Tirana, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Albanian authorities breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and the other European Union officials reassured Tirana that negotiations will open soon on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a first step toward membership in the union.
Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, was in the Albanian capital as part of a regional tour. "Allow me to congratulate Albania. In a few days, you will be beginning the negotiations for the Stabilization and Association [Agreement with the EU]. Commissioner [Romano] Prodi [president of the European Commission] will be here for this inauguration, and this highlights one very important point: Our region is becoming and will become a success story. Our region will become a success story for Europe," Papandreou said.
Papandreou's announcement followed a recent EU warning in which Albania was asked to speed up reforms, especially in the areas of property rights and the country's electoral system.
Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano said his government is committed to reforms needed to integrate the country into Europe.
Papandreou hailed Albania's recent efforts in fighting corruption and trafficking in drugs and human beings and said the Balkan countries must continue "the difficult path of change." He particularly emphasized the need to fight organized crime and to strengthen democracy.
Papandreou said one of the objectives of the EU's Thessaloniki summit in June will be to review and upgrade the stabilization-and-association process, with the goal of faster membership in the EU for Balkan countries. "We are committed as the European Union, and we want to get this message across at the Thessaloniki summit. We'll move to candidacy and then to membership, and Europe is ready to help in this process. But on the other hand, this region, these governments, these countries, [and] our citizens in the region must be committed on this difficult path of change, reform, fighting organized crime, [and] strengthening democracy. We in the region must also be committed," Papandreou said.
Papandreou stressed that the aim of the European Union is "to make this progress permanent, to see permanent stability, strong democracies, and prosperity for all." He said the EU wants to create a sense of security for all citizens, where ordinary crime, corruption, and organized crime are eradicated.
Albania hopes the EU presidencies of Greece and Italy this year will see significant steps taken to shorten Tirana's integration process into the union.
A few weeks ago, Chris Patten, the EU's commissioner for external relations, outlined a step-by-step negotiating plan to ensure that progress is, indeed, made. The EU adopted its negotiating mandate for the agreement in October, but an EU task force that visited Albania in November said the talks will not be easy.