Building bridges towards a common future

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What are the reasons for Albania and other Western Balkan states to strive for membership in the European Union? How similar or dissimilar are these reasons to the ones that motivated the initial six to establish the EU, the Coal and Steel Community as it was called in the 50s;  and later others to join it.

Was it the sense of belonging to a cultural community that needed to transform into a political one in order to preserve the inner peace, fend off external threats and play a greater role in the world.

I think yes, I could say it for Albania and the Western Balkans in general.

Was it the need to benefit from the Cohesion Funds that help build some nice highways which you can see for instance in Greece and Spain and also other expensive infrastructure?

I think yes:  many countries which had and have a GDP per capita lower than the EU average  have certainly eyed the EU monies to generously complement their own national budgets; the Western Balkans cannot be the exception.

Was it the need to rapidly modernize state and economy and fulfill the so called Copenhagen Critera adopted by the EU in 1993 and obligatory for any state wanting to join? Let me quote them: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for minorities; a functioning market economy and so on.

I think yes, a big yes! Especially for peoples that suffered under Communist regimes having a consolidated pluralist democracy, human rights preserved, separation of powers and free media along with a market economy was what people across the society most wanted.

The process of EU integration from the first Cooperation Agreements, to the Stabilization Association ones, to the candidate status and to the accession negotiations gave initially the impression of a great help. And it was an actual great help that coped with the enthusiasm of change and the relief of leaving behind a dreadful regime. At times, when democracy seemed to suffer or even serious deviations occurred, the EU, whether alone or jointly with the US, acted often decisively. This actions, though debated when they happened, now in hindsight are appreciated as the lack of them would have meant a dangerous slippery slope.

At the time of the start of the EU integration process of the former Communist countries there was also a widespread belief that democracy and an order based on liberal values were on the march and the world conquest was a matter of time and resources. Even an “end of history” was presaged. In the last two decades Russia and China spearheaded the affirmation of authoritarianism and in some other countries freedom and democracy seem in retreat.

In the Western Balkans there were, in the Brussels speak, two forerunners, Serbia and Montenegro or so they were called. By all credible reports centralization of power and state capture advanced well in Serbia in the last five years; now they have a parliament composed only of the ruling parties. Montenegro never changed government through the ballot box until very recently, eliciting comparisons with Cuba.

The last seven years in Albania have been the most deleterious for the rule of law and democracy with the ruling party not being content with state capture and unprecedented grand corruption so it colluded with drug lords in order to get the vote it couldn’t otherwise get. Inexplicably the European Commission spoke only of progress, of very good progress, during these years. What was explicable is that this international cover-up strengthened the sense of impunity in the ruling party so more state capture and more grand corruption ensued.

We will hear about North Macedonia from our co-panelists but what I know from friends and colleagues of our EPP sister party here is also problematic.

But let me focus on the Albanian experience with the EU integration. Not everyone was convinced with the Potemkin facades painted by the government propaganda and certified by Commission officials. First it was the opposition but it usually gets dismissed as the sour grapes having lost power. Then it was the non captured media (including the EU funded BIRN) and the non captured NGOs. But still not many were listening.  And then came help from the EU member states. First it was the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in the German Bundestag with their many fact-finding missions on the ground, aided by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office with their many independent studies which provided an alternative, non-pretty picture of the situation. Their government in Berlin couldn’t ignore it any longer. Other governments like the French and the Dutch followed suit and the rest is known as the famous “15 conditions” the EU General Affairs Council imposed in March this year on Albania in order to start accession talks. The new von der Leyen Commission has talked about “restoring the credibility of the enlargement process” and the Enlargement Commissioner is showing that he can call a spade a spade. Also the European Parliament has engaged with a good understanding of the situation. This is very helpful for the country’s real European perspective and a real chance of becoming full member one day.

But here are a few lessons learned:

1- While there is continuous talk about reforms one should not lose sight of the fundamentals. It is very important to bring food safety or telecommunication regulations in line with the acquis communautaire and also implement them well. But it is more important to live up to constitutional norms like separation of powers and human rights and push for an accountable  government. Basically care for the Copenhagen Criteria!

2- The maintenance of the Copenhagen Criteria and the undertaking of required reforms are the responsibility of the domestic actors with government, opposition,  civil society and free media. Without them assuming this responsibility no European dream, however attractive, can come true.

3- The EU stance has been criticized for paying more attention to stability and to deterring third powers rather than to the instilling of European values. While these concerns are legitimate in theory and sometimes misplaced in practice the perceived neglect of the Copenhagen Criteria creates an image of being in bed with the corruptocrats of the day. Nothing else can do more damage to the Union’s reputation and to the European dream in the western Balkans societies.

A European dream of developing Europe in your own country and not of buying a ticket to leave for starting a new life in some richer part of Europe.

Thank you.

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