European Union enlargement in times of coronavirus


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Fjoralba Caka
Fjoralba Caka

Professor of EU Law at the University of Tirana, former Albanian deputy minister of justice and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Please note this article is written in a personal capacity and is not intended to reflect the official position of the Albanian government.

In March of 2020, the European Union took a welcome step towards enlargement by deciding to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. The European Council, as well as Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, confirmed that both countries had fulfilled EU recommendations and achieved tangible results. Albania notably made considerable efforts to satisfy the five key priorities needed to open negotiations.

More specifically, Albania has made vast progress in terms of justice reform. New institutions have been established and a complex set of mechanisms have been implemented to ensure that the justice system is independent, impartial, professional and also accountable. For the first time, the promotion of judges and prosecutors in Albania will be made by independent bodies such as the High Judicial Council and the High Prosecutorial Council – bodies that have neither members of the executive, nor members of the Parliament in its composition. The promotion of judges and prosecutors will be based on a set of transparent criteria and a scoring mechanism.

In an unprecedented move, Albania is also undergoing tough vetting processes for judges and prosecutors. 800 judges and prosecutors are being vetted with regards to their assets, background and proficiency. The vetting figures speak for themselves: from 243 judges and prosecutors vetted thus far, 100 have been confirmed, 90 have been dismissed and 52 have withdrawn deliberately.

Albania could be proud of this decision, as it finally managed to fulfil all the conditions set to be a part of the accessions’ negotiation table

While EU progress reports have long highlighted corruption as an issue, proactive measures have also been taken in this regard. For the first time in Albania, a Special Prosecutorial Office Against Corruption has been established, together with a Special Court Against Corruption that will judge corruption and organised crime offenses committed by high officials. Albania has also substantially improved its strategic framework against corruption by revising its Action Plan Against Corruption 2020-2023 and strengthening its monitoring instruments. Moreover, cases of indictment of high officials have been taking place – a good first step towards challenging the culture of impunity amongst high ranks.

While the General Council was acknowledging this progress on 24 March, Albania was in the process of responding to COVID-19. Amid the lack of international cooperation, Albania was quick to take action – despite a shortage of material resources – to respond adequately and protect its citizens. This solitary battle seemed to be the first response of every country, given the immediate obligation of each government to protect its own citizens.

In the midst of this turmoil, Albania finally received great news from Brussels. After months of mixed messages, the Council’s decision to open accession talks was undoubtedly reason to celebrate – the country could finally see some European light at the end of the tunnel. Albania could be proud of this decision, as it finally managed to fulfil all the conditions set to be a part of the accessions’ negotiation table.

The EU can once again be seen as geopolitical actor able to overcome internal divisions

However, celebration in times of crisis is subdued – unfortunately, as the Prime Minister of Albania recently put it, “The door of the living room of the House of Europe is opened in a damned time when everyone’s doors started to close.”

This was not an easy process. Strong voices inside the EU cautioned that accession should only occur after the EU itself was reformed and resolved its inner struggles. Although it is completely understandable that the Founders of the Club decide when and how to accept new members, the postponement of talks left a bitter taste. This disappointment shattered the belief that the enlargement process was based on the mere progress of the associated countries and created confusion on the different bar set by the Commission and the Council when assessing reforms.

Those negative decisions of the Council called into question the credibility of the enlargement process and highlighted the domestic concerns of the member states. The Council’s latest decision is, thus, a positive turnaround not only for Albania and Macedonia, but for the European Union itself. The EU can once again be seen as geopolitical actor able to overcome internal divisions and serve as a centre of political gravity for both Albania and North Macedonia.

Today, the European Council will again gather to discuss the Western Balkans. Albania, for one, would like to see nothing less than ‘more Europe’. As Albania eases its lockdown measures, it is well aware that the EU has been subject to criticisms for its coronavirus response.

The lack of cooperation at the EU level among members states resembles a body infected by a virus

Difficult decisions such as those on coronabonds or the creation of a mechanism to finance the crisis recovery seem to divide rather than unite. The European Union is still a union of members states and they are the agents that could, acting in unity, take all the necessary measures to resolve this crisis, or pull out and trigger more inaction.

The lack of cooperation at the EU level among members states resembles a body infected by a virus – a body in which each separate part tries to fight it alone. In times like these, what we really need to remember is European identity – that is to say, the set of common values that determine choices. Let us not forget the old wisdom that “all power is weak unless united”. Member states must work together – based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity – at the European level.

A message from Jean Monnet’s Memoirs seems fitting here. While written in a different context, it echoes as a message for today. He noted, “the union of Europe [is] not only important for the Europeans themselves: it [is] valuable as an example for others… If Europe does not organise her own unity, decisions affecting her future will be taken by others without her.”

Difficult times call for stewardship and a bold vision

Indeed, today the world seems very fragmented and disunited. There is a need to see a European Union that provides ‘unity’ on the world stage, unity in solidarity as a European value. In a world that lacks resources, medications and ventilators, the fierce race to showcase supremacy by occupying these goods and stamping the national flag of ownership on them will lead to the demonstration of more power, instead of more solidarity. And again, we need to see more de facto solidarity – the EU is embedded to play this mission internally and externally. If the EU fails in this mission, the void will be filled by other forces and powers.

The EU and its member states are facing major challenges that will shape Europe for generations to come. Difficult times call for stewardship and a bold vision. National leaders could rest on their ‘Lotus-Land’, seeking only to promote their own national benefits and ignoring other voices, or they could stand up and fight for a common vision to reach a better Home-Europe. And as Albania looks towards the EU from this side of the fence, we pray again for nothing less but more Europe.

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