With the updated reports of the European Commission released last week, the hopes that Albania can soon advance with its EU accession process are high. EWB discussed the country’s progress with the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania Gent Cakaj at the Western Balkans Think Tank Forum in Skopje. Minister Cakaj believes that his country has achieved sufficient progress to open accession talks, but remains careful about the dates.

European Western Balkans: Do you believe that Albania has good chances of getting the green light from the EU on opening of accession talks this month?

Gent Cakaj: First of all, it is important to emphasise that we have cleared all the conditions, that were also put by the Council in June. There were three particular fields that required further progress. That was continuing the vetting process, establishing new judicial bodies foreseen by constitutional reform and improving our track record in fighting organised crime and corruption. Now, the assessment of what we have done in this regard was provided by the European Commission, meaning that all the conditions have been fulfilled.

Nevertheless, I am not going to speak about chances any further, because what we are experiencing right now is, let’s say a gap between technical will of the Commission and the political will of the Council. So, we are really working hard to translate the technical will of the Commission into the political will of the Council, and therefore get the negotiations opened. This is crucial for us.

The likelihood seems to be higher because the new methodology was endorsed. It was not important only for improving the technical dimension of the process, but also for providing new momentum by ensuring some Member States with reservations and doubts about the progress of Albania and North Macedonia that the process will progress based on sustainable reforms and results and also, they are all instruments at the disposal to control the process all the way.

So, in this sense, we have two achievements – progress report and the new methodology, and based on the combination of these two factors, we hope that the member states are going to reflect positively on our case and decide to open accession talks.

EWB: Are you saying that there are now still some Member States that have reservations?

GC: We are working intensively with them and we have to convince other Member States that need our opinion on how we can move forward. It is clear that there are countries that are very much reluctant about the enlargement in general, but also opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in particular. I express my conviction that the situation will move at some point, but I am not talking about the timing, so I cannot say – “this will happen in March” or “it will happen in May”.

What is important for us is to continue with the reforms, be uncompromising with our domestic reform agenda, and also to communicate actively with Member States in order to transmit all the required information in order to present the case of Albania in the strongest manner possible and then we hope that European Member States will change their attitude and be more open to Albania and enlargement in general.

EWB: The update of the European Commission that you mentioned does recommend opening of accession negotiations with Albania, but it also says that there is limited progress in some areas. For example, fighting high level corruption, filling the vacancies in courts. Are these the fields some Member States still have concerns about?

GC: Absolutely, but we should also understand the interrelatedness of some conditions that were put forward by the EU Member States. For instance, we have the vacancies in our judiciary system because of the vetting process. They ask about the vetting, and, of course, the side effect of it is ending up with many vacancies in the judiciary. What is important is that we are working intensively on filling the vacancies that were created as the result of the vetting, but it is also additionally important to emphasise that we do not claim that Albania has no problems, but we do claim that Albania has shown sufficient progress as to open accession talks.

Different levels of progress are required to open accession talks and to continue with chapter 23 and 24 and close them off respectively. Commission was quite clear on this – regardless of the small issues that are present in Albania, still recommendation is positive, because analysing the overall context and relying on substantial progress that has taken place shows that we have made sufficient progress as to start our process of accession talks. This is not about denying existing, this is about affirming the sufficient progress to proceed further.

EWB: It was announced that the electoral reform will be completed by 15 March, which is this week. Will it be completed?

GC: We are working on electoral reform. Originally, if you look at Council’s conclusions from 2018, electoral reform was not one of the formal conditions. It was recorded as very important, but it was not one of the formal requirements to open accession talks. Later on, it happened to be a requirement of Germany, and it is very clearly listed in Bundestag conditions.

So, we have started the cross-party political dialogue and we are hoping that it will be completed very soon and we are also working on and are close to filling the vacancies on Constitutional Court and High Court, which are also requirements of Bundestag, and this will complete our engagement in two fronts – first of all, addressing the Council’s conclusions, and then additionally accommodating some of the Bundestag requirements.

EWB: What do you think about the newly proposed methodology? Will it be beneficial for Albania’s accession process given the fact that individual Member States will have more say within the process?

GC: This was very much important based on our experience. I have been dealing with this process for three years and what I could see and what was the source of many disputes was the fact that Commission was coming with one recommendation indicating that a condition has been fulfilled, and then the Member States were interpreting it in a completely different light. So, further engagement of Member States in the accession process also provides us with guarantees that the process is going to be more predictable and that the results are not going to be questionable in the period to come.

New methodology has been beneficial for two reasons. The first one is technical, meaning that the process is going to be improved, it will be more predictable, it will have a stronger political steering and it will become more dynamic. So, we have nothing against it. Negotiations are very important for us as they happen to be an instrument of domestic reform. So, to put it in different terms, maybe the process of negotiations is more important than the act of accession itself, because what is important is the transformation that will take place in the country throughout the accession negotiations. It is not up to us to decide on the content of the new methodology, but we appreciate it, especially the fact that the process will become more predictable.

The second benefit was more political, I assume, because the Member States that have serious doubts on Commission’s reports, on enlargement, and also on particular issues with Albania and North Macedonia. Now they will have more assurance that the process is not going to deviate or degenerate in a way, because they will have absolute political control over it, and this creates momentum to open accession talks in the time to come.

EWB: When it comes to the “mini-Schengen” initiative, there have been no further meetings since December, even though they were announced. Is the initiative still ongoing?

GC: What is important, since we are also gathering in Skopje, to create a platform that is inclusive, that is compatible with the Berlin Process which is of course in service of European agenda. Albania is very much committed to improving the regional cooperation with the Western Balkan Six, because the regional cooperation is not any further a matter of choice for our countries. Improving the political latitude vis-à-vis the region is an element that was stipulated in the new enlargement strategy, so we are committed to move further and do what is best for the whole region.

EWB: But there seem to be disagreements between the governments of Albania and Kosovo about this initiative?

GC: No, we are talking with the new government and what we need is a coordination in a regional scale, I think, and I do not think that there are tensions or disagreements over this issue.

EWB: How do you asses the current relations between Albania and Kosovo in general?

GC: Very good. We are now proceeding with deepening our bilateral agenda, we have signed an agreement which creates a basis for establishing the joint embassies. This will be very important in strengthening our diplomatic network. We have also established our first joint Embassy in Australia. And we are thinking about other options depending on our agreement.

We are also having regular government-to-government meetings through which we are developing many common projects which are in service of bringing our countries together and also releasing the potential of the development in the Balkans.

EWB: After the earthquake, the countries in the region showed solidarity with Albania, if you agree with that assessment. Do you think that this is the sign that the relationships in the region are going in the right direction?

GC: We have to see because I cannot predict where the region is going, but I can confirm our commitment to maintaining the European perspective of the region, and that means active regional cooperation and contribution in closing of bilateral disputes.

Since we are not directly involved in the most pressing dispute of the region (Serbia-Kosovo), I won’t say much about it, but we do support all efforts leading to reconciliation and closing of bilateral disputes, which is crucial for the development of the whole region and also it contributes to foster process of getting into the Union.