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Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina and the future of EU enlargement

In the July Plenary Session, the European Parliament approved the Annual Reports on Albania and on Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). In both cases, the position adopted by the Members of the European Parliament is a sign of support for the countries’ European ambitions. However, this must be seen as more than support for the candidate countries. It is a clear sign of the EU’s responsibility towards them.

As the Standing Rapporteur for Albania, I have followed the country’s progress closely during the last four years and I have witnessed the efforts and the unwavering commitment the country has demonstrated. One of the defining moments was the first Intergovernmental Conference, held in July 2022, setting a new phase in EU-Albania relations. This event marked the start of negotiations between the EU and Albania, eight years after it was granted the candidate status. Now, one year on since the first Intergovernmental Conference, the scenario is different, but no less decisive. The screening process is well underway and predictably will be concluded in a record time of thirteen months. The challenge is to set out a strategic vision for the country’s future, a vision that will have long-lasting consequences and is capable of mobilizing all Albanians. 

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Prime Minister Edi Rama and North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski meet in Brussels, Belgium on July 19, 2022.

Albania has undergone significant changes and has endured complex reforms, many of them which are ongoing and cannot be slowed down. One example is the ongoing justice reform, a thorough and complex set of initiatives and measures such as the vetting process of judges and public prosecutors. This reform will allow for the strengthening of the judicial system, its institutions, and its resilience, and the country must be capable to deal with the operational consequences of this essential reform. The role of SPAK – the Specialized Structure for Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime – in the fight against crime is noticeable and must be enhanced. We, as EU actors, must recognize and support Albania’s efforts in strengthening this key EU value: respect for the Rule of Law.  

The consolidation of institutional integrity necessitates the swift implementation of the electoral reform, in accordance with the OSCE/ODHIR recommendations. Moreover, all efforts on institutional integrity and democratic resilience should entail the inclusion of civil society in decision-making, particularly in regard to the accession process. This process is, in itself, a collectively defining moment for any candidate country. 

Albania has been significantly affected by the growing number of young people emigrating from the country, and the effects are already being felt. There is an urgent need to address this issue. The Albanian Youth must be empowered at all levels: it is vital to foster job opportunities, develop infrastructure able to answer the youth needs, invest in research, innovation, digitalization, and so forth. The cross-cutting transition of the country will be key here, bringing together the digital, ecological, and economic layers of the future.

As the EU’s enlargement vision was impacted by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, it is certain now that the Western Balkans are, more than ever, an important geopolitical region for the EU. The future of the Western Balkans lies in Europe, and the future of Europe lies with the Western Balkans. Therefore, it is important that the EU fosters a close, positive relationship with the region and with each one of the regional actors. Albania, as one of those actors, has demonstrated an outstanding sense of partnership, by aligning with the EU’s Common foreign and security policy and playing an active role in the UN Security Council and in Nato. The country has been a point of stability in the region, promoting closer economic, political, and socio-cultural ties with the neighboring countries. 

Similarly, BiH has the potential to become a closer partner of the EU, having been granted candidate status at the end of 2022. As the European Parliament Report states, the EU is BiH’s main political, trade, and investment partner, providing the most significant funding to the country via the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance and the Economic Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. However, one thing is clear: political instability and actions that impede genuine reconciliation might derail the path towards accession and threaten the EU-BiH relations.

The leaders of the Republika Srpska, namely Milorad Dodik, have exerted inflammatory discourse, adopted secessionist policies, and rejected rulings of the Constitutional Court of BiH, increasing tensions and undermining the Dayton Peace Agreement. Moreover, while the October 2022 elections were well organized and their results swiftly implemented, there were several political obstacles to the appointment of the political leaders. It is, therefore, essential that BiH fully implements the 14 key priorities identified, thus ensuring institutional accountability and full transparency of the process, while showing full commitment to the EU. 

Both Albania and BiH have a clear path towards EU accession. The implementation of essential reforms, with firm resolution and no room for ambiguity, must go hand in hand with clear signs of alignment with the EU’s priorities, being geopolitical, economic, ecological, and digital. Nonetheless, the accession of these countries must lead the EU to its own homework.

Internally, this would require broader discussions on the decision-making mechanisms and on budgetary and cohesion policy. Externally, it necessitates a joint, transparent effort with the candidate countries. Enlargement is, without a doubt, the most effective foreign policy instrument. The EU must not commit, in regards to BiH and other candidate countries, the mistakes committed in the Albania accession process and risk increasing skepticism about the EU’s intentions across the region. 

The path to accession is a complex process that requires a firm commitment on both sides, without hesitations. It is time to deliver it.

Dear reader,

Opinions expressed in the op-ed section are solely those of the individual author and do not represent the official stance of our newspaper. We believe in providing a platform for a wide range of voices and perspectives, even those that may challenge or differ from our ownAs always, we remain committed to providing our readers with high-quality, fair, and balanced journalism. Thank you for your continued support.Sincerely, The Brussels Morning Team

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