Albania gears up for the EU no matter what – POLITICO
Edi Rama is the Albanian Prime Minister.
Eighteen years ago, at the 2003 European Union-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki, we were told that “the future of the Balkans lies within the European Union”. The EU has since reiterated its “unequivocal support” for the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, as summits are now held every year and the same statements have been repeated. But it might as well be 2003.
At the time, the EU’s watchword was “enlargement”. By now Europe’s unequivocal support appears to have become contingent, and perhaps the bloc’s internal bickering means that the promise of enlargement must be temporarily put on hold. However, we are not just waiting for the EU. We prepare for it and create opportunities for our employees.
I think the Albanians are among the most pro-EU communities in Europe. When communism collapsed and we were free to choose our path, we chose Brussels. Since then, we have done everything that was asked of us in our membership application. The EU may be unable to keep its promises, but Albania is still committed to European ideals, and we are likely to stay true to its founding principles, even after its own members have left them behind.
Our future generations deserve to enjoy the rewards of membership, but we are held hostage to the same historic forces of division that the EU was created to eliminate. The EU must recognize that it is losing face with its most ardent defenders, as our progress towards membership is blocked by a single strange collateral veto: Bulgaria.
The same uncertainty also applies to North Macedonia – which has gone so far as to change its name – and visa liberalization for citizens of Kosovo, who are now less free to travel than before, even if they have fulfilled all EU requirements.
But if the Western Balkans cannot come to the EU, maybe the EU can come to the Western Balkans. There are concrete steps that can be taken immediately. The EU can set up cooperation mechanisms that effectively establish some of the mutual benefits of membership, without arousing outrage from those who oppose our membership.
To this end, the EU can support the region economically through its economic and investment plan for the Western Balkans, for which some projects have already been identified. But more needs to be done, especially to ensure that the region fully participates in the EU’s digital and green transitions. These transitions are necessary for full participation in European economies, and we risk being left behind.
The EU can also help us keep our brightest minds with common higher education programs and integration into the EU education system, so young people can find better opportunities at home.
The countries of the Western Balkans could also be included in EU contingency plans, as together we face a potentially devastating energy crisis that could undo years of progress in the region. We must ensure that our citizens do not remain vulnerable.
Finally, the EU can take concrete steps so that we can more quickly implement the EU’s four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – in our three countries. Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. This is something that all countries in the Western Balkans will have to do if we are to join the single market, and the World Bank has said that it could add up to 10% to the GDP of each of our countries.
The three of us call this effort the Open Balkans Initiative, and this is something we have already started by appropriating the spirit and principles of the Berlin process. We hope to start the free movement of goods in January 2022 and open our borders by January 2023. And it goes without saying that Open Balkans is open to all Western Balkan countries whenever they decide to join.
This idea is moving forward in the agenda which is repeated from Thessaloniki and which forms the tangible forms of the Berlin process, announced in 2014. We continue to support and participate in both processes, but we do not want to wait until d ‘others say they are ready.
We want results – to make reforms and to ensure that our people receive the benefits. Supporting this initiative would show that the EU takes the Berlin process itself seriously, and we would be happy to get technical assistance to ensure that we meet EU technical and regulatory standards.
We hope that the EU and our other friends in London and Washington will join us and encourage others in the region to move forward as well. This is how we build support here and show that we are ready to be closer to Europe.
As the nations of the Western Balkans, we must look to our future – not a future that never materializes, but a future that we can control. A citizen born in 2003 is now old enough to vote, to be a full member of his political community, while we are still waiting to join ours. The last thing we want is for our 18 year commitment to drift aimlessly into middle age.