"Europe Is the Antidote to Balkanic Mine"
By Francesca Paci
Albanian Daily News
Published September 14, 2017
Albania at the juncture of reforms and stability in view of the desired EU accession; common challenges with Italy starting from the control of illegal immigration; accession to the European Union as the only prospect that would prevent Balkans from going back to the ethnic conflicts of the past. These were the topics the new Albanian President Ilir Meta - already Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and founder of the Socialist Movement for Integration - talked about with "La Stampa" newspaper on the margins of his first official visit in Italy, during which he met with the main authorities of the state, President Mattarella and Laura Boldrini. In the background, the strategic relationship between two nations, connected by much more than the Adriatic Sea, as a large portion of the large Albanian diaspora lives here, while an increasing number of Italian retirees choose to move to Tirana for economic and social reasons.

-Mr President, up to what point has Albania's accession process to the European Union advanced and also the reforms you have undertaken?
-After the positive recommendation of the European Commission to open membership negotiations, after our general elections and the new government, we started implementing the new reform of justice. Now we hope that the EU's decision to open negotiations will come soon.

-Why is it important for Albania to enter Europe?
Because we are Europeans, we are a country and a European people. For many decades we have been one of the most isolated countries in the world and, for sure, the most isolated in Europe. The country's aspiration to a European future is still very strong and popular. We would like a future of prosperity and peace for Albania, but also for the whole region, and the only thing that could unite us toward a future cooperation is the common European perspective. Europe is the common perspective of all the countries in the region. If this perspective were to fail, in our countries the old problems of nationalism and the boundaries between states would be revived, returning to a past that hasn't been so peaceful. This argument also demonstrates the importance of EU enlargement and of our integration.

-According to a Transparency International 2016 study, Albania is third in Europe for the degree of corruption of its political class. Among the most important reforms initiated by the Tirana government in the framework of application for EU membership is what you mentioned before, Justice: What is actually going on with the concrete fight against corruption?
-I believe corruption should be fought through the country's judicial system. That's why the judicial system must possess integrity and credibility. Our reform started from verifying the people of the justice system, prosecutors and judges. It is a tough reform that goes in the direction of transparency and is strongly assisted by the European Union and the United States, but also by civil society and the media. We hope that with the implementation of vetting, already started, we will soon have strong and credible institutions in the war against corruption and illegal activities in the country. In this way we will not only strengthen the law and the institutions, but we will also create a good business environment for foreign investment.

-Albania is a NATO pillar in the Balkans. Many indicators suggest that the region is experiencing a phase of strong Islamic radicalization, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania itself. At Scutari, in northern Albania, several Catholic teachers speak of a new and till now unknown tension with Muslim students. What is Albania doing to keep the religious awakening of a jihadist vocation under control?
-Firstly, the phenomenon of radicalization of young people does not concern only the countries where Muslims live. This phenomenon is also widening in highly developed EU countries. We are at an important moment when a lot of things happen from the hands of those who want to use religion for other purposes. But I think that it is not Albania the very country where the phenomenon is worrying. We have a harmony and religious coexistence that distinguishes us, but this harmony and coexistence must be safeguarded in the future with commitment, because we cannot afford to take it for granted. We expect there will be someone who will try to attack this coexistence, but we also know that this is a strong and stable coexistence. In short, I don't see serious concerns on this issue. It is clear that we have a great deal of cooperation on the war on terrorism, especially with Italy. We know that your security is our security and that terrorism is not a problem limited to the Adriatic area but spread throughout the Mediterranean, it is a new phenomenon that grew heavier after the Arab Spring. And it is also an important EU test for the stability of neighboring regions.

- Albania and Italy boast a historic and consolidated relationship. How are Tirana and Rome collaborating in the fight against jihadist terrorism, since the traces of the radicalization of some Italian jihadists, such as the converted Maria Giulia Sergio, lead to Albania, on the track of a recruiting network which was headed, among others, by imam Bujar Hysa, now in jail? How do you monitor that, once the Balkan and partially Libyan routes are closed, the migrants' traffic (and the infiltration of potential terrorist) along the Adriatic route does not restart?
-The destabilization of Syria, Libya and other countries of the region has created a big wave of migration to the EU. The Balkans was one of the main routes. Albania has pledged to make its modest contribution and for this purpose it has closely collaborated with neighboring countries, especially Italy. We were aware that had the migrants come in, they would use us as a bridge. That is why we have started a strong partnership with Frontex, also have a mission of theirs at our borders. The number of migrants entering Albania is very small and we have never registered cases where we have been used as a crossing bridge. Collaboration with Italy was excellent.

-You are the seventh president of post-communist Albania. What has remained of communism in your country, now that Albanian has entered the global market, has gradually seen a GDP growth but also the number of unemployed and deprived families?
-There is no doubt that besides the great change, we do still have social and economic problems. In the 1990s, we were not just a country with the backwardness of 50 years inherited from communism, but we also were carrying previous problems. Albania has a real economic potential for growth and for a better future. Our moves must make sure that the economic growth index also helps families in difficulty. We will do more for their education and prosperity. Saying that we are making a big change does not mean denying the existing problems.

-And if the EU accession process went long? Do you fear that young Albanian generations will 'fall out of love' with EU, as it happened in Turkey?
-This will not be the Albanian case; we will always be the door of Europe. Of course, there is some frustration for the fact that you would expect more speed but everyone understands the objective difficulties, the many things Europe is facing these years that do not ease the process, such as the economic crisis, migration, terrorism. But Europe is the only aspiration for us.

-Albanian Islam, passing by Hoxha's state atheism, is traditionally more "secular" and "Western" than other regional Islams. What has happened in the last ten years that helped emerging some jihadist impulses among some young Albanians? Is there a crisis of values among the new generations?
-I believe that interreligious coexistence and harmony have been historically strong in Albania. And they guaranteed the survival of our nation more than a hundred years ago. It is true that communism has hit hard all our religious communities and for 25 years we have witnessed the reverse process, the return of people to liberties, including religious ones. But for democratic Albania this is not a danger. I think the risks do not come from religions but from misuse or manipulation of religions. We will have to pay attention to the social parties and the poorer areas of the country to provide them with better education, better professional prospects and hope, because those who hope do not fall victim to any radical group.

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