2020 was a difficult year - a year when the citizens of Albania courageously dealt with the consequences of a devastating earthquake and a global pandemic.
The European Union stood firmly by Albania’s citizens during these challenging times. At the international donors’ conference, convened by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the EU pledged over €400 million for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Albania. Of this, the European Commission is already implementing its €115 million grant to support affected schools and cultural heritage.
The EU’s support in the face of COVID-19 pandemic has been equally firm since the beginning of the pandemic. A €3.3 billion package has been provided for the Western Balkans to help with urgent health needs and to mitigate socio-economic consequences, of which Albania is receiving a significant part in various ways, ranging from medical and protective equipment to Macro-Financial Assistance. Most recently €70 million were set aside to support the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines to the entire region.
In the last decade, Albania has received €1.25 billion of EU funding and as a true partner and friend, the EU will continue to provide support to the Albanian citizens. In the next long-term EU budget, we set aside €9 billion for a major Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans that Commissioner Várhelyi has presented to the region during his visit in October 2020, to further strengthen our lasting partnership with Albania and reinforce its transformational potential.
In 2020 Albania has shown also a remarkable determination to keep up with reforms. The historic EU Council decision of 25 March 2020 on the opening of accession negotiations with Albania was well-deserved. Among key reforms, I cannot stress enough how important the reform of the judiciary is for the consolidation of the rule of the law - vital for the protection of the rights of the Albanian citizens and a fundamental requirement of EU accession.
In the context of this unprecedented reform, the vetting process continued to deliver results with more than 330 magistrates vetted in first instance, out of which more than 60% were dismissed or resigned. It is also very positive that all new bodies for the fight against organised crime and corruption were established and resulted in high-level investigations, creating a new dynamic in Albania’s efforts to tackle crime and corruption. Equally, joint operations with EU Member States and international law enforcement cooperation have continued and helped dismantle organised crime networks. Judicial independence has been further strengthened with the continued good functioning of new justice institutions based on the principles of self-governance and accountability. I am also particularly satisfied that the Constitutional Court has regained its functionality and started hearings in a number of essential cases, paving the way to the start of accession negotiations.
It is critical that Albanian authorities and citizens continue to move towards full implementation of the justice reform with renewed determination and hard work. With every step forward in the reform we get closer to a truly independent judiciary able to effectively fight corruption and ensure that no one is above the law.
Appointments to the High Court and Constitutional Court must continue until full completion. Effective measures must be adopted to fill in the priority judicial vacancies and the School of Magistrates must advance in the recruitment of new magistrates. Justice reform bottlenecks must be identified and swiftly addressed, in close coordination with all independent justice institutions that must get sufficient resources and necessary administrative support to carry through their mandate effectively. This list of things to do is of course not exhaustive. It however shows that a lot of work lies ahead of us and that there is a special responsibility on the justice system institutions and other authorities of Albania not to waste time.
I regret that in the recent months, the vetting institutions, the International Monitoring Operation (IMO) and its international observers and staff have been a target of unprecedented undue pressure, misinformation and personal attacks and slander. This is causing a lot of personal pain and suffering to those who are most dedicated to help Albania. These attacks aim to derail the reform and harm its further implementation. But far from weakening our determination, they give us renewed impetus, as they prove that the reform works and that its results started to affect the vested interests and individuals who benefited immensely from a deeply corrupt status quo.
As Commissioner Várhelyi clearly stated, justice reform and vetting of the judiciary in Albania is absolutely key and cannot be derailed or slowed down, no matter the pressure. I cannot agree more with this strong statement. As Chair of the IMO, my message has been and remains: there is only one way - moving forward, together, towards full implementation of the justice reform, for the benefit of the Albanian citizens!
As I move ahead towards a new professional challenge after five years of working together with Western Balkan partners, I take pride in having been part of this journey. I wish to convey a message of farewell to the Albanian citizens and all counterparts in the institutions with whom I had the pleasure to cooperate in the past years, wishing them success in building a European future for Albania.
*Director for the Western Balkans at the European Commission and Chair of the International Monitoring Operation (IMO).