good progress on key reforms and formed a positiveavis to the Council. In December 2013, days before a EU council decision on Albania, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle told MEPs,: “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 established earlier. Granting candidate status is an important step, not only for encouraging Albania to pursue the far reaching reforms required, but also for the credibility of the EU. Albania has delivered and so should we.”
This clear and bold message was, unfortunately, not loud enough to seduce everyone in the EU. The Dutch parliament went on to adopt a resolution instructing their Prime Minister to say “No” to Albania’s bid, something we found incomprehensible and demotivating. There should certainly be other ways to motivate the most Euro enthusiastic country in the Balkans. So, again the “rendez-vous” was set in June, under the Greek Presidency. Hopes are high, stakes even higher and chances more than ever.
The larger context:Croatia was the first SAP country to complete the long journey to membership. It took a decade to complete it, but it shows the SAP is working and the promise delivered. Yet, in other cases the process seems too long, too complex and complicated, something that makes politicians nervous, people express doubts, the process to run out of steam and/or lose traction.
There is no doubt, Enlargement is getting more difficult all the time. The EU legislation – the acquis communautaire - that must be adopted by every new member state has increased to 140,000 pages. Much more emphasis is placed on implementation, and negotiation chapters are only closed if the EU is satisfied that the candidate country is actually capable of implementing the relevant EU legislation correctly.
We should all be aware that any loss of confidence will risk slow down the reform process. The EU has helped tremendously pacify the region, help build a strong regional cooperation network and by doing so, it has helped it come closer to the EU. Therefore the enlargement process should be kept alive and working; it should indeed accelerate because for the Western Balkans there is no plausible alternative to EU membership. For our countries and the whole region, the EU is the only game in town; it is an indispensable partner for modernization and economic development. The world is changing fast and there are new players around. But for us there is no need to look elsewhere. EU is the only destination. Any failure to achieve it, whatever the reason, would simply be catastrophic.
Pursuing integration of is also be important for the EU: it has so heavily invested and in engaged in the region and by the same way, exposed to risks, something the EU countries bordering the region only know it too well. The Thessaloniki promise of full EU membership cannot be amended or abandoned without a huge weight in terms of loss of that very influence the EU has worked hard to gain. A look at the map reveals that the Western Balkans are now an island within the EU.
What is the current mood within the EU:One of the questions many scholars, journalists, researchers ask lately is whether the Europeans have fallen out of love with Europe—or, more precisely, with the idea of building a Europe-wide union?A worrisome growing indifference to the European project has been noticeable for some time now. The economic crisis, with its uncertain future and legacy of massive unemployment, an easy political discourse in pointing the finger to EU structures for national failures, a younger generation less connected with history, all this has deepened disappointment.
There is no denial of the more tangible features of the EU, like free trade and more open borders that facilitate the movement of people, single currency that has facilitated everyday life. But there is little backing for a more united Europe. According to the Eurobarometer, half of all EU citizens are pessimistic about the future of the European Union as an institution, and 69 percent express no confidence in it at all. Two-thirds feel as if their voice is meaningless in the decisions taken by the EU.
Extreme left and right political groups are more and more loudly defining the European project like a dull and irrelevant initiative at best—and a dangerous, intrusive, and expensive one at worst. In more and more EU countries they are in a position to influence policy, enlargement being the easy target. And, as we know it: difficulties experienced with previous candidates become homework for the newcomers. So our task has become even more difficult and the only way for us to work hard, double our efforts and help our friends in Europe maintain the doors open.
But what is the alternative? Close the doors? Unthinkable! Back track while waiting for better times with better economic growth? Counterproductive! Keep the nice discourse but drag the feet and gain time? Hardy motivating!.
So, none of that is the solution. This state of blues can and must change. Europe has always developed out of crisis and difficulties; this is not the first and won’t be the last. Europe needs to once again seduce the millions of Europeans who no longer believe that the project of building a more united continent will directly benefit them as it has. It needs to remind the younger generation that EU represents the most impressive project the world has ever known and that the live and comfort they live in is less due to the success at national level and more to the common idea of a united continent in purpose and deeds. It needs to stress, repeat and make understand that in a fast changing world, any of the EU member states would probably face more difficulties and challenges if it were to face this complex world alone.
Based on the abovce, I would formulate the following Conclusions:
a. Despite the current mood within the EU, we wont back off, and the objective of integration to the EU will remain the top priority of the Government and people in Albania. We are fully aware of the difficulties within the Union, we know we have to work harder and deliver better, and we are resolutely committed to pay the price. The concrete European perspective is an anchor for reforms and the regional cooperation.
b. Our short-term target is to get the Candidate status net June. This is a must. The immediate next target is to open negotiations for admission, which we know will be a complex and difficult exercise, and a rather long-term process. The sooner we start, the better use of time we will make the more benefits will be for all.
c. Our region is full of history; it has not been completely digested. We have all become more mature, we have all learned by the past and we all look confidently to the future; the common perspective of integration to the EU has greatly helped overcome different challenges and historical injustices. This is what we call the transformative power of the EU. It is therefore clear that the Balkans cannot fully develop in peace and harmony without the EU; the EU, in turn, won’t feel fully secure and its project of an entire European area of peace, stability and prosperity won’t be completed without the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans area is not the backyard of Europe, it is definitely an integral part of it.
d. The Integration process cannot drag on forever. Enlargement fatigue could take a heavy toll into reform process and produce a reform fatigue in the region. The process has to be concrete, with measurable targets and be reasonably time-framed. The EU has been and it must remain a strong engine for economic development, improved governance, and progress in the rule of law in all the Western Balkan area.
e. It is important to avoid the division of the region in two tiers. The EU should therefore open accession negotiations as soon as possible, with all countries – irrespective of how long the process can/would take – based on the well-known fact that only accession negotiations have a truly transformative impact on state institutions. This is the very win-win exercise.