Stuck in the waiting room: Albania’s years-long bid to join EU

PM Rama has tried to address European concerns such as corruption, but as talks go nowhere, many continue to leave for brighter futures elsewhere.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, left, told Al Jazeera Albania deserves to start formal talks to join the EU [File: Francois Lenoir/Reuters]

Tirana, Albania – The prospect of Albania’s EU membership has lost its shine for Jonara Hoxha.

Six years ago, she opted to study medicine in Tirana rather than the foreign universities that accepted her.

“I really thought that if I left, I would lose [my] place in my country,” she told Al Jazeera. “And sometimes I thought that I would lose my place even in my family. So I stayed here, and I regret it, that decision of mine.”

After completing her final year, she wants to specialise in Germany as a general surgeon.

It is not just that starting salaries in Germany are many times higher than the $600 a month she would earn in Albania.

She is disappointed that many of her professors never showed up for class, leaving students to fend for themselves.

She says doctors in Albania are often viewed with suspicion, suffering verbal and physical attacks.

“We all should help to change these things and I am willing to help, but I don’t want to get disappointed again,” she said. “I want to work towards myself and to grow into something bigger, and here I cannot do that … I feel like I’m losing hope.”

In the past decade, 423,700 Albanians have emigrated west for work, education and healthcare – 14 percent of the population.

Whereas after the fall of communism emigrants were mostly manual labourers, now they include educated professionals who could be strengthening the country’s middle class and economy.

Emigration over the years:

2014 – 46,525
2015 – 41,443
2016 – 32,532
2017 – 39,905
2018 – 38,703
2019 – 43,835
2020 – 23,854

Source: Albanian Institute of Statistics

Work is one major reason for Albanians’ overwhelming support for EU membership, says journalist Enton Abilekaj. Corruption is the other.

“They don’t trust in elections, they don’t trust politicians, and they think that after accession our government will have more control from outside,” Abilekaj says. “That’s why they want so much our accession.”

Albania’s dynamic prime minister, Edi Rama, spent his second term in office trying to clean up Albanian politics, setting up a special corruption court and putting all of Albania’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges through a vetting process to ascertain their sources of wealth.

Now embarking on his third term, Rama plans to focus on university reform, staffing the Board of Higher Education with diaspora Albanians. They are tasked with preparing the system for mergers and joint programmes with foreign universities to “internationalise the spirit of Albanian higher education.”

“You can’t, just can’t, blame a young kid … wanting to get what he wants or she wants now,” said Rama, when asked about the high rate of emigration.

“What we are doing all these years is to just not lose more time, to move faster with reforms, to move faster with modernisation, to make the country work in terms of systems. And then the trends may change.”

He also has big plans for Albania’s tourism industry, inviting tenders to construct four ports and four airports along Albania’s Adriatic seaboard.

“When I became prime minister, it was out of the question to have serious investments in tourism. It was out of the question to imagine that five-star hotels or high-end investments would consider to come. Now Albania is on their map,” Rama told Al Jazeera.

All these processes could speed up if the EU, to which Albania applied for membership in 2009, began talks.

The European Commission has encouraged the bloc to do so for three years and, last year, the European Council of government leaders agreed to do so in principle.

Since then, Albania has been waiting for a start date. Yet the Council convening on June 24 is unlikely to issue it, experts say.

The first problem is that Albania’s invitation has been yoked to that of North Macedonia, whose bid has been blocked by Bulgaria over its claim to a “Macedonian” language.

Bulgaria wants the country to say it speaks a dialect of Bulgarian.

North Macedonia as recently as 2018 overcame an objection by Greece to its membership under the name “Republic of Macedonia”, and agreed to alter it.

Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi last month suggested that Albania and North Macedonia could be uncoupled, but that carries credibility costs for the EU, which could be seen as trampling on promises not to leave North Macedonia behind.

“I think there will be positive noises because the EU doesn’t want to be seen as going cold on the process, but what they will mean on the ground may not amount to very much,” said James Pettifer, who teaches Balkan history at the University of Oxford.

He sees two other “elephants in the room.”

One is Albania’s illegal cannabis industry, which, he said, “permeates all aspects of the economy.”

Visitors to Tirana are often impressed by the number of luxury cars and frenetic high-rise construction, but these seem inconsistent with the country’s 12-percent unemployment rate, massive emigration and an average monthly wage of $600.

Tirana’s new mosque, located beside Parliament, is funded by Turkey [John T Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

The other “elephant” is Rama’s increasingly close friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and what Pettifer called the “soft power aspects” of Ankara’s foreign policy, which include funding the construction of mosques in the majority Muslim Balkan nation.

“Mr Erdogan takes a long-term view,” said Pettifer. “For many unemployed young people particularly, these clubs attached to mosques are quite attractive, and there are also some quite good scholarships on offer.

“I think Rama has always hoped that, in the European Union’s eyes, Albanian Islam would not be an obstacle to membership … Of course in more right-wing EU members, particularly in France and Hungary, the fact that there is any Islamic majority in the population at all would rule out Albanian membership.”

Rama is adamant that he will continue to steer Albania in a Western direction.

“We have done our homework and we deserve to start formally,” said Rama. “I don’t think this will be solved in June but maybe in the fall. But if not, we will wait.”

Source: Al Jazeera