Dear Chairwoman, Dear Deputy Chairman, Dear Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to participate in the opening of the European School for European Integration.
This programme is particularly close to my heart. It offers a unique opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience with people who have a first-hand experience of the accession process and can shed light on its dynamics, from various perspectives: from the side of a candidate country, of EU institutions, of non-state actor, and so on.
I would like to first of all congratulate all participants who have been selected for this year’s programme. I was happy to hear that this year again, the School has attracted a lot of applications. This reflects very much my personal experience meeting people throughout the country: there is a genuine and wide spread interest in learning more about Albania’s EU accession path.
You represent different sectors of society, from the public service, working at the central level, local level, representatives of non-profit organisations, of the private sector, the media, or academia. What you have in common, though, is that you all have an opportunity to actively contribute, from your particular position, to Albania’s EU integration.
Joining the EU is far more than a technical process. It is a generational choice, based on fundamental values, which Albania must embrace actively, from its foreign and domestic policies right down to what children are taught at school.
What’s particularly encouraging in this respect is that, for their overwhelming majority – more than 80% – Albanian people remain staunch supporters of their country’s accession to the EU. This is a huge advantage, especially as the country is about to engage EU accession negotiations, which is a very demanding phase.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present this year’s European Commission report on Albania to the members of the National Council for European Integration.
The annual report provides a fair assessment of where the country stands on its EU integration track.
Overall, the report acknowledges that despite continuous challenges, in a context marked by the pandemic, Albania has continued to make progress on the EU-oriented reforms and to deliver tangible results, including in the rule of law area. The report also clearly acknowledges that Albania is once again 100% aligned with the EU Common and Foreign Security Policy.
Crucially, the report confirms that Albania has delivered on the conditions set by the Council to hold the first Intergovernmental Conference and start the actual accession negotiations. The European Commission reiterated its view that the first Intergovernmental Conference should be held as soon as possible and before the end of this year. Intensive work is ongoing by all EU Leaders to work with the Member States to overcome the pending bilateral issues to make this happening.
Of course, the report also highlights areas where progress is insufficient. One case in point is freedom of expression, where the EU expects more progress on issues such as the protection of journalists, on ensuring the independence of the media regulator, strengthening the public broadcaster’s independence, professional standards and financial sustainability, and on ensuring the self-regulation of online media.
We will continue to follow very closely developments in this important area.
In general, as aspiring EU member state, Albania must redouble its efforts, address vital reforms and complete its political, economic and social transformation, bringing all stakeholders on board from across the political spectrum and from civil society.
I am convinced that programmes like the European Integration School can play an important role to raise awareness about this unique and challenging process and about the steps leading towards EU membership.
As we are all focused on the future, I would however like to stress a very important fact: the EU is already very much present in Albania – this is the meaning of our “European Is Here” campaign, which you may have seen in the media.
The European Union gives an average of 100 million EUR to Albania every year, contributing to the transformation of all possible sectors: from education to agriculture, justice, infrastructure, anti-corruption, transport, food safety, environmental protection and many more.
This investment, which over the last 15 years has reached 1,5 billion EUR in grants, has actually built Albania’s major infrastructure improving substantially transport and connectivity within the country, it has given a boost to agriculture and rural development, it has supported the country to increase its environmental standards. This is the “hardware” of the transformation generated by the EU accession process.
What is equally important though is the transformation that the EU is bringing to the everyday life of ordinary Albanians: to the students in this country, to the farmers, to the innovators, to the health professionals. Through our “Europe is here” campaign, we will, in the next months, focus on the stories of over 500,000 Albanians who have personally benefitted from the EU assistance over the last decades.
Dear participants, I may be the EU Ambassador to Albania, but today, I would like all of you to become Ambassadors of the EU in Albania. I would really encourage you to seize the opportunity of this European Integration School to sharpen your knowledge of EU matters, question EU experts, also asking the difficult questions – in short, discuss the future of your country in the EU, always keeping in mind that you are the main actors of this journey.