Albania is to wait until June 2019 for an invitation to open accession negotiations.

Despite a positive recommendation by the European Commission in April 2018, the political climate was not conducive this year. Decisions on the EU accession process are decided with unanimity and the domestic political climate in several EU member states was not quite ready yet, particularly in the Netherlands and France.

Still, when it comes to policy substance, the country appears to be on track. The EU heads of states summit in Sofia in May was perhaps not satisfying for the Western Balkans. However, for the European Commission Albania is clearly a case in which conditionality makes a difference and is eager to maintain engagement and meet expectations. That is the only way the European enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn can claim that the EU “export stability” in the Western Balkans.

For its part, Albania expresses confidence in the process. Albania’s European Affairs Deputy Minister Artemis Malo is a polyglot – she speaks English, Italian, French and Greek – and has studied languages and science. She has studied languages and science, has a long experience on politics and has been really active on National and Local issues of governance in her country. In many ways she personifies the European aspirations of the country. She remains focused on meeting required benchmarks, with a can do attitude, but also a healthy sense of entitlement. Her message is clear: when Tirana meets its end of the bargain, the expectation is that the EU will respond in kind.

European Interest: What do you understand by the term “fatigue” in the context of enlargement? What was the aftertaste of the Sofia Western Balkan Summit? Do you believe President Macron skepticism about Balkan enlargement calls for more work on Tirana or is this about an identity crisis in Brussels?

Artemis Malo: First of all, I don’t think that the term “fatigue” is the proper adjective to describe the actual situation. From an Albanian perspective, there is an irrefutable fact: the Albanian Government has fulfilled its benchmark obligations, in line with expectations at this stage of a long accession process. This is clearly reflected on the European Commission’s progress report on Albania and its recommendation to open accession negotiations.

It is important to also note that we have had positive feedback on an EU member state level from the European Council; the Council has hailed Albania’s steady progress on the commonly agreed reform agenda in each of the five key priority areas. The path towards opening accession negotiations in June 2019 is wide open.

Therefore, it is expected to admit that more should have been done, always; but, one cannot fail to recognize what has been done the long distance we have covered thus far; yet it is not normal to deny that progress has been made. There should be due recognition of our efforts thus far.

Four years since the launch of the Berlin process, what are the tangible benefits for Albania. Is there scope for European “regionalization” in the Western Balkans?

Albania has taken all the necessary steps for the implementation of the connectivity projects adopted in the context of the Berlin Process. The Albania–Macedonia Power Interconnection is part of an East – West electricity transmission corridor between Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro and Italy. Thus, it will help connect the Albanian power transmission systems to the wider region.

In April our government officially launched a tender for the new high-speed railway connecting our two main cities, Tirana and Durrës; meanwhile, the “Mother Teresa International Airport” strategically located between the two cities. The project complements two projects for the improvement of railway infrastructure: first, we are upgrading the Durrës – Vora – Shkodra –Hani Hotit railway connection, which includes a cross border link to Montenegro; secondly, we are on schedule on the upgrading of the Durrës – Vlore – Pogradec cross border connection with Macedonia.

Once complete, these railway and highway links will ensure interoperable and multimodal transport connections between Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as improving on further transport links with Greece and Bulgaria, along the Mediterranean Corridor.

Under the latest WBIF call for investment projects, we have applied for the Reconstruction of two quays of the Durres Port. We are glad that this project was part of the fourth Connectivity Agenda package which was introduced at the Summit in Sofia, and that an €27.7 milion EU grand has been allocated, in the context of a total €62.5 million investment project. The Port of Durres is part of the extension of the TEN-T core network to our region.

Is European market access sufficient to encourage greenfield investment in Albania? Are you satisfied that EU policy is sufficiently robust to promote growth and employment? Is it accurate to view Turkey and China as “alternative” players in the region, countering EU influence? For instance, is Albania ready to adopt EU public procurement rules, even at the expense of jeopardizing much needed investment in infrastructure from China?

Albania is a state that does not have the privilege to refuse different investment proposals. Our main policy objective is to facilitate Official Development Assistance (ODA), Foreign Direct Investment, and private investment. Albania is an open economy that encourages free trade and aspires to keep its gates open to well-planned and mutually beneficial international collaboration. That is always the priority.

Is European conditionality effective in Albania, when it comes to promoting the rule of law and transparency? Do you feel there is scope for a political system that is not “winner takes all”?

Meeting EU standards is definitely our priority.

In doing so, we do not only meet the primary objective of raising the living standards of Albanian citizens’, but we are also shaping our leadership’s mindset across the board. This process of engagement is allowing us to develop governance and policy development expertise, grounded on numerous projects, which call for forward-planning and foresight. These projects provide a boost for the country’s economy and social development. With this agenda in mind, there are no winners and losers. On a foundation of common interests, we prioritize good neighbourly relations, strong cooperation, forward and progressive thinking.