European Western Balkans
European Integration

Key findings of the 2021 European Commission Report on Albania

EU - Albania flags; Photo: Pixabay

BRUSSELS – European Commission has published the 2021 country reports for the six Western Balkans states and Turkey. Here we present the key findings in the country report on Albania

The fundamentals of the accession process

As regards the political criteria, general elections were held on 25 April 2021, following the cross-party agreement of 5 June 2020 that led to a wide-ranging electoral reform, in line with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations. Electronic identification of voters was implemented in 97% of polling stations, while e-voting and e-counting was piloted successfully in 32 polling stations in Tirana. The OSCE/ODIHR final assessment found that elections were generally well organised. The new electoral administration gained the trust of most stakeholders. Concerns remained related to the misuse of public resources or official functions, to allegations of vote buying, and to the leaking of sensitive personal data covering the political preferences of citizens. These cases are being investigated. Parliament continued to work under the restrictions brought in due to the pandemic. With regard to EU oriented reforms, Parliament adopted a number of significant pieces of legislation, in areas such as asylum, the population census, and the efficiency of the judiciary. Throughout the reporting period, the government maintained a focus on reforms required for the country’s path towards the EU, despite the challenge of addressing the negative social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the new legislature, the majority and the opposition will need to improve political dialogue and work together with all parts of society to further advance the EU reform agenda and accession negotiations. Coordination within the administration needs to be improved, notably regarding EU integration. The territorial administrative reform should be further consolidated as part of the wider decentralisation agenda. This is particularly necessary to guarantee local fiscal autonomy and empower municipalities to provide good quality public services. Limited progress has been made to implement the roadmap on creating an enabling environment for civil society. Nonetheless, Albanian civil society has been able to provide support and services to most vulnerable people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albania is moderately prepared with the reform of its public administration. It made some progress was made in building capacity in line ministries to implement regulatory impact assessments, adopting guidelines for public consultations, setting up the IT systems for integrated planning, increasing the implementation rate of the National European Integration Plan, increasing the number of e-services, and completing the testing phase to automate the payroll system. Implementation of the 2015-2022 public administration reform (PAR) and the 2014-2022 public financial management (PFM) reform strategies has continued despite the impact of the pandemic.

Albania’s judicial system is also moderately prepared. Albania has continued to implement the comprehensive justice reform, resulting in good progress. In particular, it reached an important milestone at the end of 2020, with the appointment of three new judges to the Constitutional Court. With seven judges in office, the Constitutional Court regained its necessary quorum of minimum six members to hold plenary sessions, thus being fully operational and meeting the related outstanding condition for the first IGC, which continues to be fulfilled. The Constitutional Court has started to fully exercise its functions, including by adjudicating on constitutional disputes between state institutions about respective competences. Progress also continued on High Court appointments.  The High Court regained its quorum in March 2020. With the promotion by the High Judicial Council of six new judges in March and July 2021 its has reached nine sitting judges, which make it fully operational – a condition for the first IGC, which continues to be fulfilled. Further appointments to the High Court are expected. The Parliament adopted amendments to ten laws aiming to further strengthen the efficiency of the judicial system and its capacity to tackle corruption and organised crime.

The temporary re-evaluation of all judges and prosecutors (vetting process) has advanced steadily, continuing to deliver tangible results – a condition for the first IGC, which continues to be fulfilled. Under the aegis of the European Commission, the International Monitoring Operation has continued to oversee the process. As of 15 September 2021 the vetting institutions had completed 437 cases at first instance, including all priority files. Of the 437 decisions, 298 are final (i.e. after appeal). Overall, 62 % of the vetting files processed so far have resulted in dismissals and terminations largely due to resignations by the assessees. The vetting institutions are expected to continue to continue to refer to the prosecution services all cases where there are indications of criminal offences.

The Specialised Structure for Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime (SPAK), comprising the Special Prosecution Office (SPO) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), are operational – a condition for the first IGC, which continues to be fulfilled. While the 2021 budget foresees the appointment of 20 prosecutors, the SPO has reached the first target of 15 prosecutors, including the Chief Special Prosecutor. The first round of recruitment for NBI investigators resulted in the appointment of 28 investigators, who, after an intense training programme, are now operational. A second round to recruit an additional 32 investigators was opened in April 2021 and is expected to be concluded before the end of the year.

Albania has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. It made some progress in strengthening the fight against corruption – a condition for the first IGC, which continues to be fulfilled. Overall, the implementation of the Inter-sectoral Strategy against Corruption is on track. Although the vetting of the members of the judiciary is an administrative process, it is yielding results in the fight against corruption as judges and prosecutors dismissed, as a result of vetting, are brought to justice. Albania has made further efforts to create a solid track record in the fight against corruption, although it remains an objective that requires political will and further structured and consistent actions. Convictions in cases involving high-level officials still remain limited, fostering a culture of impunity within the higher levels of the State. The specialised structures against anti-corruption (SPAK and the anti-corruption and organised crime courts) should significantly strengthen the country’s overall capacity to investigate and prosecute corruption. Overall, corruption is prevalent in many areas of public and business life and remains an issue of serious concern.

Albania has some level of preparation in the fight against organised crime. It made good progress to meet last year’s recommendations. It achieved tangible results in the fight against organised crime, including by stepping up cooperation with EU Members States and Europol – a condition for the first IGC, which continues to be fulfilled. The country continued to implement the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Action Plan to improve effectiveness in the field of anti-money laundering and the package of temporary preventive measures to boost its capacity to counter criminal organisations (Operation Force of Law) throughout the year. Exchange of qualitative information and joint police operations involving international partners further intensified. Albania has continued to show its commitment to counter the production and trafficking of drugs, as air monitoring by EU member state law enforcement services has continued. The new specialised system against organised crime and corruption enables reinforced cooperation between police and prosecution services. Financial investigations need to accompany systematically criminal proceedings. Efforts need to continue to increase the number of prosecutions and final convictions, especially at high-level. Albania adopted a new national cross-sector counter-terrorism strategy and action plan in December 2020 and made very good progress in implementing the bilateral arrangement with the EU on operationalising the Joint Action Plan on counter-terrorism for the Western Balkans. More efforts are needed to tackle cybercrime, trafficking in human beings and money laundering cases.

On fundamental rights, Albania complies with international human rights instruments and has ratified most international conventions related to the protection of fundamental rights. Albania has pursued efforts to meet its obligations under these instruments. As regards the adoption of the remaining implementing legislation related to the 2017 framework law on the protection of national minorities, it adopted an additional by-law on minority education in December 2020, which brought the number of adopted by-laws to eight. The remaining implementing legislation, including on self-identification and use of minority languages has yet to be adopted. Efforts are ongoing to implement a comprehensive land sector reform and to consolidate property rights. A population census law was adopted. Albania has some level of preparation / is moderately prepared in the area of freedom of expression. There was no progress over the reporting period. The atmosphere of verbal attacks, smear campaigns and acts of intimidation against journalists has not improved. Tensions between political actors and journalists have increased during the COVID-19 crisis and in the context of the parliamentary elections. The reported attacks against journalists have not resulted in any final convictions. Self-regulation in online media needs to be ensured. Steps to make the audio-visual regulatory authority fully operational need to be taken in a way that ensures its independence and legitimacy. The public service broadcaster’s independence, professional standards and financial sustainability need to be strengthened. Following the unfavourable opinion of the Venice Commission and wide criticism on draft amendments to the media law aimed at regulating online media and some aspects of defamation, representatives from the ruling majority publicly committed to ensure that any new legislation on media would be in line with the Venice Commission recommendations and submitted to consultation with media organisations. The government reconsidered the matter and the Assembly did not revert to the issue. The parliament and government resulting from the 25 April elections must uphold the commitment to ensure that any possible changes to the media law would be in line with the Venice Commission Opinion and submitted to proper consultations.

On gender equality, the implementation of the national strategy and action plan 2016-2020 on gender equality was hampered by a persistent funding gap.  A new strategy on gender equality 2021-2030 was adopted in June 2021. Albania should make efforts to ensure adequate state funding to implement it at central and local levels. Efforts are also required to ensure that all national strategies at central and local level are gender mainstreamed and apply gender responsive budgeting.

On migration, the legal framework on migration is largely aligned with the EU acquis but needs updating in line with recent developments. In February 2021, Albania adopted a new law on asylum. Strategies on an integrated border management and on the diaspora were adopted in 2020.  Implementation of the national migration strategy and action plan for 2019-2022 as continued, providing a clear framework for managing and coordinating migration flows and the Commission has issued four monitoring reports. Despite border closure during March-May 2020, Albania continued to experience a growing influx of irregular migrants, mostly from Greece and leaving Albania after a few days, on the way to other EU countries. The number of irregular migrants apprehended in Albania in 2020 increased by 13% compared with 2019.

The number of Albanian citizens lodging asylum requests in EU Member States decreased by 66% in 2020 compared to 2019, from 20,415 to 6,935 applications, according to Eurostat data. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed in large part to this sharp decrease, but it can be noted that the average decrease of applications from the rest of the world to the EU is much smaller (-33%). The ‘recognition rate’ in 2020 was around 4.4% compared with 5.3% in 2019. Since applications peaked in 2017 in the most affected Member State, the number of applications has fallen from 12,130 in 2017 to 2,985 in 2020. Three Albanian police liaison officers are deployed in the EU and a liaison officer from the EU works in Tirana to help with exit checks. The issue of Albanian nationals making unfounded asylum applications to EU Member States and Schengen-associated countries still requires substantial efforts from the Albanian authorities. In addition to information campaigns, thorough border checks, awareness-raising on rights and obligations under the visa-free regime, identifying and addressing the underlying reasons, dialogue and cooperation with the countries most affected have continued. The Commission is monitoring the trend very closely in the framework of the post-visa liberalisation monitoring mechanism.

As regards the economic criteria, Albania made some progress and is moderately prepared in terms of developing a functioning market economy. Hit by the double shock from the earthquake of November 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic, GDP contracted in 2020, although by less than initially expected. The pandemic-related domestic lockdown and international travel restrictions caused significant losses for the tourism and manufacturing sectors, but the economy started to rebound in the second half of the year. Within the limited fiscal and monetary policy space available, the government and the central bank took swift and appropriate actions to support business, households and the health sector. This cushioned the impact on the labour market and maintained macroeconomic and financial sector stability. It also pushed up the public debt and deficit ratios and increased the country’s vulnerability to external shocks. Dealing with the double shock stretched the capacity of the administration, but it largely maintained business continuity, and work continued on most ongoing reforms and legislative initiatives.

Albania made some progress and has some level of preparation in its capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forceswithin the EU. It has made improvements on energy and transport infrastructure, the use of digital communication and on education outcomes, but significant gaps remain in comparison to its regional and European peers. Albania’s competitiveness is hindered by a lack of entrepreneurial and technological know-how, significant levels of informality, unmet investment needs in human and physical capital, and low spending on R&D. Pre-existing and significant gaps in skills and education have probably widened due to COVID-19 related lockdowns and distance learning, which is not accessible to all. Regional integration and exports increased, but remained below potential. The lack of product and geographical diversification in Albania’s exports compound its vulnerability to external shocks.

On public procurement, where Albania is moderately prepared, the country has made good progress, in particular by adopting the new law on public procurement. On statistics, where Albania is also moderately prepared, it made some progress on aligning with ESA 2010 standards, faster publication, and the adoption of the Population Census Law. Albania is moderately prepared in most areas on financial control, where the country made some progress, notably on public internal financial control and external audit.

Albania is moderately prepared in most of the areas of the internal market, namely the free movement of goods, services and capital, competition policy, and financial services.  It has made some progress in particular by adopting a law on compulsory insurance in transport and in further aligning its banking legislation, but the State Aid Commission needs to be made independent and sufficiently resourced. Preparations are at an early stage on consumer and health protection, as the country made no progress on health outside its COVID-19 response. Albania needs to implement the One Health approach and to ensure that everyone has quality healthcare coverage. This policy cluster is key for Albania’s preparations to meet the requirements of the EU’s internal market and is of high relevance for early integration and the development of the Common Regional Market.

Albania has achieved a moderate level of preparation in many areas linked to competitiveness and inclusive growth, namely information society and media, taxation, economic and monetary policy, enterprise and industrial policy, education and culture, and the customs union. The country has some level of preparation in social policy and employment, and in science and research. Albania has made some progress in particular with the Smart Specialisation Strategy and in its participation in the Horizon 2020 research programme, but progress was limited on economic and monetary policy and customs union during the reporting period. Socio-economic reforms must be pursued to help address the existing structural weaknesses, low competitiveness, high unemployment, and the impact of the pandemic.

Albania is moderately prepared in most areas related to the Green Agenda and sustainable connectivity, namely the trans-European networks, energy, and environment and climate change. It has some level of preparation in the area of transport policy. The country has made some progress in most areas in particular through revised transport planning and energy connectivity. More efforts are needed to improve the performance of ships under the Albanian flag and to enforce energy and environmental legislation, not least in the protected areas. The green transition and sustainable connectivity are key to economic integration within the region and with the European Union, facilitating cross-border trade within the region and creating real benefits for businesses and citizens. This cluster and the reforms concerned have significant links to Albania’s Economic Reform Programme, the Commission’s Economic and Investment Plan and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans endorsed by Albania in December 2020.

Albania has some level of preparation in most areas linked to resources, agriculture and cohesion, namely agriculture and rural development, food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy, fisheries, and financial and budgetary provisions. It is moderately prepared as regards regional policy and coordination of structural instruments. Albania has made good progress in the area of fisheries, having reactivated the vessel monitoring system (VMS). It has made some progress on financial and budgetary provisions, on agriculture and rural development, and food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy, but the farm register needs to be set up. It has made limited progress on regional policy and the coordination of structural funding instruments. In this respect, inter-agency coordination for pre-accession assistance needs improvement, and issues need to be addressed as regards strategic planning, implementation and monitoring capacity of infrastructure projects under the Economic and Investment Plan.

Albania has reached a good level of preparation as regards external relations, foreign security and defence.  As regards the external relations chapter of negotiations, Albania made good progress and reached a good level of preparation, not least by adopting and ratifying additional protocols to the Central European Free Trade Agreement and by certifying first authorised economic operators (AEO). It has worked on extending the Green Lanes/Corridors with EU Member States. The country has also delivered policy measures on humanitarian aid and on development aid. The country held a successful chairmanship of CEFTA. As regards the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, it continued to maintain full alignment with all relevant EU decisions and declarations. The country held the OSCE’s chairmanship-in-office in 2020, demonstrating its commitment to multilateral cooperation. Albania continued to participate in EU crisis-management missions and operations.

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