The Council of the EU has agreed to open membership negotiations with Albania in June 2019. The Bishop of Rrëshen, Mgr Gjergj Meta, explains why the Albanians want to become part of the EU at a time when the UK is preparing to leave.
To us Albanians, European Union membership is not merely a technical or bureaucratic issue. It’s more than that: it’s an aspiration, a desire for something that has been denied to us for centuries – the desire to rediscover a feeling of belonging to a reality that is not only economic, political or legal, but more significant to us than any of those. This reality is a necessity that is almost spiritual, in the widest sense of the word.
Of course, Europe has changed substantially from the initial scenario, when the founding fathers began to dream of the continent as a place of reconciliation. The end of the cold war and the various cultural and economic changes over the last thirty years have modified the attitudes of certain countries towards the dream of a united Europe.
The revival of nationalism and populism in Europe, and Brexit in particular, have weakened the project of a united Europe. This weakening results from several things: the economic crisis, the increased power of Islamic fundamentalism, and the waves of migration from third-world countries towards Europe. After September 11 and the terrorist attacks perpetrated in a number of European capitals, certain fringes in European society suggested that borders should be closed and limits imposed on the expansion of the European Union to include new members. There are many who seriously call into question the European dream of Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi.
It is against a background of this climate of doubt that the Albanian people and government are moving towards full integration into the family of European peoples.
Reflecting on the situation in my country, I would say that Albania sees itself as forming a natural part of Europe, its history and its traditions. In addition, EU membership would also facilitate its economic and cultural exchanges, thus giving concrete expression to this desire and aspiration to belong.
Almost one million Albanians live outside the borders of the Albanian state and, if you look closely, many of them live in western, mainly European, countries. This is explained by the fact that, in a reality like Europe, we can find the possibilities, space and freedom we need for a better life. I would add that in Christian Europe (at least at heart), there are many, including non-Christians originating from Muslim-majority Albania, who see that it is possible to live in freedom and to freely practice their own faith, without prejudice against a religion that is not Christianity.
The prospect of EU membership has already opened up the way to improvements in our judicial, legal and social systems, and our protection of human rights. The situation would be improved yet further if Albania were to become a full member. The European Union would contribute to putting Albanian politicians on guard against authoritarian tendencies and would confirm Albania as part of the long tradition of European civilisation, a civilisation of solidarity that is sensitive to the deepest human needs.
Membership of the European Union would guarantee the inviolability of certain inalienable rights, such as ownership rights (in Albania, the question of goods confiscated by communism has not yet been resolved), the right to education, even for those living in the most remote villages, a tax system that would enable the state to give greater consideration to the common good (the fight against fraud), equality and legitimate diversity for all, regardless of culture, tradition and origins.
The advantages would definitely be numerous, even if Europe itself is not perfect in some of these areas. But there is another aspect to be taken into account.
In the Balkans, although the situation has improved over recent years, there are still difficulties arising from all kinds of nationalist and ethnic claims. In my opinion, European integration of the Balkan states is a preferred means of bringing an end to such nationalist claims.
Instead of dreaming of great nations that are ethnically and religiously “pure” within the Balkans, the European project could ensure the integration of peoples who belong to different religions and ethnic groups. This is why the efforts of both the European institutions and the candidate states should be intensified in future, in order to ensure that Europe leads the way in the peaceful, integrated coexistence of the different peoples of the world. This would be to the credit of the experience and long traditions of Europe as a shared home to different peoples.
Albania itself is a remarkable example of peaceful coexistence between people and groups of different religious backgrounds, which would in return make a significant contribution to European society. (Mgr Gjergj Meta, Bishop of Rrëshen, Secretary General, Albanian Bishops’ Conference)