Deutsche Welle: Mr. Ambassador, on Tuesday the German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth called on his colleagues to approve the opening of negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia. And recently the German Presidency of the European Union reiterated its intention to hold within December the first Intergovernmental Conference with Albania and Northern Macedonia, but in the meantime Albania has not met one of the main criteria, which is the establishment of the Constitutional Court. Will this criterion affect this conference?
Ambassador: First of all, thank you for having me. Second, I think that yesterday the General Affairs Council sent a very strong signal about the fact that work should continue for both countries until the very last day of the German Presidency. Both for Albania and North Macedonia the Member States are ready to endorse what we call the negotiating framework. These are the rules of the game for both countries for the years to come from the moment the negotiation will start. One Member State has blocked, unfortunately, this adoption for North Macedonia, while the text of the negotiating framework for Albania is agreed by everybody. So, if there be a solution of the bilateral dispute concerning North Macedonia, then the two negotiating framework might be adopted still before the end of the year. This is the objective of the German Presidency; this is the objective of the European Union. The different story is the calling of the IGC, the adoption of the negotiating framework is the condition to call the IGC. In order to call the IGC for Albania, as you know since March this year, several conditions have been identified. There are some of them that still have to be met, and that’s clear, that’s why I say the message is that work should continue. This has been said by Minister Roth, this has been said by Commissioner Varhelyi yesterday in the meeting. What is the additional work to continue? First of all, as you mentioned, the Constitutional Court. In the last weeks I called several times on the Justice Appointments Council to accelerate the work concerning the evaluation and the ranking of the candidates ON the three posts open. I understand that in the next days there will be meetings of the Council - the KED - and it is important that the KED comes out with a list to be sent to the two appointing authorities, the President of the Republic and the Parliament for appointments. Is this is possible before the end of the year? Yes, if the work is accelerated. And this is the message that I would like to send once again to the KED that is doing a great job, but can also contribute further to moving forward. It was mentioned also the implementation of the electoral law. I think this issues has two sub-elements, one concerns the Venice Commission opinion, that as you know will be issued on the 10th of December and will help to give clarity on the point on which there is a political dispute between the parliament and the extra-parliamentary opposition. The question was posed by the President, as you know. The other one is the concrete implementation of the electoral law in view of the elections, which will take place on the 25th of April. This is also important in terms of technical preparation. I recently met the head of the Central Election Commission and I am also pleased to announce that the two experts that the European Union has promised at the moment of the adoption of the 5th of June agreement have already started working with the Commission on the biometric identification, which is one of the very important conclusions of the 5th of July agreement. So these things should grow, should be accelerated. Let’s see where we are at the end of the year before the German Presidency ends. And that’s the message that comes out of the yesterday’s meeting in my view and we fully support it.
Deutsche Welle: But still there are some critical voices, for example, The Netherlands. In the Dutch Parliament there are some critical voices against the opening of negotiations for Albania. Do they damage this process?
Ambassador: I will not speculate on specific positions of parliamentarians. I will only comment on the position of the government which has clearly said in its letter to the parliament and then in another statement that the Dutch Embassy here in Tirana has issued that they are in favor of having the IGC if and when the conditions are met. We concur about the fact that if conditions are not met there will be no IGC, that’s for sure and that’s very important that therefore the work continues, as I said before, relentlessly to make sure that all the homework that Albania has to do is done before the end of year.
Deutsche Welle: And let’s talk about homework and the parliamentary elections that will take place on April 2021. In your opinion, is this political climate another penalty for this process? They have already started their campaign.
Ambassador: Well, yes indeed, the climate has gone lately up in terms of temperature, but this is normal I think in every country, before going to such an important election for Albania. The European Commission in the Annual Report that we have published on the 6th of October, we have said that political dialogue in the country needs to be restored. This means that we hope that progressing towards the election, the parties, while of course pursuing their own political interests, which is natural in every democracy, will also focus on what I call the minimum common denominator, on which everybody agrees, which is the EU integration. Let’s focus and make sure that when it comes to the EU integration every party could find a way to help Albania to move forward. Then of course the divisions are natural and in Albania this is clearly a trend, but I as an EU Ambassador want to call on everybody to focus on the minimum common denominator, which is the EU integration.
Deutsche Welle: Let’s go back a little bit at the justice reform. You have a judicial background, and for Albanian citizens this justice is seen as very important. Last week the European Commission adopted a 103.3 million Euro package to support Albania’s European path and specifically 8.7 million Euros to support IMO. There are a lot of packages that are given in the recent years, but no concrete results and citizens’ perception is that nobody is punished. What is your perception, the EU’s perception, is the reform having the right pace, is it moving forward?
Ambassador: Let me say one word on the package adopted last week, as you mentioned. 103.3 million Euros for the next year, 2021. It’s very important that the public opinion understands the solidarity that the European Union is giving to Albania in a moment of crisis. These are donations, these are no loans. Therefore this means they are grants that will be used half for the economic recovery post-earthquake and Covid and the other half for the priorities of EU integration: good governance, fighting against corruption, rule of law, helping the new institutions to work, SPAK, NBI, the two councils, the General Prosecutor. The EU Integration Facility is important. What is it about? TO help already now Albania to play like if it was a Member State, helping the public administration to participate in programs that normally are limited only to Member States. And that’s very important to say. Now, on the point you made on the IMO. 8.7 million Euros are for the second phase of the IMO, the next two years that the IMO has to do. It’s very important that the IMO continues to work; the vetting institutions are making a steady progress. As you know 800 magistrates needs to be assessed, 603 cases have been opened and around 300 have been closed. Is this enough? Of course not. IMO needs to be reinforced as all the justice reform needs to be reinforced. I call this the need for an efficiency test, we need to make sure that now that all the institutions will be set up, once the Constitutional Court will be in place, we need to look at the human and financial resources and the judicial map in the country to understand how to reorganize the way the resources are put in a way that while the School of Magistrates prepares the new magistrates, justice is served. And I am very pleased to note that in the budget adopted on Monday by the Parliament of Albania our suggestion to have more resources for the vetting institutions has been achieved. 18 advisers, 12 for the KPK and 6 for the KPA will be recruited the next days to reinforce the capacity of the vetting institutions to accelerate the pace.
Deutsche Welle: Are you satisfied with the work that has been done so far? Except these packages and except these means you are giving to help this process?
Ambassador: Listen, the justice reform is a very difficult one, is complicated. I know the judiciary; I know what it means changing the way the justice system in a country works. It is the closest to the sovereignty of a country. It is taking time, probably more than we expected. Now it’s time not to go back, but to go forward and to reinforce the resources at disposal to speed up the pace.
Deutsche Welle: Mr. Ambassador, starting from January 2021, a new system for travelling in the Schengen Area enters in force. In the first moment, this news was interpreted as a return of the visa regime for Albania. Does this system penalize Albanian citizens?
Ambassador: I am very happy that you raised me this question to me, because it allows me to clarify, hopefully once and for all, what this fake news is about. There is no changing in the Schengen system by the 1st of January 2021. There is no change of visa liberalization into visa obligation on the 1st of January. What we are talking about is that by the end of 2022, a new system of electronic authorization will be introduced, not only for Albanians, but for 62 countries all over the world, including the USA, Canada, Australia. The nationals of these countries that want to enter the Schengen area will have to go online, it takes a few minutes, with their valid passports they have to introduce their data and in a few minutes they will receive an electronic authorization. The cost is 7 Euros, which will not apply for people who are less than 18 years old. With this electronic authorization, without going to any consulate, to any embassy, they will go to the gate, and they will pass the control and they will enter into the Schengen Area. So, there is no penalization for Albanians, there are no visas. By the way, allow me to remember that in actually less than a month we are going to celebrate the 10 years of the visa liberalization for Albania. This is important and as soon as the pandemic will be over, the Albanians will be fully benefitting again from the visa-free. So fake news, and allow me to say, fake websites. Allow me to say to the Albanian people to be very careful not to be trapped in fraud online. There are several websites out there that ask Albanians that travel to the EU to apply to their websites. Don’t fall for that, these are fakes. Nothing will happen until the end of 2022.
Deutsche Welle: Good to know. Mr. Ambassador, in the last year Albania has gone through difficult moments and one of them was the earthquake of November 26, and recently, as the whole world, is going through the pandemic times. But let me first ask you about the pandemic situation. You have appeared more than once at Covid4 hospital, donating medical equipment for the Albanian authorities, but this hospital is not yet functioning. How are the Albanian authorities using the EU assistance and will this assistance continue?
Ambassador: We are living a very difficult time in Albania and in the European Union. The European Union has kept its promise and despite all the problems in the Member States, we have shown the top solidarity towards Albania. You know that more than 50 million Euros have been put at disposal to Albania since March in order to help the country to go through the pandemic. One way of assisting was to provide immediately health equipment. These are 4 million Euros that up to now are almost all spent. The Covid 4, as I understand, is not yet active, but it has been furnished with part of the equipment that the European Union has given. I understand there are 100 beds, 10 ICU beds and 10 ventilators ready. But it will be the government to decide when to open it. The other three Covid hospitals are furnished with the assistance that the EU and other donors of course have given to Albania. So I think all the assistance is already being provided and is being used in the three open hospitals and when the government will decide, in the fourth. Will we stop here? No. In the next few days we will have two more deliveries, one is a CT scanner for Mother Teresa Hospital and the other one is more than 25,000 rapid test kits to allow the authorities to perform more tests. This will close the 4 millions. Will we stop there? No, of course. The moment we are requested, we will be ready to provide additional assistance, in particular in the area of testing. We are discussing with the government about it. And this is for the medical equipment, and then the other 46 million go to the economic recovery and are part of the package that I mentioned to you before.
Deutsche Welle: What about the earthquake donations and loans, is the EU monitoring how these donations and loans are being used?
Ambassador: Of course, for us there is what we call the EU values. On the 17th of February, the EU value that we showed was solidarity. The Donors' Conference showed an incredible sense of solidarity to Albania. The European Commission committed to provide 115 million Euros in donations. We have done so, the money has been allocated despite all the crises in the European Union Member States and this has already been contracted with the UNDP. Which has authority to spend these 115 million Euros in Albania, of course, in close consultation with the ministries involved, starting with the Ministry of Reconstruction in two areas. One area is education; 75 million Euros are already being implemented in reconstruction of schools. 22 schools are already being furnished, 4 schools, 2 in Kruja and 2 in Durrës are being building up while we speak, and other 40 schools will be rebuilt hopefully by mid next year. What I want to say in terms of values is that for us the value of transparency, of accountability, is very important. The fact that we work, the EU and the UN, in consultation with the government, with the management of the funds by the UN Agency, allows us to have full transparency and accountability on the funds. Everybody can go on the website of the UNDP and see which are the schools that are funded. The other 40 millions concern culture. As you know, we have announced a program, “EU for Culture”, in September that will help restore around 45 cultural sites that have been damaged by the earthquake. Culture is important, education is important; it is the future of the country. Both have economic impact. The more cultural sites are accessible, the more local economic development, the more tourists, the more economy, the more wealth for Albania. This is what I wanted to clarify and to your question, we believe that between the earthquake and Covid assistance, the EU as the biggest donor in Albania has shown once again how important is this country for the Union as a future member of it.
Deutsche Welle: Thank you, Mr Ambassador.
Ambassador: You are welcome.