AIM: start

MON, 11 JUN 2001 03:28:53 GMT

Hard Way to European Union: Known Advocates and Unknown Judges

Tirana, May 31, 2001

When a Balkan country assesses whether it is doing well or not, it first compares itself with its neighbours. Since Croatia initialled the Agreement on Stabilisation and Association with the European Union on May 14, and Macedonia before it, on April 9, Tirana realised that the Albanian way to that Agreement is much longer than it thought. Actually, the establishment of a high-level working group between European Union and Albania, EU decided to form at the Zagreb Summit on November 24, 2000 (at which all EU member states and countries members of the Stabilisation-Association process participated), created a kind of Sisyphean stone which Albania has to roll up to the top of a hill called the European Commission.

In four months this groups met three times in Tirana and Albania has again found itself at the foot of that hill up which it should again start rolling the stone. At the Zagreb Summit Albania strongly insisted on an approximate deadline by which it could expect the initiation of negotiations and after that Summit did everything to get that information during Swedish chairmanship over the European Union, which will end in June, probably same as the promise it gave.

It can be said that this group's last meeting, held on May 16-17, was a true disappointment for Tirana. Not only because it failed to achieve its aim of setting the exact date of the initiation of talks while Sweden held the Chair, but also because Albania is now at the height of pre-election campaign for parliamentary election scheduled for June 24. After the group concluded its deliberations, Albanian Foreign Minister Milo summarised this disillusionment by saying that "there must be a difference between the wishes of the Albanian Government and the decisions to be adopted by the General Board and Goteborg Summit, but that is no longer up to us". The statement of the chief of Albanian diplomacy leaves the impression that Albania has done its part in completing this stage for initiating the negotiations.

The Government's coalition of the left majority wanted to start parliamentary elections with one international success - such as the opening of talks with the EU - in which it invested great efforts and diplomatic capital. The opposition might make use of this non-signing of the Agreement in the pre-election campaign to criticise the foreign policy of Government coalition, which is a sensitive point for the public. In that connection, the opposition presented its election position in the Democratic Party's main paper "Rilindja Demokratike", i.e. that with this Government Albania had no chance of signing the Agreement with the EU.

At the first EU-Albania meeting, held this February 12, Catherine Day (representative of the European Union and Deputy Director General for Foreign Relations in the European Commission) promised that meetings of this group would represent a way leading to the signing of the Agreement on Stabilisation and Association. However, at the third meeting held on May 16-17, she seemed less promising than at the first one. She only said that her commission would work on a report to be presented to 15 members states of the European Union, not mentioning any dates by which that report should be ready. The report should be followed by suggestions and appraisals of each EU member state on ways for establishing relations with Albania.

At all three meetings of the EU-Albania group issues of public order and safety, legal frameworks for customs or taxes, as well as regional cooperation were in the centre of attention in relation to which, realistically speaking, the Albanian Government made exceptional progress in the last six months and had been positively assessed in statements of the heads of various EU member states. However, conditions that have been imposed, and which range from methodology to environmental protection, despite the importance of these issues, have created an impression in Tirana that their fulfilment would be an extremely heavy burden.

After all these efforts, it is still unclear to Tirana what are the real reasons that Brussels is not giving a green light to the initiation of negotiations for the conclusion of Agreement on Stabilisation and Association. The basic explanation constantly offered by EU representatives in the work of the above mentioned group is that there are technical criteria that Albania has to fulfil for these negotiations to be launched.

However, this doesn't sound so convincing for Tirana when compared to its neighbour Macedonia, which had signed that Agreement at the peak of armed conflicts in that country and with its internal instability threatening the entire region, after it became clear ethnic dialogue, political process and political solution were urgently required in settling the unresolved inter-ethnic problems (one of the classical EU criteria).

Signing of the Agreement between EU and Macedonia was welcomed in Tirana, but also assessed as a political move of the EU towards expressing support to a country in crisis. The same explanation was given by official circles in the Albanian capital regarding the progress achieved in EU relations with FR Yugoslavia and Croatia, in which it could be observed that the political criterion prevailed over the technical ones, especially in the case of Serbia, which is considered to have done very little regarding democratic reforms in judiciary, the economy, army, etc.

To Tirana's question whether EU was applying different evaluation system to individual countries of South-East Europe, Catherine Day responded with a sharp "No". On the other hand, on May 21 in Tirana, trying to console the Albanians, the EU Coordinator of the Stability Pact, Bodo Hombach criticised some Governments of the region for "getting the idea that they allegedly fare better than others and could cross the road to the European Union more quickly than others".

Actually, the demands set to Albania by delegations coming from Brussels contain fields, lines and problems which require extremely long time or are realistically still unresolved in other countries-candidates for the EU membership or even those which have already signed the Agreement on Stabilisation and Association.

The more Brussels insists that the delay has been caused by purely technical criteria the less Tirana believes it. This is corroborated by the fact that one of demands European delegations constantly submit to Tirana is the organisation of free and democratic elections. Brussels has done it just before local elections last October and is doing it again now on the eve of June parliamentary elections. On May 17, Chairperson of the EU delegation Day repeated that the EU delegation was extremely interested in the electoral procedure and that EU wanted these elections to be organised according to international standards, making it known that the EU stand depended on the successful course of elections. However, according to the Albanian political timetable, every year there are practically some kind of elections in the country, which means that complaints and problems in that regard can be expected every year.

But, the most interesting element in Albania's efforts to start negotiations with the EU on the conclusion of Stabilisation and Association Agreement is the fact that in their bilateral relations EU members states have individually expressed their full support for the initiation of these negotiations.

It can be said that practically all more important EU members (Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain, Greece, etc.) have given Albania official promises to be its advocates for the signing of the Agreement on Stabilisation and Association with the EU. But, thanks to this support of the most prominent EU member states, as its advocates, Albania has not yet discovered what are the real obstacles and who are the judges which decide this.

AIM Tirana

Arjan LEKA