The European Union’s lack of trust in the accession process is fueled by internal division, immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic and far-right populist politicians.
When the EU announced in 2014 that it has granted Albania candidate status for membership, European leaders were cautious in declarations but united in their policies. They were confident about the future of the EU as a political and economic union, and above all optimism was prevailing among both EU leaders and the Albanian officials, in regard to Albania’s European integration path.
Six years later the picture is different with the European leadership uncertain and divided on when to have the first intergovernmental meeting with Albania. Furthermore, the pandemic, which displayed the lack of unified response by the EU, may further complicate Albania’s EU accession negations.
Albania has been trying to join the EU since the end of the Cold War and has always believed that bringing the country into the EU fold will help boost living standards. However, some EU countries are the biggest obstacle to the realization of these hopes. It can be said that there are four reasons behind Albania's failure to start accession talks.
The first reason is anti-enlargement rhetoric in the EU. Although Albania is trying to make major efforts to show that it deserves membership status, some EU countries – especially Denmark, Germany, France and Holland – are prejudiced against this small country.
These countries do not take into account how their internal politics negatively affects the Balkans and the EU itself. Germany and Holland are among the countries that will hold general elections in 2021.
France's presidential election is also due to be held in April 2022, which will heighten French President Emmanuel Macron’s hesitation to open the EU accession talks with Albania next year. Frightened by far-right populism, Macron will surely push for tighter EU borders, increase his rhetoric against illegal immigrants, emphasize the need to reform the enlargement process and doubt the readiness of Albania to become part of the EU.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel could not make any promises to Albania on when the intergovernmental meeting will take place.
In 2021, which will be an electoral year in many EU countries and Albania, the enlargement perspective of Albania seems dubious. This shows that elections will play a significant role in the EU leadership's stance toward the intergovernmental meeting with Albania.
The second reason is the veto mechanism in the EU being instrumentalized for arbitrary or capricious reasons. According to the EU countries mentioned above, the problem is that Albania needs to make further progress on electoral and judicial reforms and in the fight against organized crime and corruption.
Regardless of Albania's efforts to fulfill the conditions set by the EU, the bloc continues to reiterate its terms, often meaninglessly.
The commission is a very neutral actor giving positive recommendations about opening negotiations with Albania while the Parliament and Council do not support the enlargement policy unanimously, which shows a lack of consensus among the different units of the EU.
As all countries have a right to assess the performance of candidate countries, even one country can block the entry of the candidate country. This right is used by member countries to advance their own interests.
This situation makes the enlargement process very complicated and political which structurally undermines prospects of the region. France is a prime example in this regard as it vetoed the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in October 2019 as it deemed both countries’ performance in the field of democracy and the fight against corruption as not enough. It is unclear which country will use this mechanism for what reason in 2021.
The third reason is political turmoil in Albania. Currently, the country is experiencing political conflicts between its government, president and the opposition that make the country more polarized.
One could argue that Albania’s membership process might remain a hostage to the electoral year and specific demands of members like Germany, Holland, France, etc. Another scenario that could take place next year is the rhetorical disenchantment of Albania’s prime minister with EU leadership.
Blamed by the opposition for the EU membership's "failure," Edi Rama will be tempted to turn the EU into a scapegoat that justifies Albania’s current economic situation.
In addition, there is a power struggle within the biggest opposition, the Democratic Party (PD), due to the declining popularity of its leader Lulzim Basha along with internal disputes and personal interests, leading to the formation of new parties within the opposition. Due to these challenges, it is becoming difficult to achieve a consensus on reforms.
The last reason is a reluctance to introduce reforms in Albania due to Euroscepticism. Of course, even the reforms that are introduced do not move at the desired pace due to fighting corruption and organized crime that negatively affects all parties in a country where political parties blame each other for the losses.
However, Albania has undertaken some major steps and launched many initiatives on reforms, especially in the judiciary which started in 2014 and is the basis of everything in the country.
On the other hand, unfortunately, electoral reform has been a longstanding issue and will remain as such even if some changes were made in favor of the government without consensus.
Reestablishing trust to reach a successful conclusion about the reforms becomes more difficult between the EU and Albania. Eventually, the lack of a membership guarantee is a problem even if all the conditions required by the EU are met. It causes the parties to use the reforms for their own interests, backsliding the progress.
Another year, same story
Consequently, guesswork is always dangerous since the future may not turn out as predicted. Indeed, as social scientists, we don't believe in predicting what lies ahead. However, based on the current state of EU-Albanian relations, one thing is virtually certain, 2021 will not bring the desired and long-awaited outcomes for Albania’s membership process.
Next year we are likely to hear the same story; promises will be made, reforms will be demanded, assurances that Albania belongs to the EU will be given. But actions will be missing. In times of crisis, the EU’s response to enlarging the union seems obvious due to a lack of unanimity, loss of trust and competing visions.
Surely, 2021 will be a difficult time to regain the trust of both Albania and EU member states in the accession process.
*Analysts on Balkans