Dear Chair and co-chair,
On Tuesday, the Commission adopted the Enlargement Package, including the Annual Report on Albania.
As you know, the Annual Report provides a rigorous assessment that indicates the way forward, highlighting what has been achieved and where there is still work to be done.
The report is based on a very wide range of inputs from our experts, authorities, civil society, business community and of course our Member States.
This last point is very important. With the enhanced enlargement methodology, the Member States have been more closely involved in the preparation of the report. Recommendations and guidance on the next steps are also clearer.
This year's report has a specific importance. When the Council decided to open accession negotiations last March, it tasked the Commission to monitor issues to be addressed prior to the first Inter-governmental Conference. The Report also serves this purpose.
Without going too much into details, let me walk you through our most important findings:
Regarding the Political criteria
An important achievement was reached.
In a difficult context, the ruling majority and the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition agreed to take forward the electoral reform. On 5 June 2020, the Political Council reached an agreement and the amendments to the electoral code were adopted by the Parliament thus meeting a condition for first IGC.
But political dialogue needs to be improved:
In this context,it is regrettable that the 30 July amendments to the Constitution and 5 October amendments, were passed without reaching a compromise in the Political Council before the vote.
Albania's judicial system
is the area where we have seen most progress in the past year, with the implementation of justice reform continuing consistently.
The High Judicial Council finalised the selection of three candidates for the High Court.
The net result is that one of the chambers of the Court to function (condition for the first IGC.)
Progress was made to reconstitute the Constitutional Court. This provides the basis for the Constitutional Court to regain functionality. In December 2019, the Court had one judge in office, it now has four members. The appointment of additional judges however remains key to have a fully functional Constitutional Court.
The new General Prosecutor has been appointed, for the first time based on the procedures established in the latest justice reform.
SPAK was established in 2019 with the appointment of the Chief Special Prosecutor in December.
The Special Prosecution Office (SPO) is fully operational.
The Director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was also appointed and started performing his functions.
The Vetting has advanced: with 286 dossiers have been processed, resulting in 62% dismissals and resignations.
On the fight against corruption,
the Commission considers that Albania has some level of preparation.
Albania continued its efforts on the track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying corruption cases. Through the vetting, a number of high-ranking magistrates have been dismissed. We have also seen a number of convictions of lower or middle-ranking officials.
However, corruption does remain widespread in Albania and is a serious concern.
It requires further structured and consistent efforts. Final convictions in cases involving high-level officials remain much too low.
On this, we have very good expectation that SPAK will significantly strengthen the capacity to investigate and prosecute corruption.
On the fight against organised crime,
Albania also has some level of preparation.
Police operations have further intensified. International police cooperation, especially with EU Member States, has also intensified, leading to a number of successful large-scale law enforcement operations
SPO was established and provided with a set of important investigative tools.
However, the country needs increased prosecutions and final convictions, as well tackling money laundering and confiscating assets stemming from crimes.
Regarding Public administration,
some progress has been seen noted, Albania is still only Albania is moderately prepared.
The public administration is the engine to implement the EU acquis and needs to be seriously strengthened in view of accession negotiations.
Regarding fundamental rights,
We have seen a lot of progress on the legislative side, especially on social housing, children rights and juvenile justice. Implementation remains, however, to be seriously strengthened.
Efforts are ongoing to consolidate property rights, but should be strengthened, especially, to advance the process for registration and compensation.
On the protection of national minorities, Albania needs to swiftly adopt the remaining bylaws for the 2017 framework Law on minorities.
About Freedom of expression. This is the only area of the report where we have seen no progress in the past year.
In December 2019, the Parliament approved a set of amendments to the media law, on which the Venice Commission issued an opinion.
The amendments fall short of international standards and principles of media freedom and raise concerns about increased censorship and self-censorship, and about possible setbacks on freedom of expression in the country.
The report also highlights intimidation against journalists and the use of force by the police on journalist doing their work.
On migration and asylum
Some progress has been seen in improving the institutional capacity on border management and asylum.
Albania is the first of the Western Balkan countries where the European Border and Coast Guard Status Agreement with the EU has entered into force (May 2019).
Frontex joint operations have also proved successful in strengthening border controls, enhancing security at the EU’s external borders and combating migrant smuggling.
However, if the number of unfounded asylum applications introduced by Albanian citizens in EU Member States has decreased, it remains high, too high and requires continuous and sustained efforts.
A short word now on the economic criteria
Albania has made some progress before COVID-19, with unemployment decreasing to record lows, and exports growing solidly.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the structural weaknesses of Albania's economy. Albania’s competitiveness is hindered by lack of entrepreneurial and technological know-how, a significant skills gap, weak institutions and low levels of investment and infrastructure quality.
A final point and very important point on the report, especially in view of recent developments: the EU and the Member States very much welcome that Albania has continued to 100% align with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The enlargement package this year includes an Economic and Investment Plan for the Balkans. I will not go into details as Commissioner Varhelyi has presented it yesterday to the Parliament. Let me stress that it adds to the very considerable financial support provided by the European Union to address the short and long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Economic and Investment Plan will support the implementation of reforms and bring the region closer to the EU Single Market.
The Plan is accompanied by a Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, based on the European Green Deal, which is one of the highest priorities of the Commission to tackle the environmental challenge, but also support economic developments.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Commissioner Varhelyi was very clear yesterday. The Commission has assessed that Albania has pursued its reform efforts, which should continue even in a pre-election period. Albania is now close to meeting all conditions to be fulfilled prior to the first Inter-Governmental Conference.
Discussions with Member States in the Council on the draft negotiating framework are ongoing. We hope that the first intergovernmental conference can be convened as soon as possible.