A senior Member of the European Parliament has accused Albania's main opposition party of effectively blocking reforms widely seen as being vital in keeping the country's EU accession ambitions alive
Slovakian centre-right member Eduard Kukan was highly critical of the current position of Albania's Democratic Party (DP) which, he warned, threatens to derail the start of its EU accession negotiations.
His verbal attack has added resonance because the opposition DP is an observer member of the European People's Party, also known as the Christian Democrats, of which Kukan is a leading member.
The tiny Balkan country of 3 million people has been a candidate to join the EU since 2014 - and is hopeful of launching accession negotiations this year. Brussels has urged Albania to step up the pace of judicial reform and the current Socialist Party government is trying to introduce a key justice reform.
However, its implementation is being blocked by the DP, much to the chagrin of the EU. With DP currently boycotting the Albanian parliament, the impasse has also cast uncertainty over national elections in June.
In an interview, Kukan told this website, "I fully support all efforts, which lead to implementation of the justice reform. I have called several times on politicians in Albania to proceed with establishment of the vetting bodies and start with implementation of the reform."
Kukan, the EPP shadow rapporteur for the Albanian dossier in the parliament, said, "Time is of the essence here. I also repeatedly called on the opposition to reassume their work in the parliament in order to move on with the reform and make all necessary preparations for the upcoming elections."
The EPP MEP, a member of the Parliament's delegation to Albania, added, "I will repeat myself again saying that in democratic systems political battles should take place in the framework of institutions created for this purpose." His comments are endorsed by German Socialist Knut Fleckenstein Fleckenstein, who is the European Parliament's rapporteur on the Albanian dossier, who said, "I cannot judge whether the attempt to block the judicial reform is the motivation for the current DP position. However, a blocked judicial reform is definitely the result of it, as the Albanian Parliament cannot proceed with establishing the vetting commissions."
He said, "The vetting process is crucial for the credibility and effectiveness of the judiciary reform.Since summer 2014 Albania has been an EU accession candidate and since then it has been making constant progress. The adoption of a wide-ranging judicial reform is a milestone on Albania's path towards joining the EU and becoming a modern country. Less corruption, less organised crime, is crucial for everyday life in Albania." Fleckenstein, a deputy leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, went on, "However, we should not put off the decision on the start of accession negotiations again and again."
Further comment comes from Susanne Melior, another German Socialist MEP, who says Albania should step up the pace of judicial reform, as this is "key" to starting EU accession negotiations. Melior, a member of the Parliament's delegation to Albania, said, "I share the opinion of Knut Fleckenstein on this issue (the blocking of the judiciary reform)."
Credible implementation of the justice reform is crucial to advancing the EU accession process and starting negotiations, she believes. This is in line with a resolution adopted by the Parliament in February which said, "MEPs welcome Albania's progress on EU-related reforms and further efforts to reform the judicial sector. While excluding criminal offenders from public office, whistle-blower protection and plans to re-evaluate judges, prosecutors and legal advisors are promising steps forward, MEPs remain concerned about selective justice, corruption, the overall length of judicial proceedings and political interference in investigations and court cases."
The resolution on Albania, approved by 546 votes to 85, notes the importance of the justice reform, good progress in fighting organised crime and corruption, and holding free and fair elections in June.
The current Socialist Party government came to power in to 2013 with a strong mandate to clean up the courts, removing corrupt judges and prosecutors. There was virtually universal agreement that this was essential. The European Commission made it clear that this was the one final hurdle standing in the way of accession negotiations. "Albania has fulfilled all other requirements for the initiation of the membership negotiations and the only requirement yet to be fulfilled is the implementation of this reform," the Commission stated officially in November 2015.
Eight months ago, the government introduced a draft reform plan. The plan was drafted by outside experts, in close consultation with EU and US legal authorities. It envisaged a process to vet the credentials and qualifications of all judges and prosecutors.
The center-right Democratic Party opposition was opposed, virtually from the start. Compromises were offered, including equal representation on the various bodies which would be established to oversee the new vetting and appointments system. As a consequence, the reform legislation was approved by the Albanian parliament in July, with opposition support.
But now the DP is opposed again and with its 50 percent representation on the reform bodies involved, it has been able to block any further progress. It is currently boycotting parliament itself, has organized demonstrations and is now demanding that the government resign, despite scheduled new elections in June.
DP leader Lulzim Basha, who denies blocking the justice reform, was recently charged with inciting violence after calling "on citizens to react violently against state institutions." If found guilty; he could spend up-to three years behind bars.