Delegation of the European Union to Albania

Interview of Ambassador Soreca for News24

Tirana, 06/03/2021 - 14:34, UNIQUE ID: 210306_1
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Journalist: Thank you Mr. Ambassador for your interview with News24.

Ambassador: Thank you!

Journalist: You are coming from Brussels. You had several important meetings with the senior leaders of the European Union, which Prime Minister Edi Rama was also attending. What could you say these meetings produced for Albanians and Albanian politics?

Ambassador: First of all, it was the first meeting at top level with the new Commission, because given the pandemic, the earthquake in 2019, there had been no meeting between the new Commission that took function two years ago and the Government of Albania. And it was a very successful meeting, both in open sessions and in restricted sessions and I think the relations between the leaders were very constructive.

I think that the EU position was summarized at best by President Von der Leyen, when she said that Albania's future is in the European Union and negotiations should start as soon as possible. And on the Albanian side, I was very happy to hear the Prime Minister say that there is no alternative to EU integration for Albania. And this of course is confirmed by the still very high level of Albanians, 80%, that want to join the European Union. So, from this point of view it was an important meeting where strong statements were made for the future to do together.

Of course we took stock of the substantial progress made by Albania in the last two years and a half, which has brought the European Commission, as you know, to consider that Albania has met the conditions to call the first IGC. It was also important that Vice President / High Representative Borrell made it clear that Albania continue to be a reliable partner for the EU in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. There is a 100% alignment for what Albania and the EU can do together in foreign policy. And having such a reliable partner in Albania makes Albania a positive example for the country and the region, in a moment in which the region is going through so many changes. Having Albania anchored to 100% alignment is for the EU very important.

Journalist: Of course, Albania’s path is towards the EU, but this path officially starts with the first ICG, which has yet to be convened. Several times it has been mentioned but things went not as planned. Will there be an ICG in June, as it was said, or perhaps we risk postponing again?

Ambassador: I hope you are right. This is our objective. June is the time for the first IGC. As I already said, the position of the European Commission expressed at the meeting is that the conditions are met for the first IGC. Therefore, it is important now that while Albania continues to do the work that is necessary, also during the electoral campaign, in the fight against organised crime, corruption, in keeping building the judiciary, the Member States see this continuous commitment and therefore when they will have to decide, hopefully for June the decision will be positive.

I think that it is a very important period, Albania is going through elections, so it is very important that the signal is given that despite the inevitable debate that the elections will bring, Albania continues to work. Member States are positively looking at Albania's results so far. But I think it is very important to continue in this direction and my hope, of course, as all Albanians and many, many, many others, is that June is the target towards this very important step.

Journalist: Once again, to remain at the meeting held in Brussels. One of the topics discussed was that of candidates with a clean criminal record for the upcoming elections which as you said are very important. The same statement was made by the US Embassy in Tirana. Are there concrete indications, do you have any information that something is going on and Albanians may risk having in the next parliament persons with criminal records?

Ambassador: For the European Union the highest integrity standard for the candidates is a top priority. We have supported the Decriminalisation Law, we are supporting the Albanian institutions with a very large anti-corruption program, and we want clean party finances, so this is a top priority for us. That is why we continue to make these statements; and very recently also here in Albania, Commissioner Johansson made it, I made them myself.

There is a legal dimension, the Decriminalisation Law needs to be fully implemented, but allow me say that there is also a moral dimension: that’s the integrity. It goes beyond the Decriminalisation Law. Why so? Because we are on the point to open, to start negotiations and the new parliament will have to undergo reforms in areas like the fight against organised crime, corruption. In order to do so, you have to have high integrity standards in the members of parliament. That’s why we continue to mention that. Monday is the deadline for the presentation of the candidatures. We will look forward to see the lists and we will of course make our own assessment. On that step, I have been in contact with Commissioner Celibashi constantly. I met him last week again. We agreed about the need to be very, very clear on these standards when it comes to the list of candidates.

Journalist: AFET has raised the concern of money laundering in its report and the lack of punishment for people involved in vote trafficking. The US State Department published the same in its report, considering money laundering in Albania a great concern. As a former prosecutor, what do you think of these statements and the recent developments?

Ambassador: You know that Albania last year was put by the AFTF on the grey list. This was clearly an important development that we stressed, in the sense that we want Albania, as soon as possible, to get out of that list. An Action Plan has been prepared with the AFTF and what I can say is that Albania is progressing towards filling in the necessary steps in order to reach the point to get out of this list. This is a long-term effort, it does not stop at the moment when an Action Plan is done, it is part of the work that Albania needs to do in the medium to long term perspective. And therefore, we will continue to monitor very closely that these steps will continue in the next months, prior and after the first IGC.

Journalist: Justice Reform has turned into a political battle between the opposition and the government. Prime Minister Rama says that if the opposition comes to power the reform will be undone; on the other side Basha says he will never touch the reform. How do you see the way both camps are politically using the reform, which the Albanian people want so much?

Ambassador: My sincere hope is that justice reform will not be an item of the electoral campaign. Because for Albanians justice reform is not a divisive item. 80% of Albanians, according to our EU Delegation latest polls, are in favour of the justice reform. And let us not forget that back in July 2016, 140 parliamentarians voted for justice reform, the whole political spectrum. So, it is very important in my view that the focus stays on making justice reform more efficient, more performant.

And we are seeing some interesting results. First of all, let me mention the decision of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the vetting, making clear that it is fair, proportionate, and reinforcing the importance of it. Then, a very important investigation run by SPAK, concerning this organized crime group of magistrates that were acting in a corrupted way. This is very important to show the concrete results. Of course justice reform is not perfect. Justice reform is a far-reaching, complex reform that needs to be, as I said, made more efficient. I know the importance of justice in any country. In Albania, I can tell you, once the negotiations will start Albania will catch up immediately on negotiations, thanks to the justice reform. The Chapter 24, which is so difficult and so important for all candidate countries, would not be so difficult for Albania because of justice reform. And Albania can speed up the pace of negotiations thanks to the incredible effort that now all the new justice institutions and the political system have decided to take back into 2016.

Journalist: How important are the elections of April 25 for the Albanians and Albania’s future towards the EU?

Ambassador: They are important, first of all for Albanians, because of the moment in which they take place, because of the historical sense of rotation in Albania, because of the fact that we are in a critical moment also for the EU integration. We mentioned how important is the EU integration for Albania. Therefore we hope that as the AFET committee draft report mentioned yesterday, before the final adoption by parliament, the importance of elections. It is an important draft report that puts the elections at the centre, and the concept of transparency and inclusiveness. We expect this electoral campaign to be fair, and the elections as well. The AFET report was also important to show that Albania needs to continue to work, before and after the first IGC. So, the elections are important for Albania, they are important for the EU and we look forward to the elections to be run in the most OSCE/ODIHR driven way.

Journalist: It’s almost a year now that the entire world has been living a difficult time due to Covid19 pandemic. What was your experience of it?

Ambassador: On a personal level it has been a tough experience, I have to be frank. This is a serious virus. The message that I want to pass to everybody is that it has to be taken very seriously. I invite all people, Albanians and beyond, to apply the strictest, safest protocol and the safeguards that are requested by the authorities. Everybody should feel the responsibility of being part of a community. It is a collective responsibility, it is a personal responsibility. Every day people should be careful for themselves, for their families, for their friends, for their community. It is important to apply the rules in place. My experience tells me also that I had a great assistance from the Albanian doctors and nurses. I was cured here in Tirana. And I went through their commitment, their discipline, also they taught me discipline, and their professionalism. So, I want here to thank the opportunity to thank all the doctors and nurses that assisted me in this moment. I invite everybody, as I said, to take this very seriously. Albania has got prepared, we are still fighting, Albania is still fighting, we are all fighting the virus. Do not lower down the level of attention now.

Journalist: The issue of vaccines has become a cause for fight now, where each country is trying to provide as much vaccines as possible. We have recently heard Mr. Rama’s statement, also in Brussels, that the EU has left the Western Balkans behind. What do you think of his statements?

Ambassador: We were talking about the Stabilization and Association Council that took place a couple of days ago in Brussels and there was a great acknowledgement by the Albanian side of the extraordinary solidarity of the European Union towards Albania in 2020 to fight COVID, to recover from the earthquake. This has been an incredible effort that the European Union and the Member States have done and it was important for this to be acknowledged in the top meeting between the two sides by the Albanian side. And this assistance will continue.

On Tuesday, I will deliver to Minister Manastirliu the last item of the medical equipment of the delivery that we started last April. A high standard-level CT scanner will be delivered on Tuesday and this is the eighth delivery that I have personally made to the Minister. I just got confirmation, before coming here that on the 1st of April, in order to help the social and economic recovery of Albania, the first 90 million of the macro-financial assistance that the European Union has promised and has contracted with Albania will be delivered on the 1st of April. And the second tranche of 90 million Euros will be delivered by the summer, again in a rapid time, taking into account the amount we are talking about. And I do not want to go into the discussion concerning the assistance about the earthquake. We discussed about assistance on culture and education in Brussels.

Of course we are all struggling to get enough vaccines. Within the European Union there is a difficult situation. You might have heard yesterday that Italy has decided to apply a new regulation concerning the EU stopping the transfer of AstraZeneca doses to a third country, Australia. This shows you how difficult at the moment is the provision of vaccines. We are doing our best. As you know, we are the major donor for the UN-led Covax. It was announced in Brussels that the first tranche of the Covax vaccines sponsored by the EU will arrive in Albania by the end of this month. And I can also tell you once again, it is news, we just had a meeting with the Ministry of Health. We are going to sign in the next days a grant for 11 million Euros that the European Union will put at disposal of Albania in order to buy vaccines and equipment in order to end the vaccination plan. So, as I said a few weeks ago, I understand the frustration, but this does not overshadow the extraordinary assistance that Albania has received and is going to receive. We as the European Union we care about Albania and we have shown this very clearly in the last couple of years.

Journalist: Initially when asked about Russian and Chinese vaccines, Prime Minister Rama said that as long as the EU does not take this step, we will not either. But a few days before asked by News24 if there is any contract or discussion going on about obtaining these vaccines, he said he was not going to comment. Does this affect the relationship between Albania and the EU? There is also the example of Serbia that has already taken them.

Ambassador: I think, as I said, many countries are struggling. Albania is being assisted by the European Union, and as you know, it’s news of couple of days ago, that now the European Medical Agency has been requested to assess the compatibility of the Russian Sputnik vaccine with EU standards. So, this takes a few weeks. But, should this happen, I think it is a very important signal that we are giving also to our partners, by saying that there are other vaccines beyond those that have been already safeguarded and qualified by the Agency that can be used. I think it is very important and the objective is to make sure that the population get vaccination as fast as possible. And that’s our objective. We have all to make sure that in the European Union, in our friends neighbour, everyone gets vaccinated as fast as possible. And that’s the objective.

Journalist: One last question. I’ve seen you are very passionate about hiking and travelling around Albania.  You are enjoying your free time. What have you learned outside Tirana, with the situation being quite different in other cities? What can you say about this experience of yours?

Ambassador: I have always said that when Albania will join the European Union, it will be the 61 municipalities of Albania to do so, not only Tirana. So one of my main objectives has been to know and see the whole Albania, on the mountains, in the countryside, meeting people where they live, also even in the most remote places. And I can tell you that I will continue to do so in the next weeks and I am planning to do a tour in Albania in the month of May, when Europe Day will happen. I will do so thanks to the work of the EU Integration Unit that we have in every single municipality, together with the Young European Ambassadors, meeting the young people.

Albania extends from Tirana to the municipalities. That’s why we are investing so much as well, in order to establish a network that goes beyond Tirana. And I think that there are incredible people working and living in the community, people who are making a difference in their community. I think that outside Tirana, Albania is an example to be followed by many, many people. And I am looking forward to continue to know also the few remote areas that I didn’t have the chance to visit so far.

Journalist: Mr. Ambassador Soreca, thank you very much for this interview.

Ambassador: Shumë faleminderit, mirupafshim.

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