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Albanian municipalities are stepping up preparations for EU membership  

European Commission praises reforms in Albania ahead of EU decision on whether to start accession talks. ​

Albanian municipalities are increasingly focused on improving their capacity to absorb European Union money and implement EU-related reforms, political leaders and government officials said as a meeting with the European Committee of the Regions on 17 June. There were, however, warnings about a continuing imbalance between the level of responsibility they have been given by central government and the funding available to them.

The comments were made at a meeting of the Working Group Western Balkans, a political forum created by the European Committee of the Regions to help local and regional authorities in Albania and other countries in the region prepare for possible EU membership, by providing political and policy advice based on the experience and knowledge of EU cities and regions. The meeting was held a day after the Netherlands joined the list of EU countries that support the start of accession talks and two working days before EU foreign ministers were due to consider whether to give the green light for negotiations.

Nikola Dobroslavić (HR/EPP), the Chair of the Working Group, the CoR's rapporteur on Enlargement Package 2020, and prefect of Dubrovnik-Neretva County, reiterated the CoR's support for the start of accession talks with Albania – and North Macedonia – without further delay, in part to maintain the EU's credibility in the process.

Michela Matuella of the European Commission's Directorate-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) said that Albania has "now fulfilled" all conditions and that the European Commission hoped talks could soon be launched. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and an earthquake in February 2020, Albania has recently "delivered in a very convincing way" in key areas, such as electoral reform and the rule of law, with some "impressive results" in judicial reform and "important results" in its work against organised crime. "On all fronts, we have seen important developments," she said, also noting advances "on other important priorities that were not conditions", such as the protection of minorities, census and the reform of property rights.

Ms Matuella said that "local and regional actors are playing a key role in EU-oriented reforms", but she called for a "depoliticisation of the civil service" and for more action "to strengthen local administrative capacity across the board to ensure adequate service delivery", in part by ensuring "adequate budgetary resources to the local level". She underscored the value of Albania's decision to set up EU units "in every municipality", describing them as an "important channel to ensure that local authorities receive correct and useful information, but also that their views are fed into the future accession process".

Ambassador Suela Janina, Head of the Albanian Mission to the European Union, said that the presence of European integration units at the municipal level is improving coordination, implementation and consultation processes, and is also helping to inform the public. The creation of these units was, she said, part of a broader set of reforms to local administration in recent years, including the consolidation of local government into 61 municipalities and a strategy of decentralisation.

Ambassador Janina and Romina Kuko, Deputy Minister of Interior of Albania, highlighted two EU projects for local administrations – EU for Municipalities, and Municipalities to Europe – as having particularly supported and encouraged local leaders to apply for EU programmes, ranging from Horizon 2020, for research and innovation, to Creative Europe, focused on the arts.

Ornela Çuçi, Deputy Minister of Tourism and Environment of Albania and member of Tirana Regional Council, noted, however, that a failure to cooperate with other countries in the Western Balkans was preventing Albanian administrations from making greater use of EU programmes. "We have to encourage local governments to cooperate," she said, adding "there is no way to have a Green Deal without cooperation in the region".

Voltana Ademi (Democratic Party), Mayor of Shkodra, warned of efforts by the governing party to exert control over municipalities and said of "the increased number of laws transferring responsibility to local administrations" that "such responsibilities are transferred without transferring the necessary funds".

In February 2020, the European Commission last year revised its approach to the region, making changes that it hoped will generate greater dynamism in EU-oriented reforms. In October 2020, the EU unveiled an Economic Investment Plan that may eventually generate €9 billion in investment for the region, with a focus on projects and programmes that should advance the green and digital transition and boost cooperation between the countries of the region.

Pre-pandemic support for Albania will be "dwarfed by the Economic Investment Plan", said Alexis Hupin of the Delegation of the European Union to Albania. On 2 June, the European Parliament and EU member states agreed a €14 billion package in pre-accession funding for countries in the Western Balkans between 2021 and 2027. This includes the Economic and Investment Plan.

Other speakers at the meeting included: Erilda Krasi, manager of the tourism company 1001 Albanian adventures in Berat and winner of the ARLEM award for young entrepreneurs in 2021; Saimir Plaku, Director General of the Agency for Support of Local Self Government of Albania; and Elton Stafa of the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS).

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