The problem with information around EU accession is the belief that the EU’s statements of support for the country’s accession are little more than lip service.
Albania applied for EU membership in April 2009 and received candidate status by June 2014. Then, after what many Albanians perceive as an unnecessarily long wait, negotiations were opened in the summer of 2022.
For several years, Albania’s accession path was hindered by shortfalls in the rule of law, media freedom, corruption, and organized crime. But then, once it was deemed to tick the boxes, on paper at least, its accession was held up by a geopolitical rift between neighbors.
The country’s EU path was coupled with that of North Macedonia. While Skopje fulfilled criteria sooner than Tirana, a spat with Bulgaria over language, history, and culture led to Sofia vetoing progression. This meant that Albania’s path was essentially held hostage for two years until the deadlock could be resolved in the summer of 2022.
It was during these years in the EU waiting room cracks in the public’s confidence began to appear.
Pro-EU, not pro-EC
Albania has long been the most pro-EU country in the region. A poll conducted by Euronews Albania in December 2022 found that 95.9% of Albanians are pro-European, and a similar figure believes membership is very important.
But the figures are lower regarding trusting the EU and its institutions. Albanian confidence in the EU fell by four percentage points in 2021, from 75% in 2020, according to the Trust in Governance poll conducted by the Institute of Democracy and Mediation. With 71% trusting the EU, it ranked below both NATO (73.2%) and the UN (71.4%).
Another sore point for the EU is the Brussels and US-backed justice reform and vetting process. The survey found that only 35% thought it was being implemented correctly, with 57% saying it would positively impact the country. While numbers increase by 6 and 4 percentage points, respectively, between 2020 and 2021, the numbers are far from impressive.
“Karma is a bitch”
Dissatisfaction in the EU has also been fuelled by frustrated comments from Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
In June 2022, before accession was formally opened, he expressed “deep sorrow” for the EU, called the spirit of enlargement “crooked,” and added, "You are a mess guys, you are a big mess, and you are a disgrace, and I think it’s a shame that a NATO country kidnaps two other NATO countries while in the backyard of Europe, there is a hot war and of course, it’s not good to see that 26 other countries sit still in a scary show of impotence," in reference to the spat between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
When the Qatargate scandal rocked the European Parliament at the end of 2022, Rama, once again not mincing words, said, “karma is a bitch” and accused them of holding other countries to higher standards than they hold themselves.
“More than half of the EU countries would not be able to enter the EU anymore,” Rama said. “I am not talking about the former communists. I’m also talking about founders, believe me.”
In an interview with me in December 2022, he said EU accession is not something that can be cheated, accusing Greece of doing so when it joined the bloc in 1981.
Andi Hoxha, lecturer in law at University College London and EU integration expert, also thinks this has a role to play in declining trust.
“The EU preaches and advises something different to the Western Balkans while failing to follow its own advice. For example, it rightly calls for combating corruption and making Western Balkans institutions more transparent. Still, at the same time, a number of EU officials engage in and are caught red-handed engaging in corruption, as seen in the 'Qatargate' scandal,” he said.
“Thus, Western Balkans citizens believe that some EU institutions behave similarly to those in the Balkans, which were once regarded as gold standards.”
In reference to a question I posted on my social media, one user told me, “I hope it never joins because for what the EU is today, it wouldn’t be an upgrade.”
But it is not just political rhetoric that is leading to public disillusionment. The language used by EU officials is taking its toll on people’s patience.
In 2022, President of the European Council Charles Michel tweeted, “The Western Balkans are a strategic priority for the EU. We are fully committed to the European perspective of the region. We welcome your government’s focus on implementing reforms and tackling issues like the rule of law, justice reforms, and fighting corruption.”
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also has a fine repertoire of similar statements.
“…enduring cooperation between Albania and the European Union, and of our common future. We have seen the future. We have seen the children, the boys and girls. And let me be very clear, Albania’s future is in the European Union. We are friends and partners.”
Words such as “commitment,” “cooperation,” and “strategic priority” are rolled out in every press conference, statement, and public meeting relating to Albania and the EU, and people are tired of hearing them.
Hoxha said, “People have been losing faith in such statements for quite some time, as ‘commitment’ is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a concrete timetable for when and how the integration will take place. “
He adds it is no longer enough to say “Albania ‘belongs in the EU’ because it is a part of the EU's cultural and geopolitical fabric, etc., but rather a more detailed picture of how integration can take place.”
“As a result, the lack of a clear timeline for Albania and the rest of the Western Balkans to integrate will only serve to erode public trust in the EU and its institutions,” he added.
Some segments of the population also argue that Albania is far from meeting the requirements of accession and accuse the EU of glossing over problems with the rule of law, media, and corruption to the benefit of the government.
Vincent Van Gerven Oei, a publisher and political analyst, said, “Trust in EU institutions is failing because the accession process by its very nature strengthens executive power, and if those in power are perceived to be corrupt, which in Albania is shown by its steady slide down corruption indexes and the widespread public perception of corruption in the government. If the European Commission, which in the public mind is inseparable from the European Union, is perceived to be reinforcing precisely this which is corrupt, of course, trust is failing.”
He added that he believes there is some commitment to integration but that it is clear the EU has “no idea” whether it wants to expand or what its future might look like.
This, he said, has been demonstrated through the speedy accession of Ukraine to candidate status, the way it is “leading” the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, and its approach to the disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Combined with the “ambiguity toward the Albanian government, ”this means that “unless it addresses these issues, they will continue to lose credibility. This is a process that has been doing on for the last decade; it is not something new.”
Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, wrote that “the EU’s enlargement process is far from credible” as the last member was welcomed in 2013. A quick, informal survey on my social media accounts found that many are not convinced the EU even wants Albania to join.
“The EU doesn’t even want Albania to be a part of them. It only cares about Serbia. Albania will be a member of the EU when Turkey holds the EU presidency,” one user said.
Another explained, “people are tired of hearing empty words from Brussels while life in Albania gets harder and thousands of people leave every year.”
Some 1.4 million people have left Albania since the fall of communism in 1991, with 700,000 emigrating in the last year and a record 36,000 mainly youth moving in 2022 alone. This exodus can be attributed to many factors, but it is likely that a lack of a clear European perspective is also having an impact.
In Albania, it is not external influence and disinformation from Russia or other malign actors that the EU has to worry about. Rather it is the policy, strategy, and rhetoric of the executive itself.
The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Albania (Exit), within the project "Use of facts-based journalism to raise awareness of and counteract disinformation in the North Macedonia media space (Use Facts)" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.
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