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The EU Ambassador: The fight against corruption is key to the Albania-EU rapprochement

The EU Ambassador: The fight against corruption is key to the Albania-EU

The EU ambassador in Albania, Gonzato, talks to DW about the process of rapprochement with the EU. Regarding the law on protected areas, it states: The consultation process could have been carried out in a more comprehensive and transparent manner.

DW : The last EU summit had as its main focus the support for Ukraine, but also the preparation of the bloc for the future expansion. How do you see Albania's chances at this moment to advance in the integration process?

Silvio Gonzato:  Albania really has the potential to be one of the forerunners of the accession process. I believe this has been demonstrated during the legislative review process, a process where the EU and Albania together look not only at the legislation, but at the entire regulatory environment in Albania compared to EU standards and see where Albania needs to make progress to achieve these standards.

During this process, Albania has really shown considerable administrative capacity, it has carried out the process very seriously, including all the necessary stakeholders, with an approach of the whole government and the state. So the first step has been very positive and has left a very positive impression in Brussels.

As a result of this process, Albania has undertaken a number of commitments that are reflected in the guidelines, one for the rule of law and one for public administration reform. These are important commitments and now is the time to follow them and make sure that Albania has all the right conditions for a smooth journey during the negotiations.

We need to make sure that Albania has a track record of consistent results in this regard. It is also important that the Assembly, when it adopts laws that may be dictated by emergency, need, etc., does so keeping in mind these commitments and the need for them to be in line with the EU, i.e. to respect EU standards in these sectors.

At the same time, I am also optimistic because there is a positive momentum from the EU side as well. I think that the number of summits held, but also if you look at the approval or the procedures that led to the approval of the mechanism of growth and reforms, shows that the Member States are ready to keep their promise towards the candidate countries and Albania as well.

Despite the very difficult financial situation we are in, the Member States decided to allocate up to 6 billion Euros for the Growth and Reform Plan. Some are grants, some are loans, but it is still a high figure if we consider that the EU is also committed to solving the crisis in Ukraine caused by Russian aggression, which has very big consequences for our continent.

The speed with which the European Parliament and the Member States have reached the agreement that will be finalized soon, an agreement on the growth and reform mechanism, really shows that the Member States understand that we must maintain the momentum and keep the promise made to this region.

DW : For the European Union and the enlargement process, good relations between neighbors are a main condition, but meanwhile the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to be tense and the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is not progressing. How much do you think that these situations can influence or inhibit the process of membership of Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro?

Silvio Gonzato:  I cannot comment here on the situation in North Macedonia, for that you should ask my colleagues in Skopje, but as for Albania, I believe that Albania has really shown determination to play a positive role in the region, a stabilizing role .

In doing so, it has become somewhat of a focal point of regional initiatives, and the way it has actively promoted the growth and reform agenda in the region shows its determination to do so. I think that Albania really has a positive role to play in the Balkans and is doing so. This is also widely known in Brussels.

DW : Just above you mentioned the 6 billion euro fund allocated by the European Union for the Western Balkans to promote reforms in the region. How much will Albania benefit from this fund? How will their monitoring be done?

Silvio Gonzato:  There are rough allocations, but they still need to be worked out, but that's the novelty. Within the IPA program, there are no prior allocations by country, but in the case of the growth and reform mechanism, there will be an exact amount that will be set for Albania based on population, GDP per capita, etc. But it can also change, as it is related to performance, it is conditioned by the implementation of some reforms, which are defined in the agenda of growth and reforms.

So if a country fails to meet these commitments, payments are stopped and these payments can be transferred to another country that is doing well. So, it almost creates a competitive environment, because the aim is to accelerate the convergence between the region and the EU. So I can't say at this point, but the numbers that are floating around are really impressive. They are also an opportunity to promote the membership agenda, since this is the goal, the acceleration of the process of regulatory, but also economic and social convergence between Albania and the EU.

As for the systems for monitoring the proper use of these funds, firstly, the EU has carried out a preliminary assessment of the country's capacity and abilities to carry out appropriate verifications and controls, but also the reform agenda, this document signed between of the EU and Albania, before the first tranche of funds, the growth and reform agenda contains specific conditions related to the management of public finances, as far as controls and audits of the system are concerned, so in a way, the payments are conditional on the improvement of the country's capacities to control the way public funds are managed. In addition, of course, the EU has the right to carry out checks and audits of a country's systems at any time to ensure that EU taxpayers' money is being used properly here in Albania.

DW: A few days ago you met the head of SPAK, Altin Duman, and you considered SPAKU as a key player in Albania's progress in the membership process to meet the standards. How do you evaluate the work done so far by SPAK and what are your expectations for the continuation?

Silvio Gonzato:  I don't want to place too much responsibility on Mr. Dumani's shoulders, since it is SPAK that is contributing to Albania's progress in the membership agenda, and the reason why I say this is that, as you know, one of the important elements of negotiations is the rule of law chapter, as well as the fight against corruption and organized crime which is key. I think that SPAK is making a very big contribution to this and this increases the credibility of Albania and its determination to deal with these phenomena.

SPAK has been one of the key elements of the justice reform. We have constantly supported and supported the justice reform. We want to see it implemented properly, efficiently, so we have also expressed our support for SPAK over the years. The meeting I had with Mr. Dumani was precisely to better coordinate how we, but also the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU member states, help SPAK develop its capacities to perform the role of own.

Regarding expectations, what is more important than my expectations or those of the EU, are the expectations of the Albanian people. Through two recent surveys, we have seen that, in fact, the level of confidence of Albanians in the justice system has increased. It has been very low, but with the recent investigations done by SPAK, I think that people have a renewed faith in Albanian institutions and this is essential. We continue to say that, unfortunately, young people often decide to leave Albania, because they do not see a perspective for themselves, but I think that if they see that the justice system works, if they see that merit prevails, they will stay, because they they want to contribute to a more prosperous Albania, which has its own place in the European Union.

Therefore, I think it is important for the political, but also economic and social development of this country, because of course if the business has confidence that their financial interests will be protected, that they will operate under equal conditions, they will invest more in Albania and that's exactly what we want.

DW: Can you tell us more about the concrete help that the European Union is giving to strengthen the fight against corruption and the consolidation of the justice system?

Silvio Gonzato:  We have a number of projects that support SPAK and not only prosecutors in particular, but also the investigative side. We have cooperation between EU agencies such as Europol and EuroJust and SPAK. We also have a number of capacity building projects that try to see not only the SPAK, but also the ordinary justice system.

One of the things we are engaged in is the digital case management system. It seems very technical, but it is a system that would allow, firstly, the division of cases in a completely neutral and transparent way, and would also allow to have clear statistics on the performance of the justice system and how it helps the authorities to handle existing shortages.

So, we have a variety of tools at our disposal that, as I said, go from building capacities, providing materials, improving the infrastructure available to various actors of justice, and of course the political support we give them in this direction.

DW: In Albania, the establishment of a Special Commission to combat disinformation from foreign interference has been approved by the socialist majority. The opposition and media experts see it as an attempt to control the media. What is your position on this initiative?

Silvio Gonzato:  If you know my background, you probably expect me to say that manipulation of information by foreign actors and interference is a serious problem. I started dealing with this in 2015, while the EU started to deal with this phenomenon in 2014, with the occupation of Crimea.

It's definitely a problem, a problem that tests the resilience of our democracy and we need to raise awareness about it, there's no doubt about that. The EU has been on the front line. We launched an action plan on disinformation in 2019, before the European elections, and I have been directly involved. Then we also had the European Parliament that took this very seriously with the creation of an ad hoc commission, FIMI (Foreign Actor Information Manipulation and Interference) as it is called.

The use of the term is indicative, because at first we were only talking about disinformation, but I think that the phenomenon of interference in our democracies is wider. It's not just about the media or online platforms, although they obviously play an important role, but there are other factors that are used by foreign actors, non-state factors, to undermine our democracies, to undermine trust in electoral processes.

There is the issue related to cyber security, the issue of covert funding of political parties by foreign actors, the issue of how non-state actors use cultural activities to influence opinions, so the phenomenon is complex and I hope and believe that the Assembly of Albania will examine it in its own complexity, not only focusing on the media aspect, which is important.

As for the reaction, we have shown that the reaction must be articulated for different elements. Of course, there is the element of dealing with these actors and the tools they use to distort the perception of things and to manipulate the way people perceive certain phenomena, and this certainly calls into question the role of online platforms, and at the beginning for this we used a lot of approach self-regulating, then with the Digital Services Act we have established a number of obligations for these platforms.

But again, when we tell the platforms that you are responsible for the content you publish, they can't say I'm just space and the responsibility of the content lies elsewhere. They have responsibilities, but we must also make sure that there is transparency in the way they convey the content, and here they have responsibilities, since we cannot allow private actors to limit or reduce freedom of expression or freedom of the media. So there must be checks and I think the involvement of civil society here is key. I mentioned freedom of the media and freedom of expression, as they are another key element of the approach. Therefore now in Europe we have the Media Freedom Act which is about preserving and guaranteeing that the media environment is favorable for quality journalism.

Therefore, I think that the Assembly should see the broad context here in Albania when it comes to the media and we know that disinformation is widespread, as sometimes the working conditions in which journalists operate in Albania are certainly not ideal and there is a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot of pressure due to the connections between business, politics and the media.

Therefore, we must have transparency here, we must ensure that journalists work independently and produce the type of information that Albanian citizens have the right to have. Therefore, I think that a very sensitive and reasonable approach to these issues is needed, such that it provides clear guarantees that civil society will be included in the discussions and will have a role to ensure that the measures taken do not lead to the restriction of space for free expression, for free media, for independent journalism.

DW : Let's move on to another highly debated issue, the new Law on Protected Areas. The European Commission has recommended in its 2023 report for Albania that the country should significantly improve the quality of environmental and strategic impact assessments in projects, as well as implement and monitor the recommendations derived from these assessments. Do you have a comment about this situation?

Silvio Gonzato:  As you said, this issue has caused a lot of concern and dissatisfaction, expressed especially by civil society organizations. I have to say that sometimes it is not only a matter of content, but also a matter of process, how you pass legislation. In this case it was the changes that were proposed, first by a number of members of parliament, then by the government, and I think we lost a bit of the big picture, what was going to happen and what the clear impact of these things was.

It is important that when such important decisions are made, because they touch on topics that are important for Albanian citizens, but which are also very important for the membership process, it is important that when these decisions are made, they are made trying to a climate of trust is maintained, so that people know what the consequences of the new legislation are. I think that the consultation process could have been carried out in a more comprehensive and transparent manner.

Now we are still in the process of assessing the impact of the new provisions, as it is certainly necessary to see how the new provisions may affect the management plans that have been created for the management of protected areas and what is the procedure that may lead to some deviation of these management plans. But, as you said, the difficulty lies in the little things, in the details of implementation, and a key element is that we must have a full and independent assessment of the impact on the environment before proceeding with such projects. .

Of course, procurement procedures should also be transparent in this regard. My position is that Albania's desire to guarantee that it can use its natural resources and the beauty of the environment and landscape, also to promote the country's economic development, is legitimate. Every country would like to do this. But, for the long-term benefit of Albanians, it is important that the choices you make today are sustainable choices and do not negatively affect the environment.

The biodiversity of this country, which is extremely rich, and which actually makes Albania unique and attractive, if you miss it, you will become like all other tourist destinations, not necessarily more attractive than others. /DW

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