It is fair to say that there is little love lost between Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his main opponent in this Sunday’s election, Lulzim Basha.
Basha has long called for Rama to resign over corruption claims while his MPs even withdrew from parliament in 2019 over allegations of vote-rigging. Meanwhile, opposition demonstrations got so out of control that at one point protesters tried to break into Rama’s office.
Polls see the two men neck-and-neck ahead of the election on Sunday, although Rama is confident that his Socialist Party will secure a landslide win. That would see Rama, a former painter and basketball player, serve an unprecedented third term as leader of Albania.
But if there is one thing that Basha and Rama agree on - at least in public - it is Europe and forging ahead with Albania’s much-stalled negotiations to join the European bloc. Albania’s European future has been a key election issue in 2021, as it has been at every other national poll in recent years.
It is a no-brainer, politically, to put Europe at the forefront of debate in a country where a February 2020 poll found as many as 97% of Albanians in favour of EU accession.
“We might be the only country where you cannot find any political force, be it local or even in the margins of the political spectrum to be against the EU,” Gledis Gjipali, executive director of the European Movement in Albania, told Euronews.
But like elsewhere in the Western Balkans, Albania’s road to Europe has been long, winding, and studded with potholes. Achingly slow, it has been frustrated at every turn by both changing political realities in the region and, more recently, changes of heart in Brussels.
France’s Emmanuel Macron and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte have epitomised Europe’s reluctance to open the books in recent years. In 2019, Macron blocked Albania and North Macedonia from moving forward with their membership bids.
Macron has his eye on his own re-election in 2022, and the challenge from the anti-EU extreme right under Marine Le Pen. He said reforming the EU was more important than enlarging it, and complained about the number of asylum seekers coming from Albania to France.
“How do I explain to my constituents that the country where most asylum seekers are coming from is Albania, yet many EU ministers believe that Albania is improving and that we should launch EU accession talks?” Macron said.
Albania's message to Europe: Send more carrots
The French president’s argument is that Europe needs to reform itself before admitting new members, and despite the singling out of Albania there are those in the country that agree. Not least, the EU needs to figure out how to deal with member states that ticked the democratic boxes when they joined only to gradually backslide once they were in, Gjipali said.
But backtracking by the EU when it comes to Albania and the wider Western Balkans is not a solution, Gjipali added. For all its failings and its slow pace, the path towards European integration has often been the sole driving force behind reform in the Western Balkans.
Without the EU carrot, political elites and authoritarian forces would only be emboldened.
“Unfinished business would not bring the so crucial stability and strong democratic values for the country. The EU power of attraction is the greatest driving force behind the reforms pursued in Albania and motivation to bear the costs of this process,” he said.
Indeed, politically the current malaise in Brussels has already benefited political elites, allowing them to blame Europe for Albania’s problems rather than the failure of successive governments in Tirana to pass sufficient reforms to tackle corruption, crime and the rule of law, analysts say.
Rama, speaking to Euronews Albania this week, that the country had fulfilled its duty when it comes to readiness for European Union membership and blamed the European Council and European Commission for the fact that it hasn’t been achieved during his eight years in power.
Privately, critics say, Albanian politicians may prefer the situation as it is. Opening negotiations would involve detailed, public inspection of every facet of Albania’s economy, government and institutions and could reveal skeletons that many would prefer remain hidden.
“Hiding behind the political issues and blockages keeping enlargement on hold takes the pressure off the government to deliver on reforms,” said Donika Emini, PhD candidate at the University of Westminster and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group.
The result of this has been that Albanians - and particularly the youth - have grown increasingly despondent about Europe and apathetic about politics in general, Alfonc Rakaj, an analyst, told Euronews. As elsewhere in the Western Balkans, it is Albania’s youth that - sick of waiting for life to improve at home - flock overseas to seek opportunity in Europe and beyond.
One of the reasons that the election on Sunday is still too close to call, he added, is because so many voters are tired of the same old faces: Rama has been in politics since 1998, Basha since 2005, and neither are considered to have brought the change that voters want to see, he said.
Meanwhile, Albanians look to their neighbours and see faster progress towards integration in increasingly anti-democratic countries like Serbia, while the prospects of Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania remain at a stalemate. It has not gone unnoticed that it is the countries of the Western Balkans with Muslim majorities - or at least sizable minorities - that have languished, he said.
“For some, the EU’s inability to absorb the region has anti-Islamic undertones [...], Rakaj said, “Albania has done more than Serbia, but is not even allowed to open negotiation talks.”
Is it because we're Muslims, Albania wonders
That has been particularly acute as far-right forces in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Germany have directly linked opposition to Albania joining the EU to fears of an influx of Muslim immigrants to European countries, as well as suggestions that Albania - being a Muslim-majority nation - has links to Turkey or other Muslim states.
“The main fear of the public elite in Tirana is the identification of Albania with the religious belief of the majority of its population, and, consequently, of being prejudiced as a bearer of Turkish influence or something similar,” Afrim Krasniqi, a former MP and executive director of the Institute for Political Studies, told Euronews.
“We do not see ourselves as an extension of whomever. We do not feel as such and we do not want to identify as such.”
As full membership of the European Union looks increasingly remote, at least in the short term, some have suggested that France and other nations opposed to enlargement could suggest a two-tier EU, with select countries given some of the benefits of membership and not others. This would not be a first choice, Krasniqi said, but it would be better than nothing.
“In essence, citizens see integration as access to free movement, to study, to work, to trade, and to the same standard of living and democracy - and if these are achieved in alternative formulas, it would be an acceptable solution for us,” he said.
Others believe that for the European Union to go back on what was promised as far back as 2003, when Albania was first identified as a potential candidate, and negate all the work that has been done in the country since could be another nail in the coffin for the EU.
Even if it takes several years, full membership is the only way forward for Albania.
“The EU backtracking on a promise and commitment made to Western Balkan countries - where most of them have made painful compromises even because of the prospect of joining EU - is damaging for our countries and for EU in itself,” said Gjipali, at the European Movement.
“In an every day more globalised world, the EU needs to be stronger, decided and less ambiguous to face the increasingly known and unknown challenges.”