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Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy

Statement at the 1st Joint EU-Albania Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

EU-Albania Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee

Brussels, 4 May 2010

I wish to thank the Honourable Member Eduard Kukan for inviting me to this 1st Joint Parliamentary Committee meeting between the EU and Albania.

I am extremely pleased to participate in this meeting, which is attended by distinguished Members of the European Parliament and distinguished Members of the Albanian Parliament of both the majority and opposition parties.

Considering the current political situation in Albania and the enormous challenges lying ahead of Albania on its EU integration path, I think the possibility to gather important political figures of Albania and the EU around one table for such important discussions is in itself a success; it is also a great opportunity for further constructive dialogue and finding solutions.

I would like to thank the European and the Albanian Parliament for making this possible.

I understand you have already had yesterday very good and fruitful exchanges and discussions on important topics for Albania and EU-Albania relations.

Allow me nevertheless to come back on some of the issues that I find most topical and important in the current situation.

I would first of all like to congratulate Albania for its considerable progress and achievements on the country's path towards EU integration over the last year. This includes the entry into force of the Stabilisation and Association agreement and the start of the Opinion process on the EU membership application.

It also includes in particular important progress made in meeting the country's outstanding benchmarks identified within the visa-liberalisation dialogue. The new assessment by the Commission, based on recent expert missions, was presented to the European Parliament's LIBE Committee on 27 April and to the Council working group on 26. This assessment reveals that progress is indeed substantial in all areas that are under scrutiny. However, Albania still needs to address certain issues such as the reintegration of returnees, and the strengthening of the capacities to fight against corruption and organized crime and the implementation of the new legal framework and in particular the law on the confiscation of criminal assets (so-called 'anti-mafia law').

The Commission is now preparing a proposal for modifying Regulation 539/2001 ("listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing the external borders and those whose nationals are exempt from that requirement").

This proposal will be submitted to the Council and EP, I hope, in the near future.

I know the EP very much supports this process; it is also taking part in the decision on this. Let me assure you that my intention is a merit-based lifting of visa requirements for Albania as soon as technically possible.

One further point on this. I have welcomed the first steps already taken by Albania to inform its citizens about visa free travel. I would like to underline the importance of this in order to avoid the repetition of the situation which happened recently with other nationals from some countries in the region.

There are also positive developments to mention on minorities policies such as the adoption of the anti-discrimination law and the adoption of Roma Decade Action Plan. Rigorous implementation of these will be key for the success of the policies these initiatives plan to address.

On Albania's economic situation, I think we can be fairly positive. Even though Albania needs to press ahead with further structural reforms and to address a large informal economy, economic growth in the last two years (2008: 8%; 2009: 3%), the outlook for growth in the next two years (2010: 5.5%; 2011: 6.5%) compared to the rest of Europe and neighbouring countries is rather impressive. That needs to be recognized.

I would also like to commend the important role Albania plays in regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. I welcome the good neighbourly relations and the strengthening of ties by Albania with neighbouring countries and recently in particular with Serbia. Albania has become a good example in this regard for the region and by doing so supports the whole of the EU's regional approach towards the Western Balkans.

With the receipt of a comprehensive set of replies to our questions on 14 April, the process of preparation of this Opinion on our side has started.

The Commission's Opinion will be a fair and balanced assessment of Albania's readiness to comply with the EU membership criteria. The Opinion will pay particular attention to the fulfilment of the Copenhagen political criteria and of the obligations under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

Another question is of course the timing of this process. It is important to underline that the speed with which the Commission can deliver the Opinion will largely depend on the quality and completeness of the Albanian replies. This is what we are currently analysing. Verification of information received and consultations with third parties are part of this process. Based on the Commission's Opinion, the Council will decide on the next steps.

Let me just stress two more areas, which are important to mention as areas in which progress is needed.

Albania needs to establish and implement a strategy for the reform of the judiciary. This is, because more efforts are needed to ensure Albania's justice system can deliver in an efficient and timely manner, in respect of the principles of impartiality, transparency, independence and accountability.

This is part of the key requirements and issues under the rule of law, which according to the 2006 renewed consensus on enlargement need to be addressed at an earlier stage in the process.

In the same vein, and going beyond what is expected and has been done under the visa liberalisation process, Albania needs to rigorously implement legislation, action plan and strategy on anti-corruption and the legal framework in relation to fighting organized crime and ensure sufficient investigative and judicial capacity.

In both areas, a real track record of concrete and tangible results needs to be achieved.

Finally, I would like to highlight the area of freedom and independence of the media, which is one of the fundamental building blocks of mature European democracies. A lot more needs to be done in Albania in this area. This includes completing the legal framework, notably on decriminalization of defamation and transparency of media ownership, and addressing the issue of intimidation and influence on journalists, which is of concern.

Let me close my intervention by thanking you again for inviting me to this important committee meeting It is my intention to continue this dialogue with you and to do all we can from the Commission's side to ensure Albania is able to make further progress on important reforms and take significant steps on its European integration path.

One last point on the political situation: I have express myself on this in the past quite clearly. The situation has not changed. It has worsened and unless the solution is being found, and all political parties share the responsibility here, it will not add to the positive atmosphere while finalizing the Opinion on Albania. With that thank you very much.

Closing remarks

Let me make three final points:

The first is concerning the corruption. A couple of short points – the first one is, that neither me nor anyone from the Commission would comment on the ongoing investigations. At the same time, I stand firm behind what I have said: that the rule of law, the fight against corruption and other political aspects of Copenhagen criteria will be in the centre of our attention when preparing the Opinion.

I think is clear that the culture of impunity must end. That is why we will be following very closely the implementation of the new law and the work of institutions, and that is why we are so much pushing for a convincing track record on this issue. The fight against corruption should not stop in front of any door, in front of any office. I think it is even more true concerning the high officials where the issue of accountability is very important. For all these reasons the Commission will be following this issue very closely and you will find a respective part of our Opinion devoted to this question.

My second remark: I am concerned about the absence of constructive political dialogue in Albania. I am concerned about the lack of a fully functioning Parliament in Albania. I am indeed very concerned about the recent hunger strikes. This risks indeed hardening the positions even more and risks leading to increased confrontation. The hunger strikes will not take away the responsibility of all sides to find a solution based on the two principles: the constitutional framework and the principle of transparency.

I am afraid I have to add that the hunger strikes added a responsibility on the opposition leader and it is a responsibility for the wellbeing and the health of these people.

My last remark is a personal one. I have been following the progress of Albania for many, many years, and I was lucky enough to be part of that historic event when Albania has become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Let me call on the political parties of Albania to make everything possible that I am also in a humble way a part of Albania getting closer and eventually becoming a European Union Member State.

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