ADDRESS OF THE COMMISSIONER FOR ENLARGEMENT AND EUROPEAN NEIGHBOURHOOD POLICY ŠTEFAN FÜLE TO THE ALBANIAN PARLIAMENT (03/05/2012)
Madame Speaker, Mr Prime Minister, honourable members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be in Tirana today. I would like to thank you for the opportunity to address the Assembly and through you the citizens of Albania.
I want to use this opportunity to renew the message that I see Albania's future as a fully-fledged member of the European Union.
I know that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the country see their future in the European Union. This is essential for the success of the reforms which need to be completed to lead Albania into the Union. This will require a real national effort. Everybody can and needs to contribute to this national goal:
• law enforcement institutions
• the judiciary
• civil society organisations
Working together for your country and the citizens you can attain high standards in political, economic and social life. Standards that are in line with what the European Union has achieved in the past decades in a climate of peace, reconciliation and prosperity.
In spite of the current financial crisis, or even because of it, I am convinced that European integration is the right response of the European peoples to the current challenges. This was the case in the early 90s, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when my own country profited from the European Union's enlargement policy. After implementing a set of challenging but rewarding reforms, it became a member of the European Union in 2004.
Within the European Union we sometimes tend to underestimate our achievements, especially when looking through the lens of the bleak economic indicators of the current financial crisis. In fact, the current crisis has nothing to do with European Union enlargement. On the contrary, in times when the economy is exposed to the challenges of globalisation our Enlargement policy comes as a solution to tackle these challenges, through increased trade and business opportunities translating into more growth and more jobs.
Enlargement-driven reforms are contributing to political and economic stability in the immediate neighbourhood of the European Union, notably here in the Western Balkans. Promoting democracy and fundamental freedoms and consolidating the rule of law across aspirant countries is therefore a key part of our policy. Structural economic benefits achieved this way will help bring Europe back on track again.
A bigger Europe, based on these values, can become an economically stronger Europe, a Europe with a better quality of life for all. Look at the results of the enlargement policy:
• Croatia will join soon;
• Negotiations with Montenegro should start in June;
• Serbia was granted candidate country status in March;
• and others in the region, including Albania, are making visible progress.
And look how far Albania has already come along the path of European integration. In 2009, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Albania entered into force. The same year Albania applied for European Union membership, and thus sent an important signal on its commitment to reforms and its engagement on common European values.
Since the end of 2010 Albania has enjoyed a visa-free regime with the European Union. Albanian citizens can now travel for short-term trips across the Schengen zone without the need for a visa - an achievement which I am sure all Albanian citizens appreciate highly when travelling to the European Union. This was only possible due to the successful implementation of a set of demanding reforms in the area of rule of law and movement of persons.
But likewise, through the visa liberalisation process, the European Union has shown its strong commitment to bringing the benefits of European integration to the citizens of Albania. Visa-free travel is beneficial both to Albanian citizens and to the European Union, as it brings our people closer together and abolishes barriers – a key element of European integration.
Let me turn to more recent developments. Since the political agreement between government and opposition reached in November 2011, I see real efforts being made by both political sides to take reforms forward. There have been solid achievements including:
• the election of the Ombudsman in a consensual and transparent way;
• the subsequent adoption of several laws requiring 3/5 majority;
• and serious progress on electoral reforms and on the reform of the parliamentary rules of procedure.
Moreover, the first concrete results stemming from the implementation of the March 2012 Action Plan to address the Key Priorities in the Commission's Opinion are encouraging, including in the area of rule of law and fundamental rights. I also appreciate that the Action Plan was widely consulted with key stakeholders.
But for our joint goal of candidate status and then European Union membership to materialise, more efforts are needed. There is no room for complacency. Further progress will depend on You:
• Firstly, it will depend on the stability and sustainability of the dialogue between political forces;
• Secondly, it will depend on your capacity to find consensus in parliament; I know that achieving consensus is quite demanding, as it sometimes means making difficult compromises. But frankly, our experience with enlargement shows that accession can be achieved only when there is consensus on key issues over a longer period;
• Thirdly, it will depend on Albania delivering concrete and tangible results in effectively addressing important European Union-related reforms identified in the Commission's Opinion.
These crucial reforms are known as the 12 key priorities. The Action Plan remains the basis for implementation of these priorities in the months to come. It is crucial that Albania makes good use of the period up to the Commission's October progress report to demonstrate the political will required for further European integration. In that respect, I would like to highlight four areas that are of the utmost concern:
1) electoral reform
2) the role your Parliament can and should play
3) the rule of law
4) human rights
The first point: A good conduct of elections in line with European and international standards remains a central priority for Albania in relation to its European Union aspirations. It is essential to complete the good work done by the ad-hoc parliamentary committee for electoral reform. Albania needs to deliver on the reform of the Electoral Code by focusing on fulfilling the recommendations of the OSCE-Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. This needs to happen well ahead of the next parliamentary elections.
Secondly, Parliament is a key institution in all European countries. Its work, based on constructive dialogue and respect of institutions, is the foundation of functioning democracies. I am very happy to witness here today that the Albanian parliament has again become the place where the government and the opposition contribute equally to law making and policy debate. This constructive attitude is crucial for
a) reaching agreement on the necessary reforms;
b) a proper scrutiny of legislation in other key areas;
c) overseeing that reforms are implemented as agreed and without delay.
I sincerely hope you will be able to maintain the current constructive atmosphere for a smooth conduct of the presidential election. The election should comply with the Constitution's letter and spirit, including on the choice of a candidate that represents national unity. This will provide a further opportunity to demonstrate the good functioning of democratic institutions in Albania.
Thirdly, a strong rule of law, including an independent, efficient and accountable judicial system, has been identified as a main challenge for countries to move towards European Union membership. There is no time to lose and Albania needs to focus on delivering concrete results notably on the fight against corruption and organised crime.
Only in this way can it dispel negative perceptions on the functioning of the judiciary and the respect of rule of law. In this context, it is also essential to shed full light on the events of 21 January 2011 through a credible judicial process free from political interference.
The fight against corruption is also a key challenge for the rule of law. Corruption is a serious problem that affects
- the everyday lives of citizens,
- has negative impacts on the business environment,
- discourages investment, and
- can cause serious damages to the national budget.
An important element in the fight against corruption is limiting or lifting the immunities of Members of Parliament, high level officials and judges in line with best international standards and practices.
I note with satisfaction that you are close to a political consensus to address this issue and I would like to encourage you to move forward rapidly in order to deliver in this key area.
But removing the immunities will not be enough. Enhancing inter-institutional cooperation, including between the Prosecutor's Office and the police, will be essential to develop a necessary climate of zero-tolerance against corruption, where nobody is above the law.
This is not only important for European integration, but also for strengthening the confidence of Albanian citizens in the political system and the judiciary.
Finally, respect for human rights is a fundamental value of the European Union. Countries aspiring to European Union membership need to demonstrate a high standard in this area, including the rights of vulnerable people (Roma, Lesbian, Gay, Trans-gender and Bisexual, persons with disabilities, etc.). For this to succeed, there is a need for the authorities to ensure an appropriate legal framework. It will also need a change in attitude and mentality of society leading to a climate of enhanced respect for human beings, regardless of their ethnic origin, their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation.
Looking at all these challenges ahead, it's not going to be an easy task to get into the Union. Aspirant countries have to work hard to fulfil the criteria for accession. First of all they need to ensure respect for democracy, fundamental rights and a strong rule of law. But they also need to have a well-functioning public administration, able to deal with the considerable amount of European Union legislation, which ranges from rules on agriculture, fisheries, environment and energy to competition policy.
And let us not forget the need to have a functioning market economy, supported by a strong rule of law and able to withstand competitive pressure.
But equally, let us not forget the benefits that come with the process of accession to the European Union. Past experience shows that enlargement has contributed to stability, security and prosperity in acceding countries. And the reforms that a country must undertake in the process of its European Union integration are investments in improving the lives of its citizens. For example,
- consolidating the rule of law and the respect for human rights;
- making progress towards a more efficient, independent and accountable judicial system,
- increasing the standards of food safety,
- improving the environment,
all this will bring tangible benefits to the Albanian society.
Let me conclude: We are determined to continue our engagement with Albania. Enlargement should be seen as a joint effort to advance together, and a process which is beneficial for the country, but also for the European Union. Candidates are not alone in this endeavour, as the Commission stands by their side to assist.
I want to reiterate that I have strong faith in Albania's capacity to achieve the necessary progress to move towards opening accession negotiations through acquiring candidate status.
2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Albania's independence. It could also be the year in which Albania takes an important step towards its European Union integration – in line with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Albanian people.
Please turn this opportunity into reality. For the benefit of Albania, for the benefit of your region, and for the benefit of the European Union itself. Please consider this statement as reconfirmation of my personal and passionate commitment to the citizens of Albania