Is the EU ready for Albania?

Job Verest discusses Albania’s latest parliamentary elections in order to test the country’s compliance with EU standards.

At the same time that Great Britain is starting their negotiations to leave the EU, and Serbia and Montenegro are continuing their accession talks, Albania is still in the waiting room. Is Albania ready for the EU? Or, better stated, Is the EU ready to start negotiations with Albania?

All major political parties in Albania are in favour of joining the EU. The same holds for public opinion. The EU can count on stronger support in Albania than in almost any other European country, while it is not yet even a member. In 2014, Albania finally received EU candidate status. However, Albania does not fully meet the Copenhagen criteria required to start negotiations. What can be done to start the talks, and what do last month’s parliamentary elections reveal?

The EU has repeatedly expressed its concerns about corruption in the judicial system. Moreover, it demands further reforms from Albania in the following key areas: public administration, rule of law, corruption, organised crime and fundamental rights. Last month’s parliamentary elections had to be free and fair, according to EU stipulations, before negotiations can proceed. How did these elections fare?

The Socialist Party (PS), led by Edi Rama, received 48.3% of the vote. Following the rules of the Albanian electoral system, where multiple parties can win seats in different administrative regions, the PS gained 74 seats in the new Parliament. This is an absolute majority in the Parliament of Albania, which is made up of 140 seats in total. An absolute majority is rare, where normally a coalition is needed to form a government. This makes it easier for the PS to govern in the coming years. However, it would be a good sign for democracy in Albania for the PS try to cooperate with other parties on different policies, laws and regulations.

In the months before the elections, there was no cooperation between the political parties: the Democratic Party (PD) and the other opposition parties even boycotted the elections after months of protests. They demanded free and fair elections, without Prime Minister Edi Rama, and they wanted to form a new interim government. Lulzim Basha, the leader of the PD, stated that the elections would be a façade, and that the PD did not want to join them.

On May 18th, unrest between the government and the opposition came to an end. All political parties agreed to delay the elections by one week, until June 25th, and that all political parties would participate. They further agreed that the opposition could appoint seven technocrats as ministers. In exchange, all political parties returned to Parliament to work on creating new bodies that would improve judicial independence.

Improvement of the judiciary is one of the key conditions for the EU to start accession talks with Albania. In this way, the work of the Parliament is seen as a step in the right direction. However, one new body cannot change Albania’s corrupt judicial system in one day. It will take time to remove corrupt judges and prosecutors. The EU should take these practical matters and necessary improvements into account.

Next to that, the elections themselves showed several irregularities. Although the legal framework in Albania provides an adequate basis for holding democratic elections, there were some practical problems. Many electoral staff were not properly trained. Furthermore, the OSCE showed that the Central Election Commission (CEC) was not always consistent. Albanians over the age of 100 were not automatically registered in the voter list, and mentally disabled people were not allowed to vote. These restrictions were not in line with international standards. Additionally, on election day, there were problems with the consistency of the inking verification process, proxy voting, group voting, and there were allegations of interference by unauthorised persons and of vote buying. Although the CEC operated transparently, as did the representatives at the voting centres, the observed problems need to be addressed and improved in future elections.

Is the EU ready to start negotiations with Albania? The elections were transparent and democratic in their framework. However, there were some irregularities and problems in the lead up to, and during, election day. Although the judicial system has been improved, there is still corruption present in the country. This leads to the expectation that it will take some time for Albania to be able to finally start accession talks with the EU. Considering the uncertainty within the EU, and the concerns among member states about countries that have joined too quickly in the past (e.g. Romania and Bulgaria), EU member states will be careful not to initiate negotiations too early. Until that time, pro-European Albanian citizens must stay in the waiting room.

Job Verest is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University. He was an International Observer during the 2017 parliamentary elections in Albania.

Photo by Floris van Bodegraven