Last week, an online summit was held in Zagreb attended by leaders of European Union member states and Western Balkan countries. N1 Television's foreign affairs editor, Ivana Dragicevic, talked to Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, about his impressions of the summit and the European perspective of the region.
The summit that was supposed to be the crown of the Croatian presidency of the Council of the European Union was instead held in the shadow of the corona crisis, and it was held online. And we saw the text of the declaration adopted, in which there was no mention of EU enlargement, of either Albania nor North Macedonia. And that happened after the EU had given a green light in March for both countries to start membership negotiations. What's your reaction to this?
First of all, I want to say, not for the sake of formality but because it deserves mentioning, that Croatian presidency has been really very very good. And I can say that because I can compare it to previous presidencies. This presidency was the one that highlighted the best the Western Balkans and the need to address a common perspective of the EU and the Western Balkans.
Secondly, the word "enlargement" is quite a difficult word the biggest and richest in the EU, but more than that I would not really cry about it because in the end these are documents that belong to archives, they are not for the real work.
Talking about real work - we now have this new methodology. You mentioned the big ones and rich ones, and we know about the debate over this that has been going on, but basically enlargement is the strategic policy of the EU. Do you think that this new methodology also kind of gives ownership over this process to member states? Does it instill confidence on both sides? Because we know that there was lack of confidence because of internal political situations in various EU countries. Can now the Netherlands, or Denmark, or any other country, just say that you didn't do something that you basically did do? So how do you see this whole process?
Of course they can. But they always could. The new methodology was first of all a way out from an impasse. Secondly, when you go through it - it depends really, on how one will use it. And we learned from experience that for us, and in general for countries that are small and aren't rich, it's always about rules, rules, rules. For others, bigger and rich countries, there's always a way. So if they want to see something in a certain way, they will see it in a certain way. If they would like to see it to the contrary, they will see it to the contrary.
This is how it is, and in the end it can't be any different. They founded the EU, they are powerful, they have their right to excercise their power, and anyone would do that. I would not complain about it. I would just say that there are some good things in the new methodology, and if they get transformed into good stuff in real life, that would be great. If not, then not. So that's nothing to be surprised about.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you sound to me a little bit disappointed.
No, I'm not disappointed, I'm just realistic. I think this is how it is, and we can't change it. The Croatian presidency did a lot, and I really think that we owe to the Croatian presidency and your prime minister gratitude, because he was very very good in playing through this labyrinth which is not easy, and coming out in the end with something concrete.
Of course, he had backing him the political will of Germany and others, and France somehow changed its course. So finally things came together and we succeeded in opening these negotiations.
Now of course, from the declaration of opening, to the real opening, and on to the real process of membership - it's a long way. We know this, and we live with it.
In terms of the context and this plan which will follow, do you think that by the end of this year during the German presidency will get a green light, or a date basically, to start the inter-governmental conference?
I never answer these kind of questions, when it comes to thinking about what will happen when the EU has to make a decision. You never know. The EU is not predictable any more, and if you do predict, it's better to play it safe and just say 'No.'
But with the German presidency there is room for home that they will keep going in this direction, because Germany has always had a very clear position on Western Balkans. The German Chancellor has a very clear vision on where we come from - maybe because of her past, as she grew up in a communist regime - and also for where we have to go.
Now, will this happen? I don't know. It's better not to bet on the EU in the sense of predicting these things. Yeah, maybe it will happen.
How much confidence can Albania or other countries of the Western Balkans in this process can have towards the EU when we know there are a lot of internal issues that need to be solved within the EU? How much trust is there among the citizens in the process, and how much power can anyone governing these states can have in order to make it more functional?
First of all, just a piece of advice - never ask Albanians about it because they have unconditional love for the EU, and it has nothing to do with the mess that the EU is in today, or whatever the EU represents as we speak, in terms of uncertainty, lack of strategy, and so on.
It has to do with our past. We grew up in an environment in which Yugoslavia, where you were born, was like the Moon. So for us Yugoslavia represented freedom, it represented a lot of things. Because Yugoslav TV was the only window we had within the walls of our bunker in which we were isolated from everyone. We were North Korea of Europe. And watching Yugoslav TV, with all these stripes of signal coming and going, in a language we barely understood, was like being in a NASA station and watching the Moon.
So all this shaped how we see the EU, and Europe, and the world, and that's something that will never change. At least for my generation - maybe my son will think about it differently - but for our generation it's not about Brussels or anything else. It's about being part of a space that we have freely chosen to be in, and where we can be free.
We never could choose. We lived under the Ottoman Empire, we lived under fascism, under communism, we had a kingdom that was self-made, the last kingdom in Europe created by a former interior minister. So EU for us is everything. So it's better that we are not asked about this, because we risk to be misunderstood.
As prime minister, you worked on reforming the judiciary, implementing rule of law, all these reforms that are required by the EU. But you were also up against a bit of resistence and stereotypes about Albania in the EU. Do you think this relationship can change in the future?
I would say that the past is a very important reason why we are so unconditionally in love with the EU, if I may say so, and why we insist to "marry" into it. Although on the other side they insist that they want to "marry" but they never look like they want to. But we will keep insisting until we marry.
But talking about the future, let me say that as other countries can witness, in terms of facts, not opinions or public sentiment, that the EU membership process is very beneficial to a country. It's not something done to please people in Brussels or the Hague or Berlin. It's for building a state based on principles of independent powers, functioning institutions, and so on, which otherwise we would not be able to build because we don't have such a tradition, as I said earlier.
So what we are missing in terms of tradition we are compensating with this process. Like, we are building an independent judiciary in Albania, where we never had an independent judiciary and where we are all cousins - I think it's the same with Croats, but I won't go there... So it's not easy.
Without the EU without this roadmap, this push, and this attraction, I doubt we would be able to do it. So it's a unique tool to build a state.
All these things are mentioned in the Zagreb Declaration, along with things we still all have in common, regardless if we are in the EU or not - like tackling corruption, rule of law, fighting organised crime... We know the Balkans is perceived the way it is and it is what it is. But in your country you had strong resistance from the opposition, you had last year street protests, a clash with President. Can you assure us that democracy is functioning in Albania?
As I said already, when you are judged by others, and you happen to be small and you aren't rich, you have to suffer judgments that can be extreme. This applies to Albania but also for the entire Western Balkans.
Yes, organised crime is a problem, but compared to Europe's organised crime, the Western Balkans organised crime is junior. But being junior, that's also something that can be very explicit and sometimes very disturbing for the neighbourhood. And that's why they are right to complain about the noise.
At the same time, we have to deal with all of these things. We have to look at ourselves and not put blame for that elsewhere because in the end it's beneficial for us. On other hand, yes, we have our troubles, our litigations, we have our way to litigate these things. And it's you know, Balkans, Mediterranean, people have strong emotions - but it's also about growing in a democratic space.
We were born and we grew, we matured, in a space where the other did not exist, opponents did not exist, where thinking differently was not allowed. Now we have to grow. In this sense, it's a junior democracy, it's still a teen democracy. We have to get more mature, it's not easy, but we'll get there.
But you can basically assure us that you are on that path? Because seeing those pictures from this perspective was not something very nice. I'm referring to last year's protests in Tirana.
If you saw the same pictures in Paris, you'd say this is democracy. But when you see it from Tirana, you say "These guys are nuts." And we are really somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it's a nuts democracy - but it's a democracy. It is what it is. We have to grow on and mature ourselves.
Talking about the future, we need to have sustainable future in terms of economy. We saw this huge economic package that was delivered at the Zagreb Summit, which is connected to containing the Covid-19 crisis but also for the socio-economic recovery in the autumn. Do you think that the socio-economic crisis might lead to some political disturbance? We know Albania had a terrible earthquake in November, and now there's this coronavirus crisis. How will you manage, after all this?
When we had the earthquake, we thought this was it. But it wasn't, because then Covid-19 came. We have to do what we have to do. I think it's good that Europe is moving in this direction, for us for the Balkans, it's good that it was somehow engaged to include us in this package. Let's see what this will be about. It's good that they have also been open about our idea about engaging with the European Central Bank, as non-EU countries - that's also good.
So overall Europe is a force for good. And we should never forget this. Because sometimes it's too easy to put the blame on Europe, but at the same time without Europe we would not be where we are - and I'm referring to all of us.
With the earthquake, we witnessed a lot of solidarity. By the way, as I had not talked to the Croatian media since then, I want to take this opportunity to thank again the Croatian government and the Croatian people for having been there for us.
From sending an incredible team of rescuers to rescue people from the rubble, to Croatia's pledge that it would build a school here, and then through the Croatian EU presidency. It feels very very good. We really appreciate with all our heart the fact that we are so good friends with Croatia, and that such a good friend is also in such a position to be helpful.
In terms of economy, since Albania is a neighbour of the EU, or surrounded by EU countries who are its neighbours, there have been many ideas to improve cooperation. One of these is the so-called "mini Schengen." So what's your position on that, and on the idea that sounds almost abstract, usually referred to as "regional cooperation."? Considering we still have a lot of bilateral issues in the region between states that have not been resolved, like the issue of Kosovo and Serbia, the internal dynamics in Bosnia and Herzegovina, not to mention your other neighbour, North Macedonia.
I strongly believe that the quality of life, when we live together, whether it's in a family, in a sports team, a community, in an organisation, a business, a state, region, the world - it does not really depend on how much we agree with each other but in which way we disagree. If we disagree in a kind way, it's good, it's a good life. If we disagree in a less kind way, than life is bad.
So we had a lot of bad life in the Balkans because of disagreements that were going on in a very unkind way. And for living together, for enjoying life together, for going forward together, we don't need to agree on everything. We simply need to find a way to work together sand to deal with our disagreements kindly. And to try and solve them kindly.
So regional cooperation for us is crucial. You, in Croatia, you are part of the EU - we are not. And until we are there, I don't see why we couldn't be able to move freely within our region. To have freedom of movement of people, of goods, of capital of services - which are the four freedoms of the EU itself.
So implementing these four freedoms is what someone had the bad idea to call "mini Schengen." I hate that term because I'm too tall to accept mini things. Schengen is used as a point of reference, and it refers to these four freedoms within the Western Balkans.
So yes there is lots of disagreement between Serbia and Kosovo - but this should not be an impediment to cooperate. And the more we cooperate, the more we talk, the more people get to know each other, at their level, in life, in business, in human exchanges, cultural exchanges, and many other things, it will be easier to understand each other and to sort things out.
Otherwise, if we wait to solve everything before we start to cooperate, we will never be able to neither cooperate nor solve everything.
You mentioned several interesting things but I'd like to go back to the zagreb Declaration. It was very interesting for me how the Eu wanted to emphasise very clearly that they are the ones investing the most in the Western Balkans, rather than others, because the discussion of Western Balkans is still dominated by geopolitics. What's your opinion about that, because we hear much talk about Russia's influence, energy politics, various strategic influences... Is that story real or is that talk just something based on fears inside the EU?
You know, there are some powers that are in a better position today than Europe. What I mean by that is that these powers can plan for the next ten, twenty, or a hundred years, while Europe only plans for the next elections. And it has many elections to plan, and everyone has their own elections, and all these things matter, they matter a lot.
We have seen that in our own experience, we felt this on our own skin. Whatever they say, we know this. If there's an election somewhere, and this country is important, and they have a bigger say, then we have to wait. Then there's another election somewhere and we have to wait again, and so on.
But talking about influences, I think it's good that the new Commission, and the new president of the Commission came into a situation in which people more or less understand that it can't go on like this. It can't be just technocracy and bureaucracy, it should be more political, more geopolitical. So let's hope that this will materialise further. But I must say that so far the signs are encouraging.
When it comes to Albania, it's a bit more easy because we know some of these guys from before, and we came to know them the hard way. So we are not tempted. The only direction for us is Europe and the only way for us is Europe.
In this country where we find it hard to agree on colours - if I say something is purple, the opposition will say it's blue; or if they say it's yellow, I'll say it's orange. We have difficulties in agreeing on weather, on what time is it. But we never had difficulty to agree on where the country should look and and which direction we should go.
We were North Korea of Europe, we had the most brutal and insane communist regime, the most dictatorial communist party - we are I think the only country that never had a new communist party since the regime had changed. So in that respect, this is very clear. There are no other powers which could transform Albania into a stronghold that would look towards a different direction.
As one of our Renaissance poets said, "We live in a country where the sun rises where it sets." So, it's West.
The upcoming Future of Europe conference might give us some answers on how Europe would transform itself. Do you think that there are ideas in the Western Balkans for the future of Europe, and if countries of the Western Balkans should be involved in that in some format?
I think the best ideas for the future of Europe are in the Balkans, there is no doubt. Because they are genuine, and frankly, not influenced by any vested interest. There is only one vested interest in the Balkans, which is to be part of this family and to give everything to this family.
Maybe once we get there we will no longer have such good ideas on how the EU should look like, but yes - the best ideas for the future of Europe are in the Balkans, but that's why they are not feasible.