Since September 2018, Luigi Soreca has been the EU’s Ambassador to Albania. His presence has come at an extremely crucial time for both the EU and Albania, as it aims to begin negotiation talks to EU accession in 2019. Albania has been an official candidate for accession since 2014, but after undergoing reforms and taking other steps to modernize the country its hopes are high that negotiations will begin soon. Here, Soreca explains what the process of becoming an EU member, positive trends in Albania and the importance of German presence in the country
In June, the EU will make a decision about whether or not to begin EU accession talks with Albania. How would you describe this moment in time?
We are at a crossroad because at the end of May, the European Commission is going to make its recommendation, on the basis of the contributions delivered to my office by the government, civil society as well as the member states. And on that basis, the Council of the European Union will take a decision.
Albania has certainly made substantial progress in the last two years, mainly in the area of judicial reform, which is very crucial for the future of the country and for restoring confidence in the judicial system. Albanians very much supported the reform when it was adopted in 2016 and there’s been a lot of progress. The setting up last December of the judicial institutions foreseen by the Constitution is good news, as it is the fact that now we are in a situation in which posts are being filled in the Constitutional Court. The vetting process is ongoing, so far around 130 decisions have been made with an average of 45 percent of the magistrates having been dismissed. This figure exposes the importance of the matter. If such a high level of magistrates do not pass the vetting process and therefore are taken out of the system, this confirms that the problem was real. There has also been significant progress in the fight against organized crime.
We are talking about progress, not about solving all the problems at this stage. Opening negotiations does not mean acceding to the EU. It means that the country has reached a sufficient level of progress on the requests made by the European Commission and the Council of the European Union and there are positive trends in the country. It’s very important to avoid the confusion that the country needs to be at the level of acceding the European Union. This will come at the end of the process, which has been the same for all of the other countries that acceded. So, now we have to assess if sufficient progress is taking place – enough to show a real commitment to make the progress sustainable.
It is now the time for the European Union to make a decision on the path of Albania towards the EU. We are very much aware that the decision in June is of critical importance to the future of the country. It is an important decision which is very meaningful to the Albanian people, who have the highest level of interest in the EU in the whole South-East Europe.
We’ve talked a little bit about the progress being made around anti-corruption and organized crime. What other areas of reform would you highlight?
Certainly, the area of public administration. The country comes from a difficult past and the public administration is the backbone of the state. It’s the fuel for every government plan. A few years ago, very thorough budget support for public administration reform was launched, including the reform of the civil service, so as to depoliticize the recruitment of newly appointed civil servants.
Two years ago, there was also an important territorial reform which reduced the country’s municipalities to 61. There is still work to be done in terms of ensuring that the new municipalities, which have bigger territories to cover, have the necessary human and financial resources. This will take some time, but we see a trend of progress.
Another very important change, which I think is probably the most important reform for the future of Albania is property rights reform. What does it mean? Property rights mean one piece of land, one property and one registration. Because the nationalization of the lands property done under Communism followed by a somehow difficult and long transition, there have been several public authorities issuing different property titles for the same piece of land. Some work has already begun but it is clear that this is a massive reform, which will start now with the support of the European Union. We are going to help Albania to map every single hectare of the country with a new map of property registration. This, among other things, will facilitate legal certainty for property and foreign investment. If you talk to the business investors, they are still quite worried about investing money in Albania because of this long-awaited reform. The reform might take a while, but in the medium term this will become the most significant reform that we can all wish for the country.
What message would you send to foreign investors in Albania?
I know that foreign investors are concerned at the moment. There was a very recent survey that was released a few days ago by a German association, which stated that German investors were concerned about the trend in politics and also the time it is taking to undertake the property rights reform. I understand, of course, that for a foreign investor, having the legal certainty around your investment is very important. But I see significant political will by the current majority to address the problem.
I think it’s important to also look at the potential of the country. And even in this politically difficult situation, the growth rate is pretty strong, around four percent, still high compared to the some other countries in Europe. It’s been like this in the last years and the forecast is more or less the same. There are interesting investments in infrastructure, which are important for foreign investors. So, I would say that the legislative framework is being shaped at the moment, but I think investors should look at Albania with interest as a potential market.
What EU investments would you like to highlight in Albania?
There are two areas that I would primarily flag – agriculture and tourism. Agriculture, at the moment, makes up 25 percent of the Albanian economy. Finally, last year, after a few years of preparation, Albania entered into the EU IPARD program, which allows the EU candidate countries to receive funding to develop agricultural projects. Last October, together with Prime Minister Edi Rama, we launched the €92 million IPARD agricultural program. The EU will contribute with €74 million and the rest will come from the Albanian government. After the first call for proposals for the program, 300 farmers have applied to invest in developing their agriculture businesses. This is a very important development. The objective is to modernize the current outdated system.
The second area is tourism. Tourism is, in my view, the greatest potential that the country holds. If you have visited Albania, you can see that seaside and mountains have great tourism potential. On May 3, together with the Prime Minister and with the President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), we will launch a €40 million investment program to stimulate the creation of local touristic initiatives built upon the rich cultural heritage of the country.
Do you have any final messages to our German audience about Albania?
Germany has been very supportive of Albania. Germany and the European Union are neck and neck as top donors in the country. Germany is a great and important partner for Albania within the EU family. German investors should also continue to look into Albania with interest. Germany’s presence is essential to help Albania focus its efforts on its path to integration to EU, where it belongs from an historical and geographical point of view.