Albania beyond the Acquis: the Serbian clue

Albania and the EU membership

The EU membership process is long and hard. According to the accession criteria, mainly agreed in 1993 at the European Council in Copenhagen, the first step for applicants is the implementation of essential principles such as democracy, rule of law, human rights and market economy among others. Fulfilling these requirements leads to a second step, which is granting the country the status of “candidate” and starting, when ready, a process of adoption, implementation and enforcement of the 35 chapters of the Acquis Communautaire (the compendium of EU rights and obligations applied to different policy areas and mandatory for all members), which is evaluated during the entire process. Finally, the unanimous consent of all EU members and institutions, as well as the acceptance of the country’s citizens by referendum or parliament approval allows the country to join the EU[1].

Albania has the status of candidate country since June 2014, after having submitted its formal application in 2009. The last Albania 2015 Report summarized that “Albania continued aligning its legislation to the requirements of the EU in a number of areas, enhancing its ability to take on the obligations of membership…/…However, Albania will need to make substantial efforts to upgrade its preparations for implementing the Acquis.”[2] However, despite the improvements of Albania and the EU’s recommendations, it would be a mistake to think that its options of membership only depend on the fulfilment of the Acquis. The efforts to meet EU standards can be useless if external considerations (those which the country cannot solve or improve by itself) are not properly taken into account. We are not referring to global factors such as the world economic crisis, the massive influx of refugees or the challenge of Brexit among other uncontrolled events, because these setbacks would affect any applicant. What we want to highlight instead is how one specific element has the ability to affect directly Albania in its membership expectations: a scenario with Serbia as an EU member before the access of Albania.

Nowadays all the remaining Balkan countries outside the EU have the status of candidate, but the progress in the negotiations differ from one another. Compared to Albania, and with the exception of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the other candidates are much more advanced in their respective negotiations. Thus, while Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey have already opened and even closed some of the 35 chapters, and Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo are directly potential candidate countries, Albania still hasn’t been considered ready to implement the Acquis.[3] The advanced status of Serbia in front of Albania in its EU membership intention represents a long term threat for the latter. The reason being the mutual existence of a cultural disrepute based in a stigmatized perception, and the building of weak bridges as a solution to the still fragile relationship. Self pride, ethnic superiority and will of hegemony are enough arguments to make Serbia deny the access of Albania during the EU voting process.

Kosovo, the element of enmity

The importance of this mutual sense of cultural superiority and its consequences in the development of the Albanian membership cannot be understood without a brief background regarding the question of Kosovo. Over the centuries, this territory belonged to multiple empires, becoming a multicultural place with an important ethnic and religious fragmentation, which determined its development during the 20th century. After the Balkan wars in 1912 – 1913 against almost 500 years of Turkish influence, Kosovo was left to the Orthodox – Christian countries Serbia and Montenegro, and was divided by the Axis during the Second World War between Serbia, Bulgaria and the mostly Islamic country of Albania.

Given the cultural differences between Kosovo Albanians, Kosovo Serbs in the north and other ethnic groups, the Marshal Tito granted the territory a wide autonomy after the Second World War in what was the recent Republic of Yugoslav, becoming an autonomous province in 1963 and assuming a virtual government in 1974. However, 1989 marked the beginning of the current rifts. The Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic attempted to suppress the autonomy of Kosovo, arguing the attacks of Kosovo Albanians against Kosovo Serbs. In response, after several demonstrations, Kosovo proclaimed its independence in 1991 with an unofficial referendum, refusing Serbia its legality and fomenting the spring of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1996.

The attempts against Serbian policemen and officials had a late but overwhelming answer from Milosevic with the kill of 72 civilians in March 1998 in Prekaz, and extended the repression to all Kosovo in what was considered an ethnic cleansing. Becoming an international concern, NATO intervened unilaterally between March and June 1999, supported by the Albanian army, forcing the withdrawal of the Serbian forces and leaving Kosovo provisionally administrated by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). About 13.000 people died or were missing between civilians and military[4]

Kosovo its independent since its unilateral declaration in February 2008, being currently recognized by 109 of the 193 United Nation members. Albania was one of the firsts into giving its approval and support to the new Republic of Kosovo in order to defend the rights of the Kosovo Albanian citizens, while Serbia disagreed this decision arguing that Kosovo was still an autonomous province inside their country with a north Kosovo Serbs presence.

The perception of Serbia and the persistence of mutual stereotypes

The nature of the actors involved during the conflict of Kosovo will be very relevant in the current Albania-Serbia relations. Over the last years the situation between Serbia and Kosovo has significantly improved, being an example the historic agreement for bilateral relations driven by the EU in April 2013, which let both closer to the EU accession by statements such as “Serbia and Kosovo have proved they can both focus on the future rather than staying entangled in the past. Our recommendations today are therefore clear: both Serbia and Kosovo deserve to move on decisively in their EU perspectives”[5] At the same time it’s fair to say that Albania and Serbia have also enhanced its relation in terms of political, economic and regional cooperation, both by the signature of mutual agreements and the visits of the Prime Ministers to each country.

The problem however, is the lack of mutual respect, the cultural disapproval and the self pride between both countries. The political, economic and regional achievements are of course relevant, but the absence of ties in spite of sharing an historical past and the fact of having Albanian and Serbian ethnics coexisting with respect in Kosovo, make think in an interested cooperation destined to achieve the shared objective of EU integration, which demands the good neighbour relation, but actually far from strengthen bridges. In the political sphere for example we can find the diplomatic spat in 2014 between both prime ministers due to the question of Kosovo, stating the Albanian Edi Rama “an undeniable independence for Kosovo” and accused by Aleksandar Vucic of “provocative”.[6] Among the citizens, incidents such as the brawl during a football match in October 2014, due to the presence of an Albanian flag flying over the field, the aggressive reaction of the Serbian players and the later violent fight, alerts of the weak cultural relation.[7]

Deepening in the public opinions studies, the conclusion is the mutual unfavoured opinion, but the concern for Albania is that the Serbian perception is even worse, supposing a big disadvantage in case that Serbia joins the EU first. An example of it is the Serbian and Albanian public reports in 2015: about the question How would you generally evaluate relations between Serbia and Albania? Only 4% of Serbians asserted it was good, 40% bad and 22% normal, while for Albania was good in 13.4%, bad in 29.5% and normal in 45.6%; and in front of Which of the following countries do you see as the biggest security threat?, 41% of Serbians answered “Albania” for 15.6% of Albanians who answered Serbia.[8]

Long-term consequences, expectations and solutions

This scenario is then dangerous for the Albanian expectations. The advanced status of Serbia over Albania in its EU negotiations, with already four opened chapters,[9] makes feasible the previous membership of Serbia and the existence of two possibilities: the halt of the political, economical and regional cooperation with Albania after having achieved its EU objective and the use of the veto during the needed unanimous vote of all EU members. Regarding the voting process, the EU stablish the ratification of each EU member “according to their constitutional rules”. In the case of Serbia, its Constitution stipulates that the National Assembly shall ratify international treatments, but provides that “The National Assembly may decide that some issues within its competence shall be decided upon by citizens in a republic referendum”.[10] This double procedure is very relevant, because in case of referendum we have already seen the public opinion attitudes on Albania, more governed by self pride than by the will of enhancing ties.

The EU has already announced that no new memberships are expected until at least 2020. In such a matter of time Serbia and Albania must work together in order to break down stereotypes and prejudices, giving preference to friendship over self pride. There are enough external factors which can affect the EU membership decisions, so these kind of countries have to maximize its options of access by tearing down their own obstacles. In turn, the EU should foreseen that this ideal relation is not as easier as it seems, considering that the wounds of Kosovo are still opened. In that case, the EU will have to be very careful in the accessing order of the Balkan countries if they want to avoid a “Cyprus – Turkey scenario”, being the best for Serbia and Albania to join the group at once.

On the other hand, question arise whether the condition of the unanimous consent of all EU members in the voting process should not be reviewed in favour of a more democratic procedure, avoiding decisions rooted in personal disputes and having the applicant country more guarantees of membership. The circumstance of being left out after fulfilling the 35 chapters of the Acquis has a double prejudice both for the applicant and the EU; in the first case with the regression in the progresses of the country due to the lack of expectations; in the second case due to the lost of trust in the EU procedures among other applicants. Considering the difficulty of changing the EU modus operandi, Albania should make as many efforts as possible in order to accelerate its negotiations, as well as fostering tighter bridges with Serbia with the aim of a more friendly perspective. There’s still time for both contenders to reverse the situation before the next enlargement steps, but for that is necessary to leave old grudges behind, thinking in what unites them rather than what separates them.


Lara Castro Navarro

Master’s degree in Contemporary History (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)




Related to the Conflict of Kosovo:

BBC News, Kosovo Profile Time Line, 16 July 2015.

Bideleux, Robert: Kosovo’s Conflict, History Today, Volume 48, 11 November 1998.

European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.

Human Rights Watch, New Figures on Civilian Deaths on Kosovo War, 7 February 2000.

NATO, NAT’Os role in relation to the conflict of Kosovo, 15 July 1999.

The Kosovo Memory Book, 1998 – 2000 website.

Related to the current Serbia – Albania Relations:

Albania Institute for International Studies: Albania and Serbia: Perceptions and Reality, 2013.

Ames, Nick & Ibrulj Sasa: Serbia v Albania abandoned after players and fans brawl on pitch, The Guardian, 14 October 2014.

BBC News, Serbia – Albania row over Kosovo mars historic Rama visit, 10 November 2014.

Borjen, J. Christopher: Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence: Self-Determination, Secession and Recognition, American Society of International Law, February 2008.

European Commission: Albania 2015 Report, 10 November 2015, p 5.

European Commission Press Release: Serbia and Kosovo*: historic agreement paves the way for decisive progress in their EU perspectives, 22 April 2013.

Krasniqi, Gëzim: Stability, Cooperation and Integration: The Future of Serb – Albanian Relations, E-International Relations, 2 March 2015.

Republic of Serbia, The Constitution, Article 81, 28 September 1990, p. 25.

Serbia & Albanian 2015 Public Opinion Surveys


[1]Source and more information: European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations website.

[2]European Commission: Albania 2015 Report, 10 November 2015, p 5.

[3]Source and more information: European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations website.

[4]Source and more information: The Kosovo Memory Book, 1998 – 2000 website.

[5]European Commission Press Release: Serbia and Kosovo*: historic agreement paves the way for decisive progress in their EU perspectives, 22 April 2013.

[6]     BBC News, Serbia – Albania row over Kosovo mars historic Rama visit, 10 November 2014.

[7]Ames, Nick & Ibrulj Sasa: Serbia v Albania abandoned after players and fans brawl on pitch, The Guardian, 14 October 2014.

[8]Serbia & Albanian 2015 Public Opinion Surveys available at:

[9]Source and more information: European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations website

[10]Republic of Serbia, The Constitution, Article 81, 28 September 1990, p. 25.