Applications to join the European Union from West Balkan countries present a conundrum. Their small populations offer only partial response to the EU’s looming labor and skill shortages and their political systems need a wholesale overhaul. The prospect of EU accession is the most important factor driving reforms and frustration at delays in opening talks risks destabilization. In Albania’s case, the European Commission has backed launching accession talks. EU politicians still need to agree.
Commemorating 550 years since the death of Gjergj Kastrioti, Albania’s own latterday Alexander the Great, was almost forgotten last year in the hectic activity to try to persuade the leaders of the European Union to open accession talks. The omission was corrected at the last minute.
Skanderbeg, as Kastrioti became known, was famous for his sterling defense against Ottoman invasion threats. He was also recognized for his skill in forging diplomatic alliances.
His father, an Albanian nobleman, sent him to keep in good relations with the Ottomans. Quickly rising up the Ottoman military ranks, Kastrioti was given a new name – from Iskander, Turkish for Alexander, and bey (beg), meaning chieftain – and a new religion. His Christianity was exchanged for Islam.
Still, the Ottomans confiscated all his family’s land and Skanderbeg defected, returning home with some 300 Albanian exiles to get it back. He united the local chieftains, reverted to Christianity, obtained funding from the Pope and, until his death in 1468, earned gratitude from Venice for defending it against Ottoman attacks.
With not too many mutatis mutandis, that could be the strategy of the Albanian government to join the EU. Learn the new rules and apply them to advantage with canny deftness.
There was perhaps never a more unlikely EU candidate than the former communist and isolationist state. Repression and secrecy had to give way to democratic values, public accountability and embracing freedom. Quickly and without backsliding. Politically. Economically. Socially.
In less than three decades, Albania has shown it can hold free and fair elections under the close scrutiny of the EU itself, revamp and modernize the economy to deliver consistent growth (admittedly from a low base) that exceeds the EU average, and redraw parts of its constitution and much of its judicial system to conform with union norms. All this, plus broadening its lifestyle to suit the aspirations of its young people for education, training and good jobs, alongside their other needs for leisure and pleasure.
The International Monetary Fund said in its latest regular report that growth is expected to moderate in 2019 but remain close to four percent over the medium-term, adding: “sustained development hinges on improvements in economic governance, including in the rule of law and the fight against corruption.” Even Albanians don’t claim to have achieved all their targets or goals and, when accused of falling short, they’re far too polite – and cautious – to snipe back by listing the recurring graft in mature European democracies.
Nature has gifted the country some stunning scenery and man and woman are hard at work building the soft and hard infrastructure to serve visitors, already numbering more than five million and growing fast. Man and woman? The collapse of gender barriers is all around, led by a government which has an even split between male and female ministers.
Although virtually unknown outside his homeland, Skanderbeg’s qualities have long been recognized by foreigners. ‘Land of Albania! Where Iskander rose; Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise,’ the poet Lord Byron wrote in 1812. Prime Minister Edi Rama, also an artist as well as politician, must hope that present-day Europeans recognize the Skanderbegian character of the superhero’s descendants.