Albania determined to put in EU bid in June
Tirana -- Albania is determined to submit its candidacy for European Union membership in June despite the global economic crisis and uncertainty about EU enlargement, Prime Minister Sali Berisha said.
In an interview with AFP, Berisha said an agreement "in principle" has been reached with the Czech EU president for Albania to apply for membership before its June 28 parliamentary elections.
"We agreed on submitting the request," he said, noting that 96 percent of Albanians back their once-communist nation’s EU ambitions.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has told Albanian news media that smooth conduct of the elections, in line with European criteria, is essential before Tirana can present its candidacy.
It would then be up to the 27 incumbent EU member states to unanimously approve the candidacy. Negotiations with the European Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — would follow.
Albania is already on the threshold of joining NATO next month — a landmark that Berisha called "the biggest event for my country after independence" from the Ottoman Empire in 1912.
Since the demise of communism in the early 1990s, all elections in Albania — a predominantly Muslim nation of 3.6 million that remains one of Europe’s poorest countries — have been disputed and marred by incidents.
Last November, however, parliament adopted a new electoral law aimed at preventing fraud.
Albania’s left-leaning opposition is in favour of submitting candidacy papers after the elections, arguing there is a risk the application will otherwise remain a dead letter for a long time.
Several EU member states are meanwhile reluctant to widen their club so long as the Lisbon reform treaty — intended to streamline decision-making in the wake of enlargement in 2004 and 2007 — is not in place.
Speaking to AFP two weeks ago, Berisha acknowledged that economic hard times could "create a sentiment of reluctance" among Europeans to welcome new member states, and that in turn could "demotivate public opinion" in Albania.
Berisha nevertheless expressed hope that EU member states would appreciate "our efforts" to modernise, particularly in terms of fighting corruption and organised crime which flourished in the aftermath of communism.
As recently as 2005, he said: "This country was dominated by organised crime. Towns, villages, districts were a kind of protectorate of organised crime. They controlled the customs, the border crossings, the ports."
Today, however, hundreds of criminals have been brought to justice, Berisha said, and there is a policy of "zero tolerance" towards organised crime.
EU leaders, at a summit in Brussels last month, agreed to conclude a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Albania — an important first step towards full membership.
Three countries — Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey — now have EU candidate status, and there is a lively debate underway in Iceland on whether it too should seek to join the bloc.
Looking ahead to NATO membership, Berisha said: "This is a dream that has become a reality.” He added, without elaborating, that Albania would be "open" to everything that NATO could ask of it.
Albania was invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April last year, and it has already deployed small army units in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq.