Growing Dissatisfaction with the E.U.

Albanian Parliament Speaker Jozefina Topalli (C) at a raising of the European Union flag ceremony on June 12 in front of the parliament building in the capital, Tirana. (Photo: Gent Shkullaku / AFP-Getty Images)

On the streets of Germany, the European Union's 50th anniversary in March was celebrated with free sausages and beer, reflecting in some minds the concise version of the Berlin Declaration that so bravely affirmed that the E.U. has "brought about a sense of community and overcome differences" in Europe. But in Tirana, Albania's capital, the mood was more somber.

Instead of free alcohol and pop concerts, Albanians were fed a familiar diet of analyses about the malaise affecting the middle-aged European Union: Franco-Dutch voter alienation; the democratic deficit; enlargement fatigue and the limits of the E.U.'s absorption capacity. And while it may be good news that Albanians are being kept abreast of these pan-E.U. debates, the bad news is that there is a serious lack of introspection about Albania's journey of integration into liberal-democratic Europe. The internal dynamics of the country's E.U. project suggest trouble ahead.

On the surface, Albania's list of accomplishments on the long road to E.U. membership is hard to ignore. Contractual relations between Brussels and Albania started in 1992 with a trade agreement. Then in 2006 the country signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement and by December began to open its markets to E.U. products. Both ordinary voters and the political elite seem united behind the goal of E.U. accession and greater "Europeanization." This unity gave the country a sense of purpose and its citizens a feeling of confidence that the benefits of the E.U. were within their reach.

But a recent study at the Albanian Institute for International Studies found that while support for E.U. membership remains high, Albanians are growing increasingly uneasy about the length of the road ahead. Every year since 2002, estimates of how long it will take Albania to achieve its goal have kept growing. The E.U.'s on-going constitutional crisis in part explains this pessimism, but domestic factors are also gaining in importance. Somewhat inaccurately, these domestic reasons could be called Albania's "European deficit."

It was widely assumed in the early days of Albania's post-communist transition, that all eastern European nations that wanted to join the E.U. needed to go through a process of Europeanization beforehand. This usually meant two things; first there were the "hard" institutional requirements of membership, such as adopting the acquis communautaire, fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria and preparing domestic institutions through monitoring and evaluation. Second was a "soft" stage of Europeanization, which included the formation of pan-European linkages and the creation of a European identity that was in harmony with local values.

This social dimension was meant to be a positive by-product of the integration process; a nation's efforts to complete the "hard" groundwork would create a virtuous cycle of more democracy, more liberalism, more diversity and more wealth. It was considered to be as important as the institutional transition, albeit less easy to measure.

It is now clear that this twin-track view was, at best, an over-simplification. Even eastern European countries that have achieved E.U. membership are suffering from populist fatigue with European ideals — a phase that French political scientist Jacques Rupnik calls their "anti-liberal moment."

In Albania, there is a glaring gap between the "hard" accomplishments and "soft" failures, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it. For example, Albania's efforts to adopt the acquis, build political checks and balances, respect human rights and improve the performance of its institutions have started to pay off. However, the country still has a long way to go. Despite constitutional provisions to the contrary, state and regime institutions are largely bi-partisan, functioning through party militancy and family relations. They are prone to political deadlocks and are unable to function autonomously.

The official world of jurisprudence is also very far from the everyday reality that is experienced by ordinary Albanians, who find that property law and labor relations rely more on nepotistic links than on the Statute Book. The "soft" aspects of social Europeanization also have little relevance for the majority of the population, who still perceive "Europe" as a distant land that they can neither experience nor understand. The few elite groups in politics, business and civil society that have benefited from social Europeanization largely see it as a means to improve transcontinental ties, rather than a new ethos for doing business at home.

Thus, Albanian society is experiencing a growing dislocation over Europe. On the one hand, there are elite discourses about European values and Brussels' well-meaning but standard institutional remedies. On the other hand, there is the experience of a political and social reality that is very far from the European ideal.

This disconnect is dangerous. The political system, along with its legal and institutional infrastructure, needs to reflect the common will; it cannot survive as a by-product of a closed process involving domestic elites and foreign actors. Any liberal democracy that fails to reflect the characteristics of its own community will tend to lose its liberalism along the way towards the greater good.

Some Albanians are beginning to reflect that perhaps it is time the country concentrated more on improving the internal dynamics of its European project, and spent less time worrying about the great debate on Europe's future.

Originally published in Europe's World.