Albania PM likens country to jilted lover in its effort to join EU

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, has downplayed expectations of an imminent breakthrough in membership talks with the EU, as he compared his country to a jilted lover.

EU leaders are expected to discuss in March whether to open membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, after France led opposition to launching the accession process for the two western Balkan countries last October.

“Please don’t talk about March,” Rama urged journalists, referring to the upcoming EU leaders’ summit. “We are like lovers that wait to get married and then the other side don’t show up. And imagine preparing for marriage – everything is ready and then the other side doesn’t show up, so let’s not speak about dates or months.”

Rama was in Brussels attending an international conference to raise funds to rebuild homes and infrastructure, devastated by last November’s earthquake that killed 51 people in Albania. According to a study by Rama’s government and international agencies, the country will need €1.08bn (£900m) to help rebuild accommodation for at least 17,000 people left homeless after the 6.4-magnitude earthquake in the west of the country.

Rama, who has been prime minister since 2013, said he had “no illusions or excessive expectations” about what could be raised from donors. Stressing “we will be very, very, very grateful” for whatever sum was reached, he added: “We have learnt the hard way we should not have excessive expectations from today’s EU.”

Describing the EU’s decision to veto talks as a “political earthquake” one month before the real seismic event, he insisted his country had done everything necessary to start accession talks. But France, Denmark and the Netherlands were not convinced, rejecting a positive assessment from the European commission on Albania’s progress in tackling organised crime and starting judicial reforms.

The commission has since vowed to overhaul the EU’s enlargement process to meet French concerns about countries backsliding on the rule of law. Rama said the new methodology “looks good”, adding that he had a “great relationship” with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, whom he praised for sending in troops to rescue people from the rubble.

He said his country had become “collateral damage” because of “infights” inside the EU, citing the bloc’s difficulties with weak majorities, anti-European parties and populism.

“It’s unfair, but it is what it is,” he said. “We are not in that process because we want to please people in Berlin or Paris or the Hague or wherever, but because we need it for our country or our children.”

His country was countering “a very, very stingy history in terms of democracy and institutions”, having been isolated under communist rule as “the North Korea of Europe”, he said.

He compared Albania’s parliament favourably with other democracies. “Looking at the British parliament while trying to do Brexit, looking at the American Congress and House, we are in good company I think. There are bigger and much more mature countries that have their own disruptions in their own parliaments.”