Borrell: Albania, role model in the region 

Joint press conference with the EU High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell, and the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, in Brussels:

EU High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell: Dear Mr. Prime Minister, dear Commissioner!

I am very happy to welcome Prime Minister Rama here in Brussels for the 11th Stabilisation and Association Council with Albania that we have just held. Before going into the details about this Council, let me stress the following important messages. 

First, Albania is a key partner of the European Union, a reliable security partner and in many respects a role model in the region. Albania is now consistently 100% aligned with our European Union foreign and security policy decisions and, in doing so, it sends a strong signal of your commitment to the European Union accession and serves as a positive example for the region and we cannot say the same thing for all the countries in the Western Balkan region. 

On the other hand, the European Union is Albania’s strongest partner and we will continue accompanying you on your European path. We provided and are providing unprecedented support in tackling the consequences of the earthquake, the coronavirus pandemic or on recovery process.

Today’s Council was an opportunity to take stock of our relations and the implementation of the necessary reforms. Talking about reforms, we commended Albania for its determination to advance with the reform agenda and for the results achieved so far – in particular in the area of the rule of law. We want to encourage Albania to continue with this. Reforms are important in your European efforts but even more importantly, they are key to the modernisation of the country and for the benefit of the Albanian citizens.

We are in the context of upcoming parliamentary elections, and in this context, we stressed the need for all to ensure that candidate lists are comprised of people with integrity. This is key to demonstrate the country’s commitment to fight corruption and the fight against corruption is one of the key criteria in the accession process and essential for every functioning democracy. 

Regarding elections, we have also a message to all political leaders and parties in Albania: European integration should be a shared national objective, which requires the commitment of all sides to constructive political dialogue. Excessive polarisation is not a sign of democratic maturity; it does not serve the country because it hinders the progress and is definitely not in the interest of citizens. 

Finally, we are looking forward to holding the first Inter-Governmental Conference as soon as possible after the approval of the Negotiating Framework, and in line with the conditions for holding the first Inter-Governmental Conference as set out in the Council conclusions of March 2020, already one year ago. 

Thank you everyone for your attention. 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Thank you very much Mr. Borrell, Mr. Varhelyi, everyone else here that provided for us such a gracious welcome in such strange times!

Let me first and foremost tell you that we very much appreciate the effort made by the Commissioner to be on our side in this very, very tricky moment, when we, Albania, and the other countries in the region were left aside in the distribution of the vaccines. It was a shocking moment for our people, because, as you know, as everyone knows we don’t live on the borders of the European Union, but we live within the European Union body, we are surrounded in our region by the European Union’s borders and having our elderly, having our ailing people, having our people in general feeling that the vaccine was not something they deserved to receive at the same time with others, was too bad.

But, I know, you all know that how it went. Today, there are 140 countries that haven’t started any injections. Today, there are 10 countries own 70% of the production, so it is tough not only for us, but also for many EU member states and I very much hope this situation will be unblocked. I am happy to hear from you and announce here with you that COVAX is starting to finally deliver the first vaccine doses to various countries. We will be very happy to receive the first delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine. In the meantime, we are working very hard to increase the capacities and, although it was not the best choice, we are looking beyond the already desirable sources of the vaccines.

Secondly, I am very happy to hear directly from you what we have already heard in different circumstances, and again being underlined from you that Albania has done everything it had to do to have the first Intergovernmental Conference started. I know how it goes. We know how it goes. It may happen, it may not happen, but the most important thing for us is that we have done our job. We are always very much attentive to listen to the commission, because, in my view, the Commission is the top notch mechanism factually assessing the progress of a country.

And last but not least, I very much believe that the Balkan investment plan launched by Commissioner Varhelyi last year and being now put in motion is an incredibly helpful tool to strengthen our economies, to strengthen our cooperation and make our future safer and better, while we struggle to make progress in the integration process. As I have previously told you, we don’t do these reforms because you ask us to do it, or because others ask us to do it. For us, these reforms are what we owe to our children, what we owe to the next generations and in that way I would say that the European Union is  a bless for our people and future of our people. It may feel like a curse in the actual circumstances, but it is not. It is a pain we have to deal with in the name of future. There is nothing in our future that can compare and can compete with the European Union.

Thank you very much!

Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi: Thank you very much! I only want to complement what you have heard already and I would like to also draw your attention to the fact that Albania is the country that not only had to suffer the pandemic but was faced with an earthquake right before the pandemic hit. So the challenges are exceptional in Albania, maybe even higher than anywhere else in the region. And still today we have been able to see that Albania is delivering on its promises and delivering on the criteria to be able to start the first Intergovernmental Conference. This is something which is very important and should give a very clear sign to everybody that Albania is not only able to but actually is delivering on the ground, be it on the rule of law reform, be it in other areas. 

And of course in our discussion, the justice reform and the rule of law were the key issues and there I can already echo our common assessment, which is that with the vetting process going ahead very strongly, with the appointment of the judges at the High Court, with the appointment of judges at the Constitutional Court, we are there. So on our side, the assessment we are giving to our Member States is that everything is met for the first Intergovernmental Conference.

Now of course, the other big issue that we have been discussing was the COVID crisis and in the COVID crisis, as you have seen in the first wave, we have already mobilised significant support to the Western Balkans, including to Albania. We have also mobilised a very important plan, Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, and I am very happy to hear that Prime Minister Rama is considering it to be an important element. This is not only for the mid-term, long-term development of the country, but also I consider it to be our contribution to the post-COVID economic recovery, because we need to design the economic recovery together. And Europe wants to be part of the economic recovery of the Western Balkans and Albania. And this is a very strong message everybody should understand. 

Now of course nowadays everything is about vaccines, it’s not about masks anymore, it’s not about ventilators anymore, it’s not about the financial support but the availability of vaccines. As you have seen, our Member States are also struggling to get sufficient vaccines for their citizens and their people. We are not forgetting about the Western Balkans or other neighbouring countries. We are working very hard, night and day, to get the vaccines to these regions. For us it is a priority.  We are working not only ourselves but also through the COVAX initiative and through other initiatives as well. 

I am also very happy to tell you that there will be a first delivery through the COVAX initiative already this month from AstraZeneca to Albania and we are working also for the other countries, not only through COVAX, but through our own initiative and our own solution as European Commission to bring the help, quickly, to the people. This is because we care. 

Finally we of course also took stock of the implementation of the Association and Stabilisation Agreement. Progress there is very visible and touchable. And I am very happy to see how we implement this agreement, brings us closer to each other in the economy but also in our societies. 

And one last word about the elections. We know that Albania will hold its parliamentary elections in April, so we have also touched a bit on this issue, where we expressed our hope that the elections will be free and fair and we will have a first big proof of the functioning of the Albanian democracy and that after the elections we can very quickly continue working.

And something I would want to underline. We have encouraged the Albanian authorities not to stop working during the campaign or for the campaign, because delivering on the ground on the reforms has been the crucial point through which we have managed to convince our Member States to support opening the accession negotiations for Albania. So the track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime should be enriched and we encourage the Albanian authorities to press even harder, no matter that there are elections coming up.  

–Thank you! I have a question for the High Representative Borrel and the Commissioner Várhelyi .

High Representative, you raised the issue of the forthcoming elections. According to the OSCE report, several irregularities have been registered in the previous elections such as pressure on the voters, use of public administration and vote buying. Prosecution of vote buying is a pre-condition of last year’s Council Decision on Albania and also reflected in recent amendments of the AFET committee in the European Parliament, referring to the fact that those alleged cases have not reached court and that no arrests have been made. Do you share this concern of the European Parliament and the Member States on vote buying and have you hear any guarantees from the Albanian government today that those irregularities will not be repeated again in the general elections of the 25th of April?

And for the Commissioner Várhelyi, we understand your optimism as the Commission is really the institution that pushes forward Albania’s European integration when you say that everything has been made for the first IGC, but are you sure that the Member States will support you in saying that the anti-corruption and the anti-organized crime bodies are just starting to operate right now, because they want clear signs of prosecution and convictions of high-level cases of corruption and organized crime. O. do you think it is enough just for those bodies to have been operational right now and not to have concrete signals and, as you said in the end, track record? And the second question I have for you, do you consider the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court fully functioning or partially functioning, as it is considered by some Member States, as well as by some MEPs in the European Parliament?

EU High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell: We will have to share the answer. With respect to the elections, we understand that the practical preparations for the forthcoming elections are well under way. We have encouraged the Prime Minister to further follow up on all the aspects covered by the OSCE and ODIHR recommendations as well as the Venice Commission. 

About the specific issue of vote buying to which you made a reference, let me just say that the last report of the Commission on Albania highlighted the importance of a swift and transparent investigation of alleged electoral violations – alleged. Also, the March 2020 Council Conclusions underlined that the initiation of proceedings against those accused of vote buying is one of the issues that will have to be reflected in the negotiation framework for the accession negotiations with Albania. This is the formal position of the Council and the Commission. 

Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi: Well, let’s share the answer. Yes, in addition to what the High Representative said, what I can tell you is that we are approaching an election, which was prepared, I think, in a thorough way. First of all, we had an agreement between all the parliamentary parties and the parties outside the parliament on the electoral reform.

This is already a new element compared to the previous elections and this also brings guarantees when it comes to vote-buying or other irregularities in the voting process.

Second, that reform was in full compliance with the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, in which this has been a major issue. So, we think that legislative wise, this is addressed. This was then followed by the Venice Commission’s opinion, which the government and all parliamentary parties and the opposition agreed to fully implement and this is another layer of guarantees to avoid these irregularities. And the third layer of guarantees, to my mind, is the participation of the observers in the elections.

I understand that the observers have been invited, and, unfortunately because of the COVID, this is not an easy task to implement, but we, on our side, will help so that the observers can be there and perform these tasks. So, with these elements, I think that sufficient guarantees are in the system.

Of course, we will be, as it is the very question you put about the vote-buying, we will be on the ground and we will see whether this takes place and what measures will be taken.

We on our side would of course want full vigour of the law to be imposed and we want to see that there would be all efforts made on the side of the authorities organizing the elections against any vote-buying.

Now, on your question when it comes to the high-level corruption cases and the anti-corruption agencies, I am very happy to tell you that this is again we have been discussing and where Albania is making steady progress and it was on the basis of that progress that we were able to convince the Member States already in March to vote for opening the accession negotiations for Albania.

It goes without saying that now we need to see appointments, we need to see these bodies functioning and carrying out the tasks they are responsible for.

When I pointed to the need to continue to build the track record, this is what I had in mind, of course, not only in this area, but also the vetting of the judges that should continue and everything else that is related to fighting organized crime, corruption, drug trafficking, you name it. This was the approach of this Commission; that we have to make progress on the ground, not so much in closed rooms, but on the ground and we will insist on this.

Your question on the High Court and the Constitutional Court, whether they are fully functioning, we consider the Constitutional Court to be fully functioning, it has the necessary number of judges to hold all hearings and make all decisions it is capable of delivering on the law.

While we are still missing two judges from the High Court and I understand that their appointment is also on its way and I do hope that still before the elections we will see these two appointments are actually made. That would complete all the conditions we have put to Albania for the first Intergovernmental Conference.

PM Edi Rama: I would like to add something, with your permission, because it is quite impressive to hear in my language such an incredible statement like nobody has been investigated, nothing has happened, regarding the alleged case of vote-buying, while there are 20 people indicted by the prosecutor and now, as we speak, in due process. So, 20 people involved in the alleged involved in vote-buying from all the parties, by the way. So it is impressive to see this lazy activism express itself in this very high temple of the European Union, but it is what it is.

 –My first question actually is about why was the Stabilization and Association Council with North Macedonia postponed. It was supposed to take place in February, but it was actually postponed. Was this due to the lack of progress between Bulgaria and North Macedonia? I would like a precise answer for this postponement. And I would like to know if you have discussed in any shape or form the possibility for Albania to start the first intergovernmental conference before North Macedonia, which was the other way around until a few months ago. And I would also like to have the Prime Minister Rama’s opinion on that: what if Albania starts the Intergovernmental Conference before North Macedonia? What is your position on that?

EU High Representative and Vice President Joseph Borrell: Well, for sure your point of view is very much important. There is not yet a date for the intergovernmental conference. We have been discussing about it and expressed our wish that this firs intergovernmental conference could take place as soon as possible. But for the time being, there is not a fixed date, because despite the fact that Albania has been doing a lot of progress, some Member States consider that it is still needed to advance more before calling for this first intergovernmental conference. But I am confident that it will take place soon, as soon as possible.

PM Edi Rama: To answer your question, first of all, I want to go back to what I said at the beginning. Being Albania, being North Macedonia, being whomever else in our region, we have only one thing to do; keep going and make possible in every step that change happens in our country, institutions are built and become stronger, the state functions in a European way and that our citizens can live in our countries by the EU standards.

After all, this is at the end what we seek and what we should deliver. Then, how and when, what we do will materialize in the officially confirmed status, like the intergovernmental conference, like second intergovernmental conference, like third, like the collective therapy in group between us and these guys here and things like that, this is really not up to us. We have to understand it. We live in a different time, not the best for us. When they were in the best time, we were really the worst guys to deal with.

Now we are in a good shape, I would say, but they are not in their best time, so we have to understand it.

When it comes to North Macedonia and Albania and the possible decoupling on the contrary, I hope this won’t happen. I hope we will keep going together also on this path. But I was terrified from the first second I realized that identity discussions started between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, because it is the worst discussion possible to take place while we need consensus of all members of the European Union to take the next step, because it is emotional, it is complicated, it is because, because, because.

But I hope only one thing that the wise leaders – and they are wise leaders – of North Macedonia and Bulgaria will sort it out by themselves. I hope that our North Macedonian brothers will not wait for some magic coming from Berlin, Washington, or London or wherever because it won’t come. They should simply find a way to agree with the Bulgarian friends about what the past not really was, but what the past has to be dealt with from whom. The past cannot be dealt from politicians and the politics. If we put the past in politics, we are doomed to be slaves of the past. Let the historians, let the academics, let the civil society, let others do it. If politics would be involved, I am afraid this would be another process that would  – God forbid it – chain North Macedonia for another… I don’t know how long. Anyhow, we are happy to be with you, bear with you and if we are told “Ok guys, you have done great, but let’s wait for your neighbours,” no problem. No problem at all, we will bear with you.

Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi: As for the first intergovernmental conference, we have been repeating this all the time. We have stated this is a merit-based process. So, whoever meets the conditions, will have to have the first governmental conference open. As I told you, today we have been discussing the case of Albania and we have found that the conditions are met and therefore we will make the necessary proposal, we will contact the member states to agree on organizing the first intergovernmental conference as soon as we can with Albania.

Now on why the Association and Stabilization Council with North Macedonia was postponed, you may be recall that the Association Council with Albania was not supposed to take place today, but it was supposed to take place on November. So it was already postponed once. With North Macedonia we are looking for a date, but during these COVID times, we may anticipate some hiccups in putting together meetings that require in person participations. So, there is nothing spooky about this. This is how we are living during the COVID.

–I have a question about the defence issue and the question is for the Prime Minister and the EU High Representative. Prime Minister, I would like to know whether Albania is also interested in participating in the EU defence and security cooperation. If you have seen, the US has actually requested to participate in the PESCO projects in the future. I would like to know if you can confirm that the United States have submitted a request to participate in one of the PESCO projects, if so can you tell us a bit more about it? Thank you!

PM Edi Rama: First of all you should know that by definition we participate in everything the EU wants us to participate and we don’t question it.

It may look weird from your prospective or from the prospective of whoever doesn’t really understand or cannot understand factually our history and the way we have come to here, but we were talking with the High Representative and the Commissioner before. We are a country that has never ever in any of circumstances waivered from the EU foreign policy line, 100% in compliance. It is a unique loyalty, I would say.

By the way, I have news for you. We already are part of this European defence initiative. We already are. It is not whether we want to. We just are in. So, maybe we are used to be like that, always loyal to every empire and the last to let the empire and our history down.

EU High Representative and Vice President Joseph Borrell: About the US participation in PESCO, you know that recently we have finally reached an agreement in order to make possible the participation of third countries in PESCO. If the US wants to participate in a PESCO project, I think it is a good idea, it is good news, but if you want to confirm something that the Americans have decided, the best thing to do is to ask them.  

Thank you!​