Albanian Euroscepticism? - The wrong debate in the wrong place at the wrong time

Albanian Euroscepticism? - The wrong debate in the wrong place at the wrong time 

Tirana Times -  

By Albert Rakipi 

Attempts to think critically and debate publicly the nature of the relationship between Albania and the European Union are most necessary at this juncture of Albania’s efforts to integrate. In the last fifteen years and especially in the last five or six years, the role of the EU in Albania’s political and economic transition has taken such an important weight that debating that role is almost unavoidable. 

Lately, a new idea has been introduced in the market of ideas regarding the role of the EU in Albania’s democratization. Its partisans propose a soft Euroscepticism, or “Eurodoubt” as a viable and useful alternative approach towards the EU. This article claims that such an approach is the wrong idea in the wrong place at the wrong time. It does so by analyzing the role of the EU as an agent of political legitimacy for the Albanian political system and its role as a state-builder in postcommunist Albania. Finally, the article considers the need to shift the debate towards increasing local ownership of the process of integration as the most useful way to fulfilling the goals the country has consensually agreed upon. 

Euroscepticism and its Albanian variety 

Euroscepticism is a trend of thought and political action that emerged soon after the beginnings of the European project. It takes its origin from the United Kingdom and consisted of opposition towards British membership in the EC. Later on, the agenda of British Eurosceptics became longer and more sophisticated in its opposition towards the common market, the euro, and the deepening of EU integration processes. At its root stands a strong almost instinctive doubt towards the success of the European project as well as a fear towards all supranational forms of government. From Britain, Euroscepticism became a considerable force in other West European countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and others, often conditioning the integration processes of these countries in the EU. 

While Euroscepticism may not have been the primary reason for the failure of the French and Dutch referendums last year, it certainly was important in the Norwegian and Swiss rejection of EU membership or in Britain’s refusal to join the Schengen Agreement. Euroscepticism is now present in a number of ex-Eastern Bloc countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and ever Croatia. Although these “eastern” and “western” varieties are held in common by the opposition towards EU or specific EU policies, their substances are different. Czech President Vaclav Klaus uses the old rhetoric of dissidence against over-bureaucratization against the EU while most other “eastern” Eurosceptics smack of old-fashioned nationalism. 

Coming back to the recently-articulated Albanian version of Euroscepticism, let us examine the thesis of its partisans. The overarching argument is that the processes of EU integration and democratic consolidation are not parallel processes and sometimes even contradict each other. In other words, the country’s integration efforts are in contradiction with its efforts to democratize. 

While Albanian Eurosceptics are not explicitly against EU membership, by putting the unequal sign between democratization and integration and coming out in favour of democratization, they implicitly urge the public to put integration ‘in the backburner’ if not to forget it entirely. 

This type of Euroscepticism is different than both the “western” and “eastern” variants we described above. In Britain, Euroscepticism did not come out of intellectual acrobatics but out of a genuine age-old British distrust of the world outside of the British Isles and especially of the old continent. It existed as an approach albeit in different shape even before the European Communities and was quickly adopted as a political programme once the EC became a reality that Britain had to deal with. Further, in Switzerland see European Union membership in terms of the traditional security choices the Swiss have made while the relationship between democracy and membership is a non-issue. 

In its “eastern” strands Euroscepticism is unconnected with democratization either. As a matter of fact, they have seen the prospect of membership and EU conditionality as a powerful factor that ‘conditions’ or ‘ensures’ the success of democratization. Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania…all of these countries consolidated democracy only after the prospect of membership became a powerful pull-factor. 

At its roots, Euroscepticism is mainly a phenomenon of industrialized countries from Britain to the Czech Republic while in the “economic periphery” of the Union it is mostly fueled by nationalistic fears. What should happen in Albania where, differently than in other East European countries, the EU has an unprecedented state-building dimension? 

The EU Agenda as a State building Agenda 

Albanian Eurosceptics maintain that in 1992 when EU-Albania relations were non-existent, the country was able to have free and fair elections. Since then the country’s relationship with the EU has become increasingly deeper while levels of democratization have made step back. Seeing a causal relationship between the two processes, the Eurosceptics conclude that the more efforts Albania makes to integrate, the farther away it slips from democratic consolidation. 

But, the empirical evidence is lacking. The 1992 elections were about changing the political system and not just rotating governments. On the other hand, despite the failures of the last fifteen years, the democratization process has moved forward as one can see even from the marks Albania gets over time from prestigious institutions such as Freedom House. 

The EU has the opposite effect on the Albanian political system than the one claimed by the Albanian Eurosceptics. First, it strengthens Albanian democracy by providing a source of political legitimacy. EU conditionality has ‘forced’ the political establishment to get back to the democratic rules of the game whenever they have strayed too far from them. In Albania, the scale of foreign and especially EU intervention in internal politics has been relatively higher than in other countries but that is because local elites see politics as a zero sum game which erodes the minimal consensus necessary for democracy. That perception is independent of EU and would remain true even without the country’s European perspective. It is thanks to EU and other actors’ intervention that consensus has been reestablished at critical junctures in Albanian politics. 

Second, the EU is building or rebuilding state institutions which works in favour of democratic consolidation. In 1997, Albania resembled the Hobbesian state of nature—suffice to recall the absence of a key element of the state, the prison. In 1997, Albania had a seat in the UN General Assembly but no prison. The absence of prison does not only mean that there were no people behind bars, but also no police force to arrest evildoers, prosecutors to build a case, judges to condemn them and so on. 

In 1997 the EU build a prison in Albania. Ever since, it has built and it continues to build courthouses, customs houses and others not only as mere buildings but as symbols of the reborn Albanian state. Democracy cannot function beyond the pale of the law. And it was the EU that is helping to bring the law back into Albanian lives. 

Capacity and Will 

Instead of doubting Europe in a country where there is no room for doubt, it is imperative to open the debate on local ownership of EU integration. The EU integration agenda in Albania is perceived as something that comes out of Brussels rather than the agenda of the country’s economic and political development. This agenda is not the ‘homework’ that Brussels hands out to the Albanian government but that which Albanians expect from their state. It is the agenda that will make a well-functioning state that hands out public goods in accordance to rule of law and the common will expressed in free and fair elections. Isn’t the ‘Brussels agenda’ and the ‘Albanians’ agenda’ one and the same? 

We have accepted democracy as the ideological pillar that will sustain the Albanian state. Others before us have shown the virtuous link between EU integration and democratization. Need we reinvent the wheel?