Citizens’ perception on Albania’s EU integration process: Will the belief that the sun rises from the west prevail?

Supported by:Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Tirana

Project:Measuring citizens' attitudes towards security and justice in Albania

Albania masters a clear strategic vocation and cross-party commitment to join the European Union. The accession perspective granted by the Thessaloniki Summit back in 2003 is considered the major catalyst for the advancement of the reform agenda and democratization of the country. Although the pace of accession has been marred by several hiccups over the years, public support for the process remains (roughly) above 90%.

Despite the general support at the domestic level, the EU enlargement process involving Albania and the Western Balkans is currently stalling. As the Union stumbles through several internal crises and its leaders become prone to regurgitating old promises, the EU’s intentions of pushing the accession process forward have become more ambiguous. Enlargement has turned into a contentious policy within EU member states, which has led to a contradictory relationship relation between the EU on the one hand and the membership-seeking countries on the other. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 seems to have set the enlargement policy adrift, posing questions of the Union’s credibility and hindering efforts for further democratization in the region.

As membership seems ‘out of reach’ for almost all the Balkan countries, Albania finds itself divided between domestic reform struggles and a certain ‘waiting fatigue’. It has been five years since the country embarked upon a deep and comprehensive judicial reform – strongly backed by the EU and USA – which was expected to mark the turning point for the opening of the accession talks. However, the theoretical green light to the opening has not materialized into practice and there is little chance that it will occur within the year. Instead, a domestic polarized political climate has succeeded in the politicization of the undertaking of policy reforms. This has contributed to rising scepticism among the population about the effectiveness of these reforms, while also affecting public trust in state institutions.

No less important is the politicization of enlargement by certain member states, like France and the Netherlands, which has partially contributed to the general disappointment and domestic fatigue. On the one hand, are the member states that see enlargement as important for the Union’s geostrategic interests, while on the other are those who desire a normative-based accession perspective. As questioning the progress of Albania on its EU-reform agenda has become an issue of discussion in some European capitals, the Union’s ambiguity is playing out in favour of third countries with a strong interest in edging onto the regional scene.

In the light of the present uncertainties and repeated accession setbacks, this policy brief seeks to analyse the extent to which public perception reflects and contrasts the official positioning of Albania in foreign and security policy. The analysis relies on the findings of the 2020 edition of the Albanian Security Barometer as well as primary and secondary sources such as official documents, official statements, reports issued by the EU, and media coverage.

The paper is organized into three main sections. It starts with an overview of Albania’s obligation to address the key priorities at the domestic level vis-à-vis citizens’ perception of the related performance, Then, the focus shifts to the implications of the EU’s internal developments which hinder the accession process of the candidate countries. Finally, the third section compares and contrasts the citizens’ perceptions of the influence of external actors like Turkey, China, and the Arab countries and the latter’s potential derailing of Albania’s EU accession path. The paper concludes that the mixed signals arriving from the EU are neither beneficial nor constructive for Albania’s democratization process and the continent’s stability and security. Therefore, all actors need to engage in the creation of a new political momentum that can push forward the process.