It is fair to say that there is little love between Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his main opponent in this Sunday’s election, Lulzim Basha.
Basha has long called for Rama to resign over corruption allegations, while his MPs even withdrew from parliament in 2019 on allegations of vote rigging. Meanwhile, opposition rallies got so out of control that protesters at one point tried to break into Rama’s office.
Polls see the two men side by side ahead of Sunday’s elections, though Rama is confident his Socialist Party will secure a landslide victory. That would see Rama, a former painter and basketball player, serve an unprecedented third term as leader of Albania.
But if there is one thing that Basha and Rama agree on, at least in public, it is in Europe and in moving forward with the highly stalled Albania negotiations to join the European bloc. Albania’s European future has been a key issue in the 2021 elections, as it has been in all other national elections in recent years.
It is a no-brainer, politically, to put Europe at the forefront of the debate in a country where a February 2020 poll found up to 97% of Albanians in favor of EU membership.
“We could be the only country where you cannot find any political force, be it local or even on the fringes of the political spectrum to be against the EU,” Gledis Gjipali, executive director of the European Movement in Albania, told Euronews.
But as elsewhere in the Western Balkans, Albania’s road to Europe has been long, winding and bumpy. Painfully slow, he has been frustrated throughout both by changing political realities in the region and, more recently, by changes of opinion in Brussels.
French Emmanuel Macron and Dutchman Mark Rutte have epitomized Europe’s reluctance to open books in recent years. In 2019, Macron blocked Albania and North Macedonia from moving forward with their membership offers.
Macron has his eye on his own re-election in 2022 and defying the far-right anti-EU under Marine Le Pen. He said reforming the EU was more important than expanding it, and complained about the number of asylum seekers coming from Albania to France.
“How do I explain to my constituents that the country where the majority of asylum seekers come from is Albania, but many EU ministers believe that Albania is improving and that we should start EU accession talks?” Macron said.
Albania’s message to Europe: send more carrots
The French president’s argument is that Europe needs to reform before admitting new members, and despite Albania being singled out, there are those in the country who agree. Not least, the EU needs to figure out how to deal with member states that met democratic requirements when they joined only to gradually back down once they entered, Gjipali said.
But backtracking by the EU when it comes to Albania and the Western Balkans in general is not a solution, Gjipali added. Despite all its failures and slowness, the path to European integration has often been the only driving force behind reform in the Western Balkans.
Without the EU carrot, political elites and authoritarian forces would only be emboldened.
“Unfinished business would not bring such crucial stability and strong democratic values to the country. The EU’s power of attraction is the biggest driving force behind the reforms taking place in Albania and the motivation to bear the costs of this process, ”he said.
In fact, politically the current unrest in Brussels has already benefited political elites, allowing them to blame Europe for Albania’s problems rather than the failure of successive governments in Tirana to pass sufficient reforms to tackle corruption, crime and the state. of law, analysts say.
Branch, talking to Euronews Albania this week, that the country had done its duty when it comes to preparing for accession to the European Union and blamed the European Council and the European Commission for the failure to achieve during its eight years in power.
Privately, critics say, Albanian politicians may prefer the situation as it is. Opening negotiations would involve a detailed public inspection of every facet of Albania’s economy, government and institutions and could reveal skeletons that many would prefer to remain hidden.
“Hiding behind the political problems and blockades that keep the enlargement on hold takes pressure off the government to comply with the reforms,” said Donika Emini, a doctoral candidate at the University of Westminster and a member of the Policy Advisory Group of the United States. Balkans in Europe.
The result of this has been that Albanians, and young people in particular, have become increasingly dejected about Europe and apathetic about politics in general, Alfonc Rakaj, an analyst, told Euronews. As elsewhere in the Western Balkans, it is Albanian youth who, fed up with waiting for life to improve at home, flock abroad in search of opportunities in Europe and beyond.
One of the reasons Sunday’s election is still too close to call, he added, is because many voters are tired of the same old faces: Rama has been in politics since 1998, Basha since 2005, and considers himself that neither of us has. it brought the change voters want to see, he said.
Meanwhile, Albanians look to their neighbors and see faster progress towards integration in increasingly undemocratic countries like Serbia, while prospects for Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania remain stagnant. It has not gone unnoticed that it is the Western Balkan countries with Muslim majorities, or at least significant minorities, that have languished, he said.
“For some, the inability of the EU to absorb the region has anti-Islamic overtones. […]Said Rakaj, “Albania has done more than Serbia, but it is not even allowed to open negotiation talks.”
Is it because we are Muslims? Asks Albania
That has been particularly acute as far-right forces in countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany have directly linked opposition to Albania joining the EU with fears of an influx of Muslim immigrants to European countries as well. as with the suggestions that Albania, being a Muslim majority Nation: has links with Turkey or other Muslim states.
“The main fear of the public elite in Tirana is the identification of Albania with the religious beliefs of the majority of its population and, consequently, of being prejudiced as a carrier of Turkish influence or something similar”, Afrim Krasniqi, former MP and director executive of the Institute for Political Studies told Euronews.
“We don’t see ourselves as an extension of whoever it is. We don’t feel like such and we don’t want to identify ourselves as such ”.
As the full membership of the European Union seems increasingly remote, at least in the short term, some have suggested that France and other nations opposed to enlargement might suggest a two-tier EU, with selected countries receiving some of the benefits of membership and not others. . This would not be the first option, Krasniqi said, but it would be better than nothing.
“In essence, citizens see integration as access to free movement, study, work, commerce and the same standard of living and democracy, and if this is achieved in alternative formulas, it would be an acceptable solution for us,” he said.
Others believe that the European Union backing down as far back as 2003, when Albania was first identified as a potential candidate, and denying all the work that has been done in the country since then could be another nail in the coffin. for the EU.
Even if it takes several years, full membership is the only way forward for Albania.
“The fact that the EU backs down on a promise and commitment made with the Western Balkan countries, where most of them have made painful commitments even because of the prospect of joining the EU, is detrimental to our countries and to the EU itself, “said Gjipali, at the European Movement meeting.
“In an increasingly globalized world, the EU needs to be stronger, more determined and less ambiguous to face the increasingly well-known and unknown challenges.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism