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EU: Commissioner Begins Integration Talks With Albania

The European Union on 31 January formally opened negotiations for a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Albania. European Commission President Romano Prodi said the new relationship will encourage Albanian authorities to step up their reform efforts with an eye on eventual EU membership.

Tirana, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European Commission President Romano Prodi said his visit to Tirana on 31 January marked the "first official step" in joint efforts to integrate Albania into European organizations.

Prodi's visit, which formally opened negotiations for a Stabilization and Association Agreement, were hailed as a historic step forward for Albania, one of Europe's poorest nations.

The European Commission president said regular meetings between Albanian and EU officials would begin next week (13 February) in Tirana. Prodi emphasized the reforms Albania will be expected to achieve in order to press ahead with its integration bid. "Political democratic rule working, an electoral law, legislation for property, and reform of judiciary system in order to fight efficiently corruption and organized crime. On our side, we engaged to work hand-in-hand in order to help the country for this transformation," he said.

Prodi said Albania's chances for successful integration are good because it has shown itself to be a fast learner compared to other countries in the Balkan region. "My clear opinion is that [compared to other Southeast European EU candidates], you started from a lower ground but climbed faster. I tell you, I have great confidence in Albania. The vitality you see here, you don't see in many other countries," he said.

Albanian officials acknowledged the negotiations are only the start of what will be a long and arduous process of reform. Prime Minister Fatos Nano outlined his list of priorities for the country: "I am especially committed to getting rid of the lack of regulation, the corruption, the trafficking, the opportunities for criminal networks to penetrate [society]. We shall strengthen our institutions and the civil administration, and strengthen initiatives. We shall become Europeans in our behavior and our political and civil action."

How soon the people of Albania will become Europeans in their freedom of movement remains to be seen. Prodi says he supports the hope that Albanians will soon enjoy greater freedom of movement. But Nano said on 31 January that Albania's addition to the Shengen accord on visa-free movement is not an objective of the new negotiations. Nano added he was confident the Stabilization and Association Agreement will be signed before his term ends in 2005.

Prodi, who as Italian prime minister visited the port city of Vlora during heavy rioting in 1997 during a period of sweeping political anarchy, said he was pleased to see the progress already made in Albania. "Additional changes are needed, but we agree on them and we shall work together" he said on 31 January. He added, "Albania will be a surprise for Europe."

The European Union is poised to undertake its biggest expansion ever by admitting 10 countries, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, in 2004. They are: the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Malta.

Small but prosperous Slovenia is the only Balkan country to make the first wave of EU entry. The region's other long-term EU hopefuls are Croatia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and the Yugoslav Federation, soon to become known as Serbia-Montenegro.