By Ilva Caushi, MJIL Staff Member
Albania’s progression to EU membership has not been hindered by the same issues which plague many of its Balkan counterparts, namely ethnic divisions or unresolved statehood issues. Instead, as previously discussed, the country’s delayed journey can largely be attributed to inadequate advancements in establishing a functioning democracy and the rule of law. These two areas have been consistently identified by the Commission in yearly reports and opinions as principle areas of concern requiring comprehensive reforms. The European Parliament on many occasions has stressed and even strongly warned Albania of the crucial importance of these reforms, even going as far as threatening to revoke its candidate status if changes were not adopted. However, despite formal compliance through the adoption of EU legislation, the country displays a low absorption capacity for these laws, with shortcomings in implementation and internalization.
The reason why meaningful development has been so difficult in these areas can largely be attributed to pervasive corruption and politicization. These two afflictions have become highly systemic and routine, infiltrating every sphere of society and public institutions, compromising their independence, transparency and accountability. Their origins stem from Albania’s unique historical past of war and oppression, over centuries becoming deeply engrained into the cultural fabric and mentality of its citizens and governing bodies. A lack of respect for the rule of law, a weak state administration, and an undeveloped civil society have permitted these phenomena to flourish. And the current state of affairs in the country, principally high unemployment, poverty and political instability, have only exacerbated the problem.
Because they have become so widespread and entrenched, eliminating them has proven to be very difficult and complex. Corruption, in particular, is self-generating and creates a snowball effect once it emerges. As it spreads “it becomes increasingly more acceptable, transforms itself into a necessity and finally ends up as a common way of life.”
Although corruption and politicization are pervasive across many sectors and institutions, they are particularly problematic and damaging in the government and judiciary. With the highest civil servants being compromised, the ability or will to implement reforms is severely undermined, not only in these areas themselves, but also across all others as these are the main bodies effectuating changes through policy, legislation or the rule of law. Therefore, the ramifications of high level corruption and politicization in these branches are significant and far-reaching.
It will take time before the rule of law and values of democracy become embedded in the country’s civic and political society. The population has become largely self-reliant, establishing informal markets and measures to bypass institutions who have long disappointed them. These mentalities must be over turned. This has to start at the top with government transparency and accountability. Judicial and legislative reforms will never be effective if there is continued distrust of those creating and implementing these changes.
This poses a significant threat to Albania’s pursuit of the EU as these are the definitive actors in the accession process, with the ability to influence the pace and direction of change in the country. It also seriously undermines democratization as democracy is only as effective as the formal rights and fundamental freedoms it can provide and the extent to which society’s decision-makers respect these rights. The mechanism for ensuring such respect is through the judiciary. In this sense, democratization and the rule of law are interconnected and mutually reinforcing, where the rule of law becomes a substantiating quality of democracy while also acting as its enforcement tool.
Establishing true democracy will require a defusing of the extreme political climate in the country. This will simultaneously fight corruption, as institutional politicization is one of its primary catalysts. This should begin with continuous and meaningful cross-party dialogue. The Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighborhood Policy has said that “political divisions, however deep, can be transcended if an overarching national objective and a common vision unites people and political elites.” For Albania this common objective has been EU membership. This is true among politicians and citizens alike, with a record high of 80% of the population being in support of EU integration. This national goal has unified the country, with the promise of a better future and freedom from the evils of oppression, corruption, and injustice. And despite emerging weaknesses in the EU, the union remains a strong incentive and beacon of prosperity for Albania and surrounding countries, who stand little chance on their own. It is critical the country stays on its course to membership to maintain momentum in its development and avoid reverting backwards.
“[A] credible enlargement process, based on strict and fair conditionality, remains an irreplaceable tool to strengthen these countries and to help support their modernization through political and economic reforms, in line with the accession criteria.” Although the Union can not directly influence the political actors in these countries, these rigorous conditions function as boundaries and help shape and guide political action and rhetoric to align with EU principles. Therefore, with the opening of the upcoming negotiation phase, it is imperative that Albania focuses on targeting the issues of corruption and politicization aggressively and systematically on all levels or otherwise risk deepening divides between citizens and public institutions, which threatens renewed conflict, instability and regression on key reforms.
 Odeta Barbullushi, Albanian Political Parties, Inter-Party relations and the EU, in 77 EU Integration and Party Politics in the Balkans 83, 84 (Corina Stratulat ed., 2014).
 See e.g., Analytical Report Accompanying the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and Council: Commission Opinion on Albania’s Application for Membership of the European Union, SEC (2010) 1335 (Nov. 9, 2010); Commission Opinion on Albania’s Application for Membership of the European Union, at 2, COM (2010) 680 (Nov. 9, 2010) ; Albania 2016 Report Accompanying the 2016 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, SWD (2016) 364 final (Nov. 9, 2016).
 Albania Passes Key Judicial Reform for EU Membership, Deutsche Welle (July 22, 2016), http://www.dw.com/en/albania-passes-key-judicial-reform-for-eu-membership/a-19420808. See also Alix Culbertson, Albania and Bosnia Fail to Impress at EU Membership Meeting Over Democratic Value Concerns, Express (Feb. 1, 2017, 1:36 PM), http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/761758/Albania-Bosnia-Herzegovina-European-Union-membership-democratic-values; Jacapo Barigazzi, Commission Recommends Opening Accession Talks with Albania, Politico (Nov. 9, 2016, 6:47PM), http://www.politico.eu/article/commission-recommends-opening-accession-talks-with-albania/.
 See generally supra note 2. Reports and Opinions by the Commission are heavily centered on these elements when detailing problems related to Albanian government or judiciary. See also Mirela Bogdani & John Loughlin, Albania and the European Union: The Tumultuous Journey Towards Integration and Accession 85 (2007) (identifying corruption as a key obstacle to Albania’s accession); Barbullushi, supra note 1 (noting that Albania is characterized by a “deep politicization of public institutions”).
 See Bogdani & Loughlin, supra note 4, at 152 (describing the corruption in Albania as an infectious disease).
 See id. at 151 (discussing how corruption has birthed a culture of “mistrust of others, the clan mentality, absence of mutual respect between citizens and the state, social isolation and a lack of civic awareness, and a mentality which considers official and key public posts as sources of profit” as well as a “weak tradition of the rule of law [and a] low level of respect for the law.”)
 See id. at 151–52. See also Rosa Balfour & Corina Stratulat, The Democratic Transformation of the Balkans 22 (2011).
 See Bogdani & Loughlin, supra note 4, at 152.
 Id. at 153.
 See Balfour & Stratulat, supra note 7, at 5.
 Stefan Fule, Crunch Time for Consensus and Reforms, Europa (Oct. 10, 2012), http://ec.europa.eu/archives/commission_2010-2014/fule/docs/articles/20121010_albania_article.pdf
 See EU Integration, Ministria E Puneve Te Jashtme, http://www.punetejashtme.gov.al/en/mission/eu-integration (last visited March 26, 2017) (identifying EU accession as a “national objective” and the “priority of political action” by Albania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
 Bogdani & Loughlin, supra note 4, at 146 (discussing that EU integration is a priority of all parties regardless of political affiliation).
 Fule, supra note 12.
 This is due to the significant benefits and financial assistance these countries receive as candidates and how much more they stand to gain as members. They have access to more EU programs, are parties to EU policies, and their EU funding increases four or five-fold. Albanian Working Paper for the Western Balkans Conference in Berlin, Germany, August 28, 2014, Ministria E Puneve Te Jashtme (Aug. 28, 2014), http://www.punetejashtme.gov.al/files/userfiles/Albanian_Working_Paper_for_Berlin_Conference_28_08_2014.pdf. These differences are significant and therefore are strong motivating factors to proceed with the accession process.
 See generally Harald Schenker, The Stabilization and Association Process: An Engine of European Integration in Need of Tuning, 7 J. on Ethnopolotics and Minority Issues In Eur. 1, 17 (2008) (discussing the importance of having a clear timeframe for EU membership in order to maintain “reform-oriented momentum”).
 2016 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, at 2, COM (2016) 715 final (Nov. 9, 2010),