Albania- EU: “Let us in, you bastards!”
Of all states wishing to join the EU, the "Land of the Eagles" seems more motivated than most. But the chance of obtaining candidate status at the moment is pretty slim, because there is so much progress yet to be made. At the border with Greece, the movement of migrants is a good indicator of how both economies are faring. Excerpts.
The village consists of a few dozen houses picturesquely scattered across green hills. You can stay overnight in almost any of them; it costs a few euros. At any one of them you can also ask for someone to guide you across the border – as the crow flies it’s less than two kilometres from Konispol to Greece.
You have to make quite an effort to get to Konispol. The Albanians are fighting for the European Union to recognise them officially as a candidate for membership. One of the conditions is to secure their borders, regarded as the Achilles heel of the entire bloc, so the military and police checkpoints begin a dozen kilometres before you reach the village.
The police in Gjirokaster, the regional capital, have also noticed that the Greeks haven’t been all that strict about catching illegal immigrants recently. “Lately the pressure on their side has eased off a lot," said a local policeman, requesting that his name not be used. “I don’t know whether it’s a strategy, or just general slackness. But since the [May] election … they give the impression of having completely ceased to protect the border.”
Albania’s prospects for full-fledged membership talks with the European Union are now the main political talking point. In November, Brussels is to say whether the country is ready for official candidate status.
“Our chances are slender,” says Gjergj Erebara, a reporter for the newspaper Shqip, with a frown. “The ruling Albanian Democratic Party has made the union into an artificial hare that has to be pursued, but you’re not allowed to catch it, because then the corruption would have to stop and lots of local arrangements would have to come to an end. Nothing will come of it in November.”
Edi Rama, leader of the Albanian Socialist Party, the main opposition party and a former Tirana mayor, is ready to tear the ruling party to pieces: “The whole EU has seen how Prime Minister Sali Berisha has rigged one election after another, first the parliamentary, then the local government elections," he says. The Socialists have never stopped blaming the machinations by Berisha’s party for their defeat in the 2009 parliamentary elections. They boycotted parliament for months. When opposition parties led a big demonstration against the government in January 2011, security forces fired on the crowd, killing three and fatally injuring a fourth protester.
“To this day no one has answered for that. How can a country where things like that happen even think of joining the EU?” Rama asks. Berisha, Erebara admits, is a very canny politician. “And he’s extremely good at diverting public attention away from the real problems," such as when the gay pride affair blew up.
Edi Marku is almost 60. He has on a peaked cap of the type gentlemen of his age like to wear, and he’s holding a placard which says “Hands Off My Butt!” He is one of several dozen people protesting outside the parliament building in Tirana .
“You know, I’d very much like Albania to join the European Union,” he tells me. “The EU will help us to build roads. It’ll support us financially and our young people will be able to study abroad. I’ve got two daughters who are students. But if the price is acceptance of degenerates, then we’ve got to do some more thinking about it.”
Sexual minorities stirred up a great debate once before in Albania, in 2009. At that time Berisha jumped way ahead not just of his own electorate, but most countries in the EU, when he announced his support for the legalisation of homosexual marriages. The Albanian public erupted, but Berisha is the head of a conservative party that sympathises with Muslim organizations, so there was nobody to oppose him.
Early this year, when the Pink Embassy association announced plans to stage the first gay pride parade in Tirana, everyone waited to see what the prime minister would say.
“All the journalists, as journalists do, began looking for someone who was against it,” Erebara tells me. “And they found someone – the deputy defence minister. He said all gays should be kicked in the butt.” The US and EU respond by reminding Albanian to respect gay rights, and the debate swung to homosexuality rather than EU membership, he added.
“Do we really not have more serious problems?” he asks rhetorically. And starts listing the problems himself: “Unemployment is up to 15 per cent, and for the young, educated people there are no other prospects but to leave for Italy.” In the end, the Pink Embassy, fearing for the safety of the participants, decided to postpone the march.
Indeed, Albanian enthusiasm for the EU is unmatched. In Turkey public support for joining the EU struggles to climb above 50 per cent. Support has fallen sharply in Serbia, which bought its candidate status by handing over war crime suspects Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic to the Hague Tribunal. Even the EU’s next member Croatia is far more eurosceptic than Albania.
“Support for EU membership has remained at 97-98 percent for years,”says Erebara. “No country in the history of the union has ever had such results. Here, by contrast with Turkey, for example, even the hard-headed Muslims are euro-enthusiasts.”
But what is to be done with this enthusiasm, if Albania isn’t driving the negotiations forward? “They’re counting on being able to join the EU on credit,”an EU diplomat says. “They joined NATO, even though they hadn’t fulfilled the requirements. However, the alliance recognised that Albania’s strategic position was important enough to turn a blind eye. But I don’t think they’ll manage it this time.
Albania is too far from the Union’s standards, and Europe – after the crisis in Greece – is becoming more principled about these things. The Union is sure to make certain gestures. For instance, Albania already has visa-free travel to the Schengen area, and it has a very good trade agreement but until the government really starts to change the country, there’s no question of starting negotiations.”
Life in Konispol dies out after 8 o’clock at night. The emigration hopefuls go to bed before then because most get up at 4 am, eat the standard local B&B breakfast of boiled eggs, a tomato, and a roll with jam before drinking some coffee and setting off so as to reach Igoumenitsa by evening.
Those who cannot get to sleep sit it out in the centrally located cafe. Izeti Guri,17, crosses the border every day to paint boats at a nearby port in Greece, tells me in English everything he’s found out about his fellow countrymen sitting here.
“This man has a brother in Greece, and they run an office cleaning business together," he said, nodding to a middle-aged man with a moustache.
“That one has a Greek girlfriend and boasts to everyone that he’s going to marry her and get an EU passport.” The man, Jovan, says that Greek people's feelings about Albanians have shifted from contempt to respect as the crisis has developed. “Only a year ago my fiancée’s parents had a problem with her having a boyfriend from Albania. They refused to meet me,” he says. “And now? They’ve invited me to dinner. They ask if there’s some way they can help me.”
“Why the change?”
“They can see that they can’t manage without our manpower.”
“Only we can save Greece now,” someone says quite seriously, and the others nod.
“You see? The future of the entire EU is in our hands. But you bastards refuse to let us in,” says Izeti with a laugh.