“This is the most positive [EC] report ever published for Albania” – declared the deputy PM of Albania a day after the publishing of EC Report.
EC reports have been often criticized for their soft wording and tendency to sweeten the progress of enlargement countries in order to prevent the misuse of its eventual criticism by Euroskeptic or xenophobic political actors. Yet, by overthinking the possibility for misuse of its criticism, the EU may well end up doing precisely what anti-EU players want to achieve – undermining the credibility of EC reports. Additionally, such framing further drives away those in the region who still trust the EU’s promise for a transformative, predictable, and merit-based process of rapprochement.
“In some cases, the number of views received on the government online portal for public consultation has been reported by institutions as “number of consulted participants” … Some institutions launch public consultations for most of their draft-laws during summer holidays … There have been cases when the list of consulted citizens has included individuals who were not alive at the time of the public consultation.”
This is not what the current EC report for Albania raised as a concern regarding public consultations. Instead, it is evidence from a study which shows that the challenges of public consultations in Albania go well beyond EC’s findings that ‘the legal framework on public consultation is generally in line with European standards’ or that the ‘the scope of the Law on public consultation still needs to be extended to cover implementing legislation.’ By failing to acknowledge the above stated tricks and malpractices, EC recommendations cannot address the fact that discretionary powers of Albanian authorities on ’if, when, whom, and how to consult’ have eroded trust in public consultations.
Another example are the findings of EC 2023 report on the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance for Rural Development(IPARD II) which praise Albania’s efforts in developing administrative capacities for this instrument, but fail to report on one of the most worrying developments this year, the suspension of IPARD payments due to corruption. This was taken by the Commission as a preventive measure, following an investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on suspected misuse of funds. It remains unclear why the same Commission that suspended these funds found it irrelevant to mention this in its country report for Albania. This will likely affect the very capacities that EC praised the country for under Chapter 11 – Agriculture and rural development.
Albania is hoping to open EU negotiations on the Fundamentals Cluster soon. For this, the country needs to show progress and a commitment to address critical feedback. Considering the extent of reforms and the range of sectors that EU accession impacts in enlargement countries, the process also requires the mobilization of all possible resources, societal capacities, and support to make accession truly transformative, a box ticking formality exercise will not cut it.
Overall, Albania noted limited to some progress in the vast majority of areas which did not alter significantly the number of chapters with more advanced level of preparation. Namely, in 2023 Albania is moderately prepared in 15 chapters, shows a good level of preparation in the usual 2 chapters (Cluster 6 - external relations and CFSD) and moderate to good level of preparation in another 3 chapters under the existence of a functioning market economy (Economic and monetary policy; Financial services; and Energy). For almost a third of the negotiation chapters Albania has some level of preparation (8) or is between some to moderate level (4) while it still remains at early stage for 1 chapter (consumer and health protection).
Cluster I (Fundamentals) chapters and functioning of democratic institutions (FDI) areas display a mixed picture with most of them being between some and moderate level of preparation. According to the EC 2023 report, Albania is performing best on Cluster 6 chapters (good level of preparation for both chapters). Cluster 2 and 3 display a mixed picture where preparedness varies from some level of preparation, moderate, and moderate to good level of preparedness. Lastly, Clusters 4 and 5 display most the challenges as a significant number of chapters under these clusters are at a stage that is not higher than “some level of preparation”.
Albania needs to work harder to meet the expectations of the Cluster I chapters and FDIs. Results in judicial reform are recognized by the EC report but the country needs to further step up its efforts. The Special Prosecution against corruption and organized crime (SPAK) has delivered on several high-profile cases involving ministers, deputy PM, MPs, mayors, and other high profile officials. These results have made SPAK the most trusted judicial body by nearly 50% of Albanians. However, corruption remains an area of serious concern and Albania shows some level of preparation in this regard. The country report underlines some of the challenges and measures needed to address the phenomenon, but doesn’t go as far as the 2023 Communication on EU enlargement Policy which speaks about state capture and oligarchs, or successful attempts by organized criminal networks with political backing to infiltrate the economy, institutions, and fundamental processes such as lawmaking. The EC report choses to ignore such serious concerns which have been evidenced by civil society studies, media investigative reports, and even successful SPAK convictions and other cases pending final court decisions.
Several challenges in the area of freedom of expression and civil society are also mentioned by the EC . Yet, the report makes no mention of the shrinking civic space or its consequences which persistently discourage stakeholder and citizens participation. The reoccurring leaks of personal data and the lack of appropriate investigation not only pose a threat to ordinary citizens, but they encourage misuse for political gains and even criminal interests, as shown by the latest TIMS data leak.
Lastly, the report truthfully underlines concerns with weak parliamentary oversight or threats to media freedom – some of the most important accountability instruments on paper. However, the report repeatedly fails to point out the responsibility of the political majority (Government) and the alarming actions it has taken to incapacitate key players (opposition, independent institutions, journalists, activists etc.) from making full use of accountability processes.
EC reports and the EU need to be reminded that government enthusiasm for reform is important, but broad societal involvement is even more essential for a meaningful and truly transformative accession process.