Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama was the first leader to express his doubts about the possibility of accession to the European Union by 2030, which was proposed by the President of the European Council Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum last month. Rama spoke right after Michel, at the leaders’ panel, commenting on the target.
“If what Charles (Michel) said would materialize in terms of some real steps forward… Not that I believe we will be in the European Union by 2030, frankly, but at least in some of the steps, that would be very good”, he said.
Rama welcomed Michel’s idea of interim steps towards entering the EU, stating that the region does not only need reforms and criticisms, which are necessary, but also some more consistent support.
The topic has remained present in the public in the following weeks. On 19 September, a German-French working group of experts unveiled a report that recommended that the EU should be ready for enlargement by 2030, which includes a series of institutional reforms.
The report also made it clear that there would be no shortcuts or fast-track procedures for the candidate countries, which will be required to meet all the conditions before joining.
This recommendation raises the question of the preparedness of the candidate countries. Whether or not the EU will be ready to enlarge by 2030 is something that will be seen in the next couple of years, especially after the 2024 European election. But can the candidates, in this case Albania, fulfill the necessary conditions by then?
Albania’s formal EU accession process has been slowed down in recent years due to the country’s coupling with North Macedonia, which was blocked by Bulgaria. Both Tirana and Skopje formally opened EU accession talks in early 2020, but held their first intergovernmental conferences only in July 2022.
The conferences launched the process of screening, aimed at determining the current level of alignment between a candidate country and the EU legislation, which is still ongoing. On 26 September European Commission announced that it had started the screening procedure for the sixth and final cluster of negotiating chapters, related to external relations, where Albania already has a good alignment with the EU.
In terms of the level of preparation, Albania is somewhat behind the rest of the candidates with active negotiation processes, at least according to the European Commission reports.
According to the calculation carried out by the European Stability Initiative earlier this year, based on the European Commission 2022 reports, Albania’s level of preparedness for EU membership on a scale from 0 to 4 is 1.6. Montenegro has the highest level of preparedness with 2.1, while Serbia and North Macedonia are tied for second place with 2.0.
Last year’s European Commission report on Albania contained relatively positive assessments of the judiciary reform, including the vetting process of judges and prosecutors, as well as progress in the fight against organized crime. Fight against corruption, freedom of expression and conditions for the work of civil society were assessed negatively, with no progress detected. The next Commission report is expected in October.
Legal harmonization possible, implementation a challenge
Ardian Hackaj, Research Director of the Cooperation and Development Institute and Coordinator of Tirana Connectivity Forum, says for European Western Balkans that, while screening and legal harmonization of Albanian legislation is advancing at a good pace and can realistically be closed for 2030, the challenge will be the implementation phase.
“Its success – and non-reversibility – will depend on the state of preparedness of Albanian institutions and on their good governance. Here, the recent developments, such as the suspension of IPARD funds following the OLAF inquiry, constitute an alarm bell”, Hackaj said.
In July, media reported that the European Commission had suspended funds earmarked for Albanian agriculture (IPARD) based on preliminary information provided by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on alleged corruption.
Ardian Hackaj adds that the second most important conditioning factor has to do with Albania-EU convergence and will depend on the financial cost of Albania’s “preparedness”.
“Cooperation and Development Institute judges that the candidate countries from the region can not realistically be expected to cover the cost of convergence with the EU with their own budget, nor through the current EU funding. To allow for meaningful convergence, our countries need earlier access to EU Cohesion support, which prioritizes social and economic development at the local level”, Hackaj says.
Increasing pre-accession funds has been one of the main elements of recent proposals to re-energize enlargement, including the European Commission plan announced by President Ursula von der Leyen at Bratislava GLOBSEC forum in May, as well as the Franco-German report.
On the other hand, Gjergji Vurmo, Programme Director of the Institute for Democracy and Mediation and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), thinks that this is not a question of technical readiness, but a political decision of the EU.
“For sure Albania cannot get ready for full-fledged membership by 2030 and this is something that even Charles Michel knew because he called for a political decision, which for sure is not coupled with technical readiness… something similar to the accession of Greece and Portugal”, Vurmo says.
He believes this to be true for all Western Balkan countries, not only Albania.
“Albania just received the screening report for the first cluster, which took one year, and we are just now reading what should Albania do in order to meet membership criteria….eventually. It’s a whole different discussion of the amount of time needed just for this cluster”, Vurmos says.
Screening reports for Cluster 1: The Fundamental of the Accession Process, were released for Albania and North Macedonia in July. Based on this report, the Council of the EU will set the conditions for opening the cluster, which covers the areas of the rule of law and the functioning of democratic institutions. To close the cluster, however, Albania will have to implement the relevant reforms.
Based on the assessment of the analysts, then, the country can reach a certain level of preparation by 2030, but actually fulfilling the most important accession criteria in this timeframe ‘might be an insurmountable challenge. The decision to enlarge, however, is always political to a certain extent, and the criterium of what is “good enough” level of preparation might change over time. Albania and other candidate countries can still hope that the decision to enlarge by 2030 will be much more political than technical.