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EU Enlargement Meets EU Realism in Albania

Updated: May 23

On the 20th of November, during state budget proceedings for 2024, members of the Albanian parliamentary opposition Democratic Party (DP), led by former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, caused disrupted proceedings after lighting flares and smoke bombs in the building. 

Scenes like these may sound preposterous when they happen in a space where lawmakers are supposed to serve the people, but, right now, it reflects the reality of Albanian politics. The recent chaos in the Albanian parliament and the numerous instances of corruption and criminality involving elected politicians, makes you wonder, can we really consider Albania a future European Union member?

Albania is on the agenda for future enlargement of the EU. In 2009, Albania officially applied to become a member of the EU, and in 2014 it was granted candidate status. However, several major issues have halted the application process since then, and Albania is to blame.

There are two issues that are crucial for understanding why Albania is not becoming an EU member any time soon. Firstly, there are high levels of political corruption, starting at the top of the political pyramid with Prime Minister Edi Rama. Second, there is a deep connection between the Albanian political system and the criminal underworld, in which the Prime Minister and his appointed lobby seem connected.

Edi Rama has been ruling Albania since 2013 and has promised his people a path towards EU ascension, a promise that is not being met straightforwardly. His centralisation of unlimited political power has made him the de facto ruler, legislator, and judge of Albanian politics. He has weakened any political opposition by targeting his political opponents through campaigns.

As it stands now, the lack of serious political opposition in Albania troubles the EU; an ongoing issue was recently reported on in the European Commission Report for Albania in 2023. However, even the minimal existing opposition that struggles to be relevant in Albanian politics is full of corrupt politicians.

Take, for example, former Prime Minister Sali Berisha. Berisha has been accused of money laundering and corruption, exploiting his position as a lawmaker to allow his son-in-law to buy land in Tirana and build an apartment complex. His son-in-law has since been arrested. At the same time, Berisha was ordered to appear in front of the judicial police. In addition, Berisha was found using his political power to enrich his friends and family. In response, the UK and the USA have placed indefinite entry bans on him and his close family members. Whether Edi Rama had anything to do with the indictment of Berisha, we cannot know for sure, but it is not unlikely, as Rama has been accused of criminal acts before. 

Albanian criminality and Albanian politics are deeply connected.

According to the Anti-Money-Laundering Index (AML), Albania ranks number one in money laundering schemes in Europe. It is one of the top 10 European countries for human trafficking. Its drug trafficking operations are on such a scale that they are estimated to be worth at least US$4 billion a year, roughly 26% of Albania's GDP. Those statistics alone have labelled Albanian as the Colombia of Europe, becoming Europe's main headquarters for drug trafficking.

This is where Edi Rama comes under the spotlight again. Over the years, he and his appointed lobby have produced reforms that allow for criminality by making money laundering easier. He has also ignored the drug traffickers by enabling them to install their own monitoring systems with cameras all over the country. Even though he has pledged to fight criminality, he is actually sympathetic to it and allowing criminals to expand their power

But of course he is sympathetic since drug trafficking brings millions into the country. Just take a look at the coastal cities in Albania. A recent boom in the development of luxury real estates has seen them spawning all over the countries Mediterranean coast. At the same time, unemployment and emigration to EU countries are growing larger by the day. Can ordinary, hard-working citizens afford to live in those apartments? No, since those apartments were never meant to serve the ordinary citizens of Albania

There are far more reasons that Albania is unsuitable to join the EU besides these, but criminality and corruption remain primary. These two interconnected reasons should be enough to explain to anyone why there is so much doubt surrounding Albanian ascension to the EU. 

I am barely scratching the surface of the corruption and criminal connections in Albanian politics. It does not make me happy to expose the truth of Albania's systemic failings, but it needs to be done for the country to grow. Edi Rama may have a firm grip on Albania at present but he cannot hold on forever. 

Albania actually joining the EU is pointless at the moment, given the current situation in the country. Ascension would only bring more political and economic problems into the Union. Actual change has to come from within the country. Most Albanians favour joining the EU, but it's not a matter of what the EU can do for Albania; it is a matter of what Albania can do for the EU. 

There is potential to discuss Albania joining in the future, but that can only be achieved after the next elections. So, we wait for 2025 hoping change will come. Until then, the EU will continue its fight against corruption in the country, but it will need the full support of the Albanian people.

Image: Attila Terbócs

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