Edi Rama and Ursula von der Leyen; Photo: European Union

Less than two weeks ago, European Union finally supported the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The process for the latter country, however, will not be completely straightforward – the Council of the European Union adopted a series of conditions Albania needs to fulfil prior to its first intergovernmental conference with the EU Member States.

The fact Albania will have additional work to do even after the green light of the EU was not unexpected. Last September, German Bundestag adopted a resolution allowing the Government to support accession talks with Albania, simultaneously listing conditions required for the first and second intergovernmental conference. All of the conditions adopted by Germany are now a part of Council’s conclusions, in addition to several others.

The conditions defined in the Council’s conclusions are somewhat disorganised, leaving the space for different summaries of the document. While the EU Ambassador to Albania Luigi Soreca has talked about four main conditions, leader of the Democratic Party Lulzim Basha assured the Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi that the opposition will contribute to the fulfilment of 15 conditions. Other media outlets have reported that there are 13 conditions.

EWB brings you its own summary of the conditions Albania has to fulfil, breaking down all what the Council has adopted on 25 March.

Electoral reform

“Prior to the first intergovernmental conference, Albania should adopt the electoral reform fully in accordance with OSCE/ODHIR recommendations, ensuring transparent financing of political parties and electoral campaigns”, the Council conclusions read.

The electoral reform has been a major issue in Albania for years, and 2019 saw heated confrontations on the subject, as some of the opposition representatives boycotted parts of the ad-hoc sessions on electoral reform moderated by OSCE Mission in the country. In December 2019, our portal warned that Albania, alongside Montenegro and Serbia, is approaching an electoral crisis in 2020 due to the lack of trust between the government and the opposition.

Some progress has since been made, as the representatives of three main political parties in Albania agreed to create a working group to develop electoral reform in January. Even though the reform was set to be completed by 15 March, its work was postponed indefinitely last month due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The next parliamentary elections in Albania are due in 2021.

Our portal spoke to Gentiola Madhi,  Research Associate at Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso – Transeuropa, who says that the electoral reform has reached an advanced stage.

“There are still few issues on which there is not yet an agreement among the parties, namely the depolitization of the electoral administration and the new electoral system. On the electoral system, there are four proposals on the table, among which one has been drafted by a civil society organization and backed by the parliamentarian opposition”, Madhi stresses.

She adds that there is a considerable international attention and pressure to have the reform concluded in a reasonable period of time and that she therefore expects the joint proposal to be discussed and adopted by the Parliament soon after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Albanian National Assembly, Tirana; Photo: WikiCommons / Pudelek

Additionally, the Council of the EU expects of Albania to deliver the final decision on the lawfulness of the local elections of 30 June 2019. The elections were boycotted by the opposition, resulting in a 21% turnout. The opposition claimed that the allegedly widespread vote-buying and other government practices have lead to deterioration of the electoral conditions.

Following the publication of OSCE’s report on the local elections, ruling and opposition parties have come out with different interpretations. While the government saw the document as a legitimization of the elections, opposition Democratic Party pointed out that, for the first time, the process had not been specified as democratic.

Another controversy with regards to the local elections emerged when the President of the Republic Ilir Meta tried to postpone them to 13 October due to the opposition’s boycott. The Central Electoral Commission claimed that the President does not have the authority to postpone the elections and they took place regardless, while the ruling party triggered the impeachment proceeding against the President.

In its opinion, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the President can only cancel elections for local government bodies in a situation which meets the criteria for taking emergency measures.

“It will be for the Assembly and finally the Constitutional Court to establish whether cancelling, then postponing the local elections amounts to a violation of the Constitution and whether the violation is of a serious character, which would allow for an impeachment of the President”, Venice Commission concluded.

Gentiola Madhi reminds that the Constitutional Court is now paralised due to the lack of members.

“The current highly polarized political environment in Albania will see a certain distention once the Constitutional Court will be functional as many conversing issues ask for an opinion of the latter. Keeping the nomination process of the new judges far from politicization attempts is essential to ensure trust in this top reform”, she emphasises.

Judicial reform

According to the Council’s conclusions, Albania should ensure the continued implementation of the judicial reform, including ensuring the functioning of the Constitutional Court and the High Court.

Due to the all-encompassing judicial reform in the country, which saw the resignations and dismissals of many judges, the Constitutional Court had only one member out of nine in December 2019. Now it has four, which still means it cannot hold plenary sittings, for which at least six judges are required.

The appointment of the three new judges last year saw another clash between President Meta and the ruling party, as the Socialist MPs accused the President of violating the appointment rules by choosing a candidate originally ranked fourth by the Justice Appointment Council and adding this act to the charges of impeachment. The Venice Commission was once again asked to way in, this time assessing that Meta’s actions in appointing members of the Constitutional Court comply with the Constitution, and that there is no basis for his impeachment. As with most of the controversial issues, the final decision on the President’s guilt will have to wait for the end of Coronavirus crisis, as the mandate of the Parliament’s investigative committee was extended once again last week.

EU Ambassador Luigi Soreca and President Ilir Meta; Photo: Twitter / @ilirmetazyrtar

When it comes to the High Court, the body now also has four judges out of nineteen. Three of them were appointed last month, signaling a possible faster pace in the right direction.

Of course, the most notable reform effort of Albania in recent years – the vetting process of judges – still has ways to go. According to Commission’s updated report on the country form March 2020, there have been 234 cases of vetting out of the total of 811. Overall, so far 60% of the vetted magistrates were either dismissed or they resigned.

Our portal analysed the process last year, noting that, despite the positive outcomes which are also recognised by the EU, the pace of the process needs to accelerate. If it remains on this level, the process could end in 2027, six years after the original deadline (2021). Furthermore, the lack of criminal proceedings against the judges or prosecutors that have not passed the evaluation process was also a concern.

In its updated report, the Commission noted that Albania has managed to set up new bodies for the selection of judges and prosecutors High Judicial Council and High Prosecutorial Council, which are now fully functional and have been operating
effectively throughout 2019.

Fight against corruption

Another centerpiece of the judicial reform which started in 2016 was the establishment of the Special Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime Structure (SPAK), which consists of Special Prosecution Office and National Bureau of Investigation.

In December 2019, first eight out of fifteen Special Prosecutors were sworn in, while the ninth, Doloreza Musabelliu, was sworn in on 31 January 2020. The Head of the Special Prosecution Office was also elected.

When it comes to the other part of SPAK, National Bureau of Investigation, its Director is expected to be selected soon as 40 applications have come in, after which they were shortlisted to 18. The screening process is currently ongoing.

That SPAK is being taken seriously is evidenced by the fact that the opposition has demanded it to launch investigations into six Socialist Party ministers and mayors in relation to last year’s earthquake, while President Meta has also field a complaint with SPAK against the Chairman of the Council of Justice Appointments, Ardian Dvorani. The refusal of SPAK to investigate alleged vote rigging in the Dibra local election in 2016 garnered controversy in January.

Members of SPAK take their oath in December 2019; Photo: President of Albania

The Council of the EU has made it clear that, in addition to setting up the anti-corruption bodies, Albania will have to demonstrate a track record of dealing with corruption cases, including initiation of criminal procedures against judges and prosecutors accused of criminal conduct during the vetting process, initiation of proceedings against those accused of vote buying, as well as against high ranking public officials and politicians.

“Further efforts towards establishing a solid track record in the fight against corruption have been made, although it remains a long-term objective that continues to require further structured and consistent efforts. While the number of ongoing investigations remains high, to date, final convictions in cases involving high-level officials remain limited”, assessed the Commission in its updated report.

Fight against organised crime

Another track record Albania will have to demonstrate is the fight against organised crime on all levels. According to the Commission, in the past several months, cooperation with EU Member States and Europol further intensified, leading to successful large-scale law enforcement operations and the arrest of notorious members of organised criminal groups.

“A number of important indictments and convictions also took place, involving major organised criminal groups’ leaders”, the Commission wrote in its updated report, listing a number of examples mostly involving drug trafficking.

Another issue related to security and home affairs explicitly addressed in the Council’s conclusions is tackling the the phenomenon of unfounded asylum applications. According to Eurostat’s data for 2019, Albania is the eleventh non-EU member state with most asylum applications in EU countries, with 16 600 in that year. Asylum applications from Albania top the list of total applications in Ireland, with 970, and are the second largest group in France, behind Afghanistan. Fortunately for Albania, the number is on the decrease for the second year in the row, though it will still have to be lowered.

According to the Council, Albania is also expected to implement the action plan to address the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations. The global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog has put Albania on its increased monitoring list in February this year, which means that the country has committed to resolve swiftly the identified strategic deficiencies within agreed timeframes.

Other issues

One of the biggest political controversies last year centered around the “anti-defamation package” of media laws, adopted by the Parliament in December. The President originally refused to sign the bill into law and the journalists protested the government-proposed legislation on the streets. Now the Council expects amending the media law in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission.

“The so-called ‘anti-defamation package’ introduces restrictive measures to the freedom of information in Albania, by means of adopting a mandatory registration of online media outlets and provision of administrative bodies with extensive powers which go beyond their mandate, specifically by levying heavy fines and closure of these online outlets. The initiative relies on the government’s intention to fight against disinformation, although in this regard there has been a certain ‘abuse of power’ also from the latter on the extent to which the anti-defamation package content was sold to the general public as in line with the recommendations of EU and Council of Europe”, explains Gentiola Madhi for our portal.

She reminds that, following the heated debate on the issue and the growing pressure, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly brought the case to the Venice Commission to assess the constitutionality of this law. The third opinion of the Venice Commission relevant to the Council’s conclusions on Alabania was to be issued on 21 March but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been postponed for later in June.

The rest of the conditions set out by the Council concern the long-standing reform efforts, including achieving tangible progress regarding reform of public administration and further progress in the adoption of the remaining implementing legislation related to the 2017 framework law on the protection of national minorities.

The Council, finally, expects Albania to adopt the law on the population census in accordance with the Council of Europe recommendations, and to advance the process of registration of properties.

When it comes to the public administration reform, the Commission gave its most recent assessment of this field in its last year’s annual Report on Albania.

“Albania is moderately prepared in what concerns the reform of its public administration. Efforts continued in several related areas, resulting in some progress in the efficiency and transparency of public services delivery, improving the regulatory framework on impact assessment of policies, more transparent recruitment procedures, and the overall strengthening of the administration’s capacity to undertake merit-based civil service procedures”, the Commission assessed back then.

Following the pandemic, the most important event for Albania will be the release of this year’s Commission Report, in which all of the conditions listed by the Council will receive a fresh evaluation. They will also be included in the negotiating framework for Albania which is expected to be adopted by the Council later this year.