Albanians seem to be blessed with an optimistic streak. Given their past that is probably a blessing. Unfortunately, optimism can obscure reality and a recently published survey suggests that when it comes to membership of the European Union, some Albanians have abandoned reality entirely.
The Albanian Institute for International Studies recently published the 2005 edition of their annual survey, Rethinking European Integration: Perceptions and Realities. Asked how long they though it would be before Albania joined the EU 53.4% opted for ten years. Amazingly, another 11.1% thought it would take only five years. Together, nearly two-thirds of those interviewed believe Albania will be a member of the EU by 2015 at the latest.
This is fantasy. Membership of the EU is only open if a country meets the Copenhagen criteria. Any aspiring member country must be a stable democracy, respecting human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities; must have a functioning market economy; and must adopt the common rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law.
The challenge facing Albania in achieving these objectives can be clearly seen in the Human Development Index, published by the UNDP. In the most recent index, based on information gathered in 2003, Albania ranks 72. The 15 members of the EU at that time ranged from Luxembourg at 4, to Portugal at 27. The 10 countries that joined in 2004 ranged from Slovenia at 26 to Latvia at 48.All 25 had achieved high human development.
Another highly relevant index prepared annually by Transparency International measures the perceived level of corruption. Albania ranks 126 in this index for 2005. Again for comparison the EU 15 rank between Finland at 2 and Greece at 47. (I'm afraid Greece and Italy weigh rather heavily on the EU's overall ratings. Italy ranks 40, but the next worst ranking is Portugal at 26.) Among the 10 that joined in 2004 the rankings run from Malta at 25 to Poland at 70 (Poland holds this group back since the next worst is Latvia at 51.)
Finally, Freedom House produces an annual Freedom in the World index, ranking countries on the basis of political rights and civil liberties. Ranking each country from 1 to 7 and categorising them as free, partly free or unfree, Albania scores 3-3 and is categorised as partly free. The EU 25 are all categorised as free, and 22 of them score 1-1. The culprits who let the side down are Greece and Latvia (1 for political rights but only a 2 for civil liberties), and Lithuania that only manages a 2-2.
Given these consistent disparities between Albania and the EU countries the optimism of so many Albanians is unfounded. This is not to criticise Albania - it is hard to imagine any country achieving such a comprehensive transformation in such a short space of time.
The survey becomes even more surprising when you discover that those interviewed are not ordinary Albanians, but are officials of both local and central government, business people, and members of the media and NGO's. They are people who should have a better, and more realistic, grasp of the challenges facing Albania.
One other finding from the survey might help explain why they seem so hopeful. No less than 44% of respondents believe that the EU should accept Albania as a member even if it does not meet the criteria. The authors of the report suggest that this may indicate that 'Albanian's may have a difficult time envisioning an Albania that is as European in its economic development and its cultural outlook as any West European country.' So perhaps Albanians are not quite the optimists they seem after all.
Since the report was co-funded by the British Embassy it fell to the British Ambassador, Richard Jones, to speak at the launch of the report. Being a diplomat he was very diplomatic: 'Albania’s vocation lies in finding its due and rightful place in the modern European continent,' said the Ambassador. But most of his speech was a reiteration of the membership requirements and a challenge to Albania's political leaders to get their act together: 'Achieving Albania’s strategic objectives of integration requires a common national endeavour. All Albanian politicians should mean it when they say that integration is at the heart of their policy platforms. The pursuit of narrow party, factional or personal interest only distracts from the achievement of the objective of integration – to the detriment of the Albanian people, and of Albania’s relations with the rest of the international community, including the European Union.' As for those 44%, the Ambassador also pointed out that 'the member states are in no mood at present to lower or ignore the standards.'
EU membership will be good for Albania, good for this region and good for the EU, but I'm going with 15 years minimum.