* Speech by Prime Minister Edi Rama on Saturday February 22. at the conference on the inclusion of Western Balkan countries in the European Union:

Thank you for organizing this meeting and for giving us all the opportunity to share some thoughts together with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation.

I think it’s not a bad idea, first of all to stress how much we appreciate what happened a few days ago in Brussels. Frankly, without exaggeration, the words are not enough to express gratitude to everyone who participated in this extraordinary unifying effort that brought together all European countries and beyond.

Of course, this would not have been possible without the EU, without the Commission and above all without the President of the Commission, who has been personally involved since the very first moments after the earthquake. I must say that it was a tremendous relief for the Albanian nation, not only thanks to the extraordinary funds that were mobilized, but beyond that, because of the strong signal of respect and care towards the Albanian people and Albania.

As I mentioned there, the November earthquake was devastating and left us full of wounds. However, there was another earthquake, the October earthquake, which was not physical, but political, and shook the spirits, not the country’s land, after refusing to make the decision to open membership negotiations with Albania.

Of course, we fully understand that this rejection was the result of some EU internal wars that materialized in debates and disputes over us and Northern Macedonia and about enlargement as such, while we are well aware of these vibrations. Not only this, but also other basic things, which define how the EU and the Commission functions today.

Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to see and understand that some of the EU founding countries like France, for example, have their own concerns and opinions differently on how the EU works. And it is equally understandable that, as we strive and strive to get closer to and become part of this shared home, those who own the home, meanwhile, have the right to say how it can work good, this house. We may agree or disagree with these claims, but this is the reality and there is no reason to question the legitimacy of these claims.

However, one thing is really depressing, because after all, it becomes very disturbing that even though these remain internal squabbles of the house, when it comes to giving reasons why this refusal happened, there is no direct way to what is said and many of the reasons hide behind some pretty stereotypical conclusions, or a stereotypical wording that is actually offensive to the country, implying that there is no doubt that Albania or any other country at this stage of its integration journey, and others, are by no means trouble-free places. There is no doubt that all the key words of these messages, such as organized crime, corruption, deficiencies in public administration and so on are real challenges and real problems that need to be addressed, there is no doubt about that. because, if these problems and challenges were not real and serious at this stage, then why would we need to seek the opening of negotiations. We would seek to become EU members immediately. Finally, what are the membership negotiations for? They are designed to help countries improve on exactly these lines and provide each country with a road map on how, step by step, democratic processes of state-building are taking place.

On the other hand, it is very clear that the process has become increasingly difficult and increasingly depressingly unfair to the countries in the queue for membership. That is why, prior to the opening of negotiations, Albania has done much more than any other country, which has previously opened these negotiations. This doesn’t just apply to Albania, it applies to all countries in the queue. If you look at how the process has gone for Poland and those who have been candidates for integration before and if you look at it now, it has become increasingly demanding, increasingly unfair, increasingly difficult because of claims, which have become increasingly detailed and sometimes even restrictive.

It’s okay though, but there has to be a point when it comes to an end, because it’s like an exercise that has no end. At any moment when one, two, three, four or five countries have their problems, have their actual dynamics and want to say “no”, they have the opportunity to find pretexts, pointing to the countries they say no, not because of the country itself, but because of the problems they have. We know very well, not only based on the facts, but also from the discussions that we have started that they have their problems.

Not to go on with this, I would like to say that I see France as perhaps the most honest actor in this debate, because President Macron has an attitude that is very open, very straightforward and very brutal. What they are saying is that Europe as it is, is not working. You may question this, or you may or may not agree with it, but it’s the truth told by him and them as they see it. It’s not a way to go around saying that we love them so much. we do this now, but Albania is not ready, because there are many problems still because of this or that, as others actually prefer to say.

To conclude with the good news, this has opened up a good debate and brought about some important changes in the methodology of membership talks, which actually seem to be good for both the countries and the Commission, as well as for the Union and will probably make the process much clearer and much fairer. I say maybe, because we know the devil is hiding in the details and experience has shown us that for the smallest and the weakest, the rules are never sufficiently respected, while there is always a way for the rich.

This is what I would like to say and that is why in all this ambiguous situation for us, what happened at the Donor Conference was tremendous and was a great relief, because for Albanians, being in Europe is so much more than just mechanical integration into the European Union and it has a lot to do with their souls, their psychology, that they have had to live all their lives, for centuries, in a place of history where they could not choose and where they had to adapt to different regimes and situations.

Europe is the only place where Albanians want to be and will be ahead of what seemed possible and not impossible, but beyond any imagination we could have a voice, at least. We already have a voice and we can move forward and regardless of the formalities, whether or not negotiations are opened, we will go the same way. Of course it is much better to know our efforts, but we do not do so because we are required to do so by Berlin, Paris or Brussels, we do so because it is the only thing we need to do for our children.

In this respect, I think that our efforts for integration and regional cooperation, for a Regional Schengen, which by all those who are referring to it as “Mini-Schengen”, have been labelled very bad, because it is not a “mini”. Really, whatever size our region has, it is made to make sure that people, goods, capital and services move freely throughout the region. And of course to open up and have a bigger space for our economy, because we are very small markets and we can’t afford to stay within our small size, because it just doesn’t work and doesn’t give us all the opportunity  to benefit from the potential in the region where we live. Not only that, but it is quite the opposite of what would be critical, to create an alternative to the European Union. No.

So, if at the moment we do not have the chance to integrate into Europe’s 4 freedoms, we have the opportunity to do so in the region. While we individually need to work to be valued and rewarded for or in relation to the integration of the country, regionally, we can do this in parallel and it is beneficial to everyone, it is beneficial to people, for employees, for entrepreneurs, for tourists, for everyone. And it’s not at all similar to the European Union at one point, because we don’t need a consensus on everything. It’s very open, very flexible, it’s free for everyone. It is not built on the consensus mechanism that anyone who is part of this initiative has to agree on everything, or those who do not want to agree on something block everyone else.

No, every country, every state makes its own decisions. If you are going to create freedom of movement of people, of goods with three seats, you can do it with three seats. If you don’t do it with all countries, don’t do it with all countries, but you have to be part of the initiative to accept the principles and let others do what they want to do.

That is why I say that freedom of movement of people is possible only by having everyone as part of this initiative, otherwise it does not work, because once a country leaves this initiative alone and without any agreement in principle with other countries, of course in the Balkans there is always an opportunity to say that they are doing this, as it were, a great country or that great country. If, for example, we have said and said before it did not work that we would open the border with Kosovo and have the freedom of movement of people, it is probably not Belgrade that will be thrown out, but it is Washington, Brussels that say no , no way. As we were heading down this road in October, we had some signals from Brussels, to be careful not to consider any movement of another form if the result were negative, So, exactly, not to consider this, the opening of the border. Why?

Because you can’t do it unless you have the consent of others to move on the same principle. If Kosovo is part of this initiative, it is not obliged to do the same with Albania and Serbia, it is very simple and this is what we have agreed with Serbia that Serbia should not and cannot veto , no conditions, no prejudice about how other countries, other states want to move within this initiative. So to say no to this is to say no to history, to the future, and I’m sure it will bring us all together. I am sure that sooner rather than later we will all be part of it, because we cannot continue to sit back, refuse and oppose things that are so obvious, so obvious and have no problem.
Of course, it is not necessary to agree on everything, it is very simple. I say this, based on these big disagreements. We have no reason why. Our attitude towards Kosovo is very clear towards Serbia, it does not change, but by doing what we are trying to do, we believe we create more opportunities for a more persistent and sustainable dialogue, not less.

Thank you again and apologies for maybe talking a little too long, but the Balkans is a long story.

* Simultaneous translation