Coronavirus or not, Europe uses Albania to show it’s business as usual


The European Union (EU) is trying business as usual, pandemic or not, and it’s using a hot-button issue – accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia – to do so.

On Tuesday (March 24), EU foreign and Europe ministers discussed (by videoconference)  a proposal to open talks with the two Balkan countries. It was an attempt to show that there is/ will be life after the pandemic. Politico’s Brussels Playbook quoted an unnamed Croatian diplomat to say  that the whole idea was to show the EU “remains operational”.

So what happens next on a matter – Albania’s hopes of membership – that could be a defining moment for Europe?

It’s clear the EU doesn’t want the perception to grow that Albania is another Turkey, a majority-Muslim state that’s unwelcome in the European family of nations. Like Turkey, Albania is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

It may also be an attempt to send a positive message to the western Balkan region. After the EU toughened restrictions on the export of crucial medical gear outside the bloc, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic described European solidarity as a “fairy tale on paper”. Serbia, incidentally, has been in the accession process for six years.

Anyway, the next milestone for the long membership process for Albania and North Macedonia comes on Thursday (March 26) when EU leaders will have to sign off on the decision.

What’s reassuring is that the extra conditions set for Albania have an air of reality (and candour), which were arguably missing during Turkey’s more than half-a-century of aspirations to join the European bloc. For instance, Tirana will need to reform its electoral law, do more to fight corruption and tackle “the phenomenon of unfounded asylum applications” of its citizens in EU countries “prior to the first intergovernmental conference”. That conference, incidentally, will be  the real opening of negotiations with Albania. It isn’t expected much before 2030.

In a sense, some of the developments on Albania were foreshadowed even though Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama had said he was “expecting nothing” from the EU leaders’ summit.

Some thought he was lowering expectations all the better to deal with crushing rejection even though the EU’s executive said on March 2 that Albania and North Macedonia had done enough to merit starting negotiations. And that came almost exactly a month European Parliament president David Sassoli visited Albania (Feb. 3) and promised that the EU would soon be putting the country’s membership aspirations on the agenda.   At the time, Mr Sassoli said: “There is no Plan B for Albania”, which suggested that the bloc was determined to keep its “geopolitical” ambitions in focus and to prevent Albania from becoming another Turkey.

For, Turkey has now  drifted out of Europe’s sphere of influence and blames Brussels for misleading it. Now, on issues such as Syria, Libya, migration, and refugees, Ankara arguably exerts considerable control over Europe’s destiny rather than the other way round. Mostly, it is impervious to pleas from European leaders for considerate treatment, perhaps because it feels aggrieved that the EU never warned it of the futility of a Muslim country trying to become European.

This is precisely the outcome that the EU would want to avoid with Albania.