I am delighted to be here in Albania and to have the opportunity to address you. This forum follows a very productive set of meetings with members of the Government, including Prime Minister Rama, Ministers and members of Parliament and local government. Thank you for the hospitality we have been shown by everyone. I would like to extend special thanks to the EU Delegation and to Ambassador Sequi in particular for their support during our visit.
In my contribution this afternoon I want to address three related themes.
First – to comment on key themes regarding EU enlargement policy.
Second – to emphasise the progress and status of Albania in relation to EU candidate status. Specifically, I want to articulate the view of the Irish Government in relation to these negotiations.
Finally – to conclude with some observations in relation to Irish social and political attitudes towards Europe in the hope that they may be relevant to the journey that Albania is undertaking.
Irish Support for Accession Policy
I will begin by first emphasising the support that Ireland has for accession policy and enlargement of the Union. We were proud that during a recent Presidency of the Union, in 2004, we oversaw the largest ever expansion of the Union. In our most recent Presidency, completed last year, we organised a major conference in Dublin entitled ’10 Years After Thessaloniki’, reviewing the accession and enlargement progress in the Balkan region.
Ireland maintains this support because we believe that the opportunities and prospects open to us through EU membership should be open to other countries too. Applicant countries must meet the demanding and very rigorous criteria of accession policy but they should be supported in this journey and then rewarded when they complete it.
A Union of Values
More broadly I believe that the cornerstone of the European Union is that it represents a union of values. Underneath all of the discussion and debate on different unions – whether they be banking unions, currency unions or digital unions – is a union of shared values.
These include a respect for human rights, support for diversity, a constant search for inclusivity in how decisions are made and the fundamental desire to strengthen how countries and communities work with each other to make the most of common opportunities.
And I acknowledge fully that while the Union does not always meet these ideals, I see, in my work as a Minister, how it always strives towards their attainment.
And I believe that the sharing of these values, through enlargement, benefits everyone; those seeking to share them and those seeking to improve them within their own countries.
Union membership and the process towards it is, and must be, transformative. Ireland has directly experienced this, enabling our movement from a closed economy to one deeply integrated in, and benefitting from, the global and European economy.
The social transformation was also profound as relations with our neighbours were reset, as the horizon of our society was changed and as citizens developed different expectations about their rights, their freedoms and their prospects.
Misha Glenny in his history of the Balkan region refers to the ‘prisons of history’. The Union, by supporting the movement away from dictatorships, autocracies, colonies and war has shown how history can cease to be a prison but instead can be an inspiration to strive towards the palace of a stable and secure future.
The determination and appetite to do this is clear; in the recent progress in Serbia and Kosovo, in the accession of Croatia and in the progress that Albania is making towards achieving candidate status.
A Changing Union and a Changing Accession Process
The Union of today is very different from the Union that Albania first applied to join in 2009. The huge magnitude of change between the EU of then and now must be emphasised to fully appreciate the impact it has had on enlargement policy. All of this change has occurred as the Union has developed to respond to the opportunities and difficulties of recent years.
This includes responding to the economic crisis, the last expansion of the Union and common national challenges and priorities in areas from climate change, to the fight against organised crime, to human rights.
Signature changes include:
Banking Union and the changes in economic governance for Eurozone countries represent change that is comparable to the introduction of the single currency.
The implementation of the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, the creation of new roles and the change in how decisions are made by the Union have all recast its political architecture. The important role of Ambassador Sequi and the European External Action Service are clear consequences of this change.
So, the EU has not remained static. Our integration has deepened. The nature of the Union has changed.
Precisely because of this, the nature of the accession process has changed. As the Union has evolved so has the way of joining it.
Ireland and Albanian Candidate Status
I will therefore elaborate the Irish position on Albanian accession. To do so I will simply quote from the letter that our Tánaiste – Deputy Prime Minister – and Minister and Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, signed on the 13th December 2013. He co-signed this letter with his peer Ministers from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia.
This letter began by emphasising ‘our full support for a positive decision on granting candidate status to Albania’. Ireland noted the following elements as important in our support for candidate status.
-Steps in improving the fight against corruption and crime;
-The adoption of key judicial, public administration and parliamentary reforms;
-The cross-Party consensus behind these and other measures.
My visit is to emphasise the support of the Irish Government for this process and our desire to support the people of Albania in their journey, in your journey, to a prosperous and secure future.
And I do so with an acknowledgement of the difficulties that your country has faced in the past; in forging your identity in the face of vast forces, from the Ottoman Empire to the Soviet Union, and in maintaining your distinct cultural heritage and identity across the passage of millennia despite the great change surrounding you.
So I do not need to tell you that this journey is very demanding and rigorous. We expect that criteria and requirements must be fully meet.
But, each step has intrinsic value, on its own, that will deliver rewards to the people of Albania.
And as each step is taken by your country Ireland will be supportive of your progress. This was done, as recently as last month, in the accession focused General Affairs Council meeting.
2014 – An Important Year
2014 will be an important year for Albania in its path towards the Union. I look forward to Albania receiving candidate status in June. This is on the basis of continued commitment and implementation by the Government of their ambitious and encouraging reform process. This is recognised in the conclusions of the December 2013 European Council which clearly state that ‘on the understanding that Albania continues to build on the encouraging progress so far, the Council looks forward to a decision regarding granting candidate status to Albania in June 2014, subject to endorsement by the European Council ‘.
The efforts of the previous Government, which contributed greatly to bringing Albania closer to EU candidate status, have been built on by the new administration. This has kept the project firmly on track. I would encourage all involved to continue to work together to build on the progress already made and maintain focus on the prize of candidate status in June.
The High Level Dialogue process is the essential mechanism for making, tracking and communicating this progress. I urge the continued support of this process by Government and Parliament.
Civil Society and the Rule of Law
Vital to this is strong civil society support for EU membership and the involvement of civic groups in the process. Their input and energy will be key to bringing Albania closer to your goal. Ensuring that the voice of the people is heard when decisions that directly impact on their lives are being made is vital.
These organizations, and civil society in general, uniquely depend on the rule of law. Accordingly, one of the most important examples of how the enlargement process has evolved is in the area of rule of law.
Let me emphasise strongly, that without strengthening judicial systems, reducing corruption and organised crime, and ensuring the implementation of robust anti-discrimination policies, reforms in other areas will not take hold. Without these reforms, the development of applicant countries will be held back, and the quality of life of their citizens will not improve.
The approach now being adopted in terms of the EU accession process allows rule of law issues to be tackled early in the negotiating process. This allows a candidate country to develop a track record and ensure that reforms undertaken are deeply rooted and irreversible.
It is the foundation stone of the values of the European Union and essential to the concept of citizenship that the Union enshrines.
Observations on Irish Support for the European Union
I will conclude on the point of how these values and the Union have maintained consistent support from Ireland and some broader lessons on our membership. This, I hope, will be of interest to you in the work you are undertaking in Albania.
First, cross-Party support for membership and full participation in the institutions of the Union. Every political party that has entered government in Ireland has supported our role in the Union. Without this our membership would not be what it is now.
Second, the relationship between Irish civil society groups and Europe, through European institutions. Our trade unions, employer groups, agricultural organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations have played a vital role in positively developing our membership and maintaining public support for it. This is why I emphasised the importance of equivalent support from bodies within Albania.
Finally, the opportunity to reset bilateral relationships within the unique multilateral framework of the European Union. This was a vital factor in the extraordinary progress in our relationship with the United Kingdom. Sitting at the table of the European Council on the basis of equality reframed the nature of this relationship and has taken it to a new level.
I should conclude by noting that the Irish relationship with the European Union has faced many challenges. These include the defeat of referenda on European treaties, the understandable questioning of the role of European institutions and the current economic crisis. But ultimately, I know that the majority of Irish people understand the very positive role of the European Union has played in our past and future, and I am convinced that this will be reflected in future Irish Governments.
This is because of the transformation of our country through this membership. I hope and believe that this awaits the people of Albania too. The path of each country to membership will be different, influenced by its own hopes, fears and history.
But in your journey I can assure you of the continued support of Ireland.