As the European Union’s enlargement policy spreads to the Western Balkans, the union faces many different challenges that prevent the candidate states from joining. Albania and North Macedonia are relatively poor countries with weak economies and unstable democratic institutions, qualities which facilitate the rampant spread of crime. This analysis focuses on criminal activity and how it impedes the EU accession of these countries. It uses analyses from the Global Organized Crime Index to accentuate these issues, and compares the statements made in the European Commission’s 2021 and 2022 report summaries on Albania and North Macedonia to see whether any progress has been made in this one-year period. While both EU candidate countries have achieved serious development in this short time frame, much work needs to be done in the respective fields to finalize the accession process.
Keywords: Albania, North Macedonia, European Commission, criminality, corruption, accession.
More than 15 years after 2004’s „Big Bang” and 2007’s accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the European Union is facing another significant challenge in terms of enlargement, this time in the Southeast of Europe. On 19 July 2022, official accession talks have begun between the European Commission, Albania and North Macedonia, marking the beginning of a long and complicated process preceded by years of negotiations.
In September of the same year, delegations from Tirana and Skopje were present at an explanatory Screening meeting as part of the accession mechanism. One of the areas the twophase Screening process is concerned with is the functionality of democratic institutions, fundamental rights, rule of law and the judiciary (parts of the ’Fundamentals’ cluster), fields where Albania and North Macedonia, in their current state, have serious barriers blocking them from joining the European community.
Reports on Albania
Albania’s notorious ties to criminal activity are well-known in the international scene, almost to a stereotypical degree. Based on GOCI’s Criminality Score, the country is ranked 9th among the 44 European states listed. Albania is both a source and a transit country for human trafficking, primarily for Middle Eastern and North African migrants aiming to reach Western and Northern Europe. Arms trafficking is relatively limited, with only remnants of the 1997 Civil War (small arms and light weapons in particular) occasionally winding up in European markets. Its environmental criminal market is also significant, with acts ranging from illegal logging and poaching to illegal extraction of natural resources. In my opinion, the most pressing issue affecting EU countries is the trafficking of heroin and cocaine through Albania, made possible with the cooperation between South American cartels and Albanian mafia-style groups. Controlling the storage and distribution of the substances, Albanian organizations hold a significant share of Europe’s ’Class A’ drug trade. The country ranks 36th on the Resilience Score chart, its unconsolidated democracy constantly facing problems of criminal state capture, corruption and a lack of independence in the judiciary.
The European Commission’s 2021 report refers to Albania’s judicial system as ’moderately prepared’, commending the appointment of new judges to the Constitutional Court, the advancement of the vetting process and the fight against corruption and organized crime. According to the report, the country has tightened cooperation with EU Member States and agencies like Europol, implemented a new national counter-terrorism action plan, compatible with the EU’s Joint Action Plan targeting the Western Balkans. Despite adopting new strategies against criminal activity, the report finds Albania’s efforts lacking in many aspects, suggesting further cooperation and consistency.
The 2022 report on Albania continues to acknowledge developments in the judicial system, pointing out the fact that low proceedings, the low clearance rate and the large case backlog continue to negatively impact the efficiency of the system’s work. It emphasizes a need for greater political will and further structured efforts in the fight against corruption. On the topic of organized crime, Albania has seemingly strengthened its cooperation with the aforementioned institutions and agencies. The Commission invariably asks to ensure increased prosecutions and final convictions, especially at high-level. „Countering cybercrime, trafficking in human beings and money laundering remain areas in which additional results are needed. The phenomenon of child sexual abuse online remains a concern.”
When comparing the reports, it appears that Albania has managed to make further progress in subduing criminal activity, but this progress is not sufficient enough to promote the country from its ’moderately prepared’ state.
Reports on North Macedonia
Compared to Albania’s GOCI position, North Macedonia is ostensibly doing better, ranking 11th and 32nd on the Criminality Score and Resilience Score charts respectively. Human trafficking, small-scale illicit arms trade, environmental crimes and drug smuggling are equally acute problems for the country, however, the wording of the analysis suggests these issues create less violence and affect North Macedonia on a smaller scale in contrast to Albania. The governance and criminal justice system of the country is also evaluated in a favorable way. The analysis describes North Macedonia as an improved democratic state with government transparency, compliant interstate cooperation and tight border control.
Phrasing is also important in the context of the Commission’s 2021 report on North Macedonia. It uses the word ’some’ when describing the progress made in the various fields mentioned. The entire summary feels less forgiving and more demanding compared to the Albanian report, with the Commission constantly reiterating what needs to be done „better”. Apart from that, the two reports are more or less similar in content and the recommendations/instructions given.
The 2022 report is noticeably lighter in tone and endorses the different improvements made by North Macedonia. An emphasis is put on fair and transparent access to judicial professions, providing extra funding for the recruitment of expert staff to battle corruption and improving the effectiveness of law enforcement in fighting money laundering and financial crimes.
This different approach in North Macedonia’s reports leads me to believe the Commission has encountered significant problems during the evaluation process which will further delay the country’s accession into the EU.
When it comes to tackling criminal activity, both Albania and North Macedonia have made meaningful progress in restructuring their judicial system, restraining corruption, terrorism and organized crime. To make this development more consistent and successful, these states will have to deepen their cooperation with the EU and international agencies, making further structural changes in their own systems simultaneously.
Jakab Máté Petrov
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