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Albania 2030 target: Criteria unlikely to be met, EU political decision could pave way for membership

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Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was the first leader to express doubts about the possibility of joining the European Union by 2030, which was propose by European Council President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum last month. Rama spoke just after Michel, at the leaders’ panel, commenting on the objective.

“If what Charles (Michel) said materialized in terms of real progress… Not that I believe we will be in the European Union by 2030, frankly, but at least in certain stages, that would be very good” , he said.

Rama welcomed Michel’s idea of ​​interim measures towards EU membership, saying the region not only needs reforms and criticism, which are necessary, but also more consistent support.

The subject remained present in the public in the weeks that followed. On September 19, a Franco-German working group of experts unveiled a report which recommended that the EU be ready for enlargement by 2030, which includes a series of institutional reforms.

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The report also makes it clear that there will be no shortcuts or fast-track procedures for candidate countries, which will have to meet all conditions before joining.

This recommendation raises the question of the preparation of candidate countries. We will see in the coming years whether or not the EU will be ready to enlarge by 2030, particularly after the European elections of 2024. But will the candidates, in this case Albania, be able to fill in by Are there the necessary conditions?

Albania’s formal EU accession process has been slowed in recent years due to the country’s coupling with North Macedonia, blocked by Bulgaria. Tirana and Skopje officially opened EU accession negotiations in early 2020, but only held their first intergovernmental conferences in July 2022.

The conferences launched the selection process, aimed at determining the current level of alignment between a candidate country and EU legislation, which is still ongoing. On September 26, the European Commission announced that it had launched the selection procedure for the sixth and final group of negotiating chapters, related to external relations, in which Albania already shows good alignment with the EU.

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In terms of readiness level, Albania lags somewhat behind other candidates with active negotiation processes, at least according to European Commission reports.

According to the calculation carried out earlier this year by the European Stability Initiative, based on the 2022 reports of the European Commission, Albania’s level of readiness for EU membership on a scale of 0 to 4 is 1.6. Montenegro has the highest readiness level 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 reform of the justice system, including the selection process for judges and prosecutors, as well as progress in the fight against organized crime. The fight against corruption, freedom of expression and the working conditions of civil society were assessed negatively, with no progress detected. The Commission’s next report is expected in October.

Legal harmonization possible, implementation a challenge

Ardian Hackajresearch director of the Institute for Cooperation and Development and coordinator of the Tirana Connectivity Forum, declares for European Western Balkans that, although the review and legal harmonization of Albanian legislation is progressing at a good pace and can reasonably be completed by 2030, the challenge will be the implementation phase.

“Its success – and its irreversible nature – will depend on the preparedness of Albanian institutions and their good governance. In this area, recent developments, such as the suspension of IPARD funds following the OLAF investigation, constitute a wake-up call,” said Hackaj.

In July, media reported that the European Commission had suspended funds for Albanian agriculture (IPARD) based on preliminary information provided by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on allegations of corruption.

Ardian Hackaj adds that the second most important conditional factor concerns Albania-EU convergence and will depend on the financial cost of Albania’s “readiness”.

“The Institute for Cooperation and Development believes that it is not realistic to expect candidate countries in the region to cover the cost of convergence with the EU with their own budgets, nor with funding current EU. To enable meaningful convergence, our countries need faster access to EU cohesion support, which prioritizes social and economic development at the local level,” says Hackaj.

Increasing pre-accession funds has been a key element of recent proposals to reinvigorate enlargement, including the European Commission’s plan announced by President Ursula von der Leyen at the GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava in May, as well as than the Franco-German relationship.

On the other hand, Gjergji Vurmoprogram director of the Institute for Democracy and Mediation and member of the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG), believes that this is not a question of technical preparation, but a decision EU policy.

“Albania certainly cannot prepare for full membership by 2030 and this is something that even Charles Michel knew because he called for a political decision, which is certainly not accompanied by preparation technical… something similar to the accession of Greece and Portugal. “, says Vurmo.

He believes this is true for all Western Balkan countries, not just Albania.

“Albania has just received the selection report for the first cluster, which took a year, and we are reading what Albania should do to meet the membership criteria… eventually. It’s a whole other discussion on how much time is needed just for this cluster,” says Vurmos.

Screening reports for Group 1: Fundamentals of the Accession Process were published for Albania and North Macedonia in July. Based on this report, the EU Council will set the conditions for opening the cluster, which covers the areas of the rule of law and the functioning of democratic institutions. However, to close the cluster, Albania will need to implement the necessary reforms.

According to analysts’ assessment, the country can therefore reach a certain level of preparedness by 2030, but meeting the most important membership criteria within this time frame “could be an insurmountable challenge”. The decision to expand, however, is always, to some extent, political, and the criterion for what constitutes a “sufficient” level of preparedness may evolve over time. Albania and other candidate countries can still hope that the decision to enlarge by 2030 will be much more political than technical.

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