For years Albania aspires to become part of the European Union.

The small Balkan country has exhibited a commitment to its European trajectory, embracing EU norms and values, and sparring no sacrifice to advance this strategic partnership.

Since Albania was granted a candidate country status in 2014, the process has decelerated. Today we are faced with an unpredictable process, lacking a clear roadmap, which makes our European prospective appear less tangible.

EU commitment to Enlargement Policy appears to be waning, under the pressure of Brexit, migration, and terrorism, which dominate the political agenda. If nothing else, Enlargement appears to be less of a priority.

The EU feels the extraordinary need for a deep internal structural reform. The need to strengthen the unity among the 27-member states is now more urgent than embarking in further enlargement, potentially adding a new set of challenges for the EU itself.

And yet Albania is at the crossroads, in urgent need of EU support.

The biggest challenge is domestic. Albania is a country with weak institutions, a weaker civil society, with a political culture where the state is captured at all levels by only one individual. The need for substantial reforms that go beyond populist slogans is evident. The real challenge is the allocation of power and its distribution, instilling confidence in the rule of law. The issue at hand is not winning elections but laying solid democratic foundations.

More than two years have passed since the introduction of a comprehensive justice reform package, but Albania remains a captive state at all levels. The European Commission has already identified the challenge of political ties between the political establishment and organized crime. Beyond politics, organized crime has penetrated into the economy, representing a security threat both for Albanian and European national security.

The country’s economy is under the control of a few oligarchic groups, tied to the prime minister, who also have total oversight over the state budget. For instance, the recently introduced Public Private Partnership framework has been criticized for its lack of transparency by a number of international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Essentially, procurement is non-competitive, which results in inflated prices for goods and services, at the expense of surging public debt.

At the same time, the state budget covers invoices of private enterprises, while projects are being financed without any guarantees of transparency of where the funds originate. The Opposition and independent institutions have accused the prime minister of using such schemes for money laundering on behalf of a thriving cannabis-fueled economy that flourishes under the current administration.

This corrupt construct comes at the expense of other public investment priorities, including energy and transport infrastructure that Albania committed to developing, in line with our Vienna Roadmap and Berlin Process obligations.

These corrupt practices come at the expense of developing an export-driven economy. Albania’s export-to-GDP ratio is the lowest in the region, as economic policy has clearly failed to bolster the country’s competitiveness, attract foreign investment, or even strengthen consumer confidence. Perhaps more significantly, the country lacks strategic vision, a fact that is clearly reflected on its frequent budgetary “quick fix” amendments, which suggest improvisation and lack of methodology.

We need visionary and cooperative leaders with a Euro-Atlantic perspective, committed to good neighborly relations, and an understanding of international actors, as is China.

Ultimately, the road to Albania’s integration into the EU is closely linked to our economic development and the standard of living of our citizens. Relations between Albania, the EU and China do not have to be conditional or mutually exclusive. To the contrary, the financing of strategic projects with a direct impact on the interconnection of regional infrastructure with the European markets is in the interest not only of regional economic development but also of the EU at large.

The EU itself has tried to strengthen stability and governance in countries like Albania; unfortunately, this alternative new model of governance has failed to take hold.

However, status quo maintenance is not helping Albania to overcome these challenges. On the contrary, Albania is destabilized, politically polarized, and begins to exhibit authoritarian tendencies. Maintaining the status quo has not helped Albania’s journey towards the EU.

What is often forgotten in Brussels is that stability in our country requires the empowerment of democracy and the rule of law. Hence, emphasizing the importance of institution-building rather than status quo maintenance should be prioritized.

And last but not least, it should be understood that Albania’s EU negotiations are a catalyst for reforms, a process that is valuable in its own right. The extra-systemic quality of this process is forcing Albania to accommodate to international rule of law standards, first and foremost for the benefit of Albanian citizens.

A fatigued society, tired of waiting for Albania to become like all European countries, frustrated with politics and government, is losing its youth and its future, who are immigrating to developed EU countries. EU negotiations strip the ruling class of its entitlement to arrogance.

Albania needs a green-light as well as a tough merit-based process, not only for the sake of the result but also for the catalytic role of the accession talks in its own right.

Monika Kryemadhi, is the Chairwoman of Socialist Movement for Integration Party since July 5th 2017. Is one of Albania’s most prominent politicians and the first ever female leader of any political party in Albania.