Plenary Session of National Convention on European Integration 2021-2023, 24 March 2023

On March 24, 2023, the European Movement in Albania (EMA) and the National Council of European Integration (KKIE) in collaboration with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, with the financial support of SlovakAid, held the Plenary Session of the National Convention for European Integration 2021-2023. During this period, four established working groups have held together 16 sessions, where important topics within the scope of each group have been addressed in the framework of the country’s European integration.

The activity was organized in two parts, in the first panel where the opening of negotiations with the EU and the role of political actors to further the process was discussed, with the participation of Jorida Tabaku, Chair of KKIE, Etilda Gjonaj, Vice-President of the Commission for European Integration, Gledis Gjipali, Executive Director of the European Movement in Albania and Tomáš Strážay, Director of the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.

Jorida Tabaku, Chair of KKIE, in her speech recognized the involvement of civil society and especially EMA, in the discussion regarding the integration process, and also the clusters that are being deliberated in Brussels during the ongoing ‘screening’ process. Tabaku remarked that the issue to be discussed is what will happen from today onward after the official opening of negotiations with the EU and she estimated that with the involvement of some actors of society, the integration process has become somewhat more open and inclusive. Expressing her belief that after the adoption of the new law on the role of the Assembly in the European integration process, things will change and the discussions will focus on reforms or concrete issues, Tabaku underlined that each of the actors must guarantee that the process be as accessible as possible to citizens. Sharing the experience in the meetings organized by the National Council for European Integration with interest groups, Tabaku emphasized that there is a great interest from citizens to understand and learn what are the costs/benefits of this process and she encouraged the involvement of civil society. Furthermore, Tabaku stated that with the completion of the screening process and the preparation of the corresponding roadmaps, the technical and elusive process will become concrete. Speaking about the extraordinary potential of civil society’s expertise that can be offered to this process, Tabaku assured the participants as the Chair of KKIE, that civil society will have an even more active role during the discussions in this Council, to contribute and give another perspective on different chapters.

Etilda Gjonaj, vice president of the European Integration Commission, describing the integration process as the final destination that citizens seek and deserve, assessed that Albania has come from a challenging process and has achieved significant progress in areas such as good governance or the rule of law, strengthening the economy, the fight against corruption and organized crime. Gjonaj highlighted that after the decision of July 19, 2022, which marked the official opening of discussions between Albania and the EU, every day it has become clearer that the process needs to be open and inclusive. Focusing on the challenges brought by the process and the capacities to face it, she focused on some of the reforms that have been undertaken in the political, economic or social aspect, but also on the reformation that has been made to the role of the Parliament and the Committee for European Affairs in the direction of strengthening the supervisory and oversight role  to the negotiating structures. Gjonaj spoke further not only about the responsibility that the Parliament will have in the process of approximation of the legislation, but also the concrete added value in terms of content and the fulfillment of the criteria that will be set by the EU, but also about KKIE as a platform where civil society should be active by voicing their concerns and bringing their expertise.

Gledis Gjipali, Executive Director of the European Movement in Albania, in his speech valued the cooperation over the years with KKIE, in dealing with special and sensitive topics for the Albanian society and the transformative path that the process will bring. The transition to the next and more intensive phase of the process requires support not only in technical capacities but also in undertaking tangible reforms. Highlighting the civil society’s role to bring forth concerns or suggestions of various stakeholders to the main institutions for the European integration process,  Gjipali then outlined the activities that EMA has organized and plans for the future to address specific and most important chapters at this stage of the integration process. The implementation of the National Convention for European Integration, started since 2014, aiming to create the necessary spaces for the involvement of stakeholders, giving voice to their concerns and demands, by bringing this process to different cities in Albania and closer to the citizens.  Gjipali further appreciated the political will shown by the parties represented in the Assembly for the progress of the integration process and cooperation with civil society, guaranteeing that the process is inclusive and that decision-making extends to interest groups that have the potential to contribute.

Tomáš Strážay, Director of the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (RC SFPA) started his speech by noting the important milestone that the activity represents for the project of the National Convention on European Integration, which has resulted in dozens of working sessions for relevant groups and recommendations developed from cooperation with experts. After summarizing the achievements of cooperation with EMA,  Strážay assessed the progress Albania has achieved in preparing for the negotiation process, strengthening capacities in various sectors and developing expertise. Bringing the Slovak experience to the integration process to help address the challenges and difficulties this process brings, Strážay talked more on other objectives the project of the National Convention for European Integration 2021-2023 has achieved. The Convention serves as a cooperation platform where special attention is paid to the effort for European integration of the country, as well as the promotion of the cooperation of the state actors with the civil society making the process as inclusive as possible, with the aim of strengthening the capacities and skills that enable the fulfillment of the criteria for EU integration. Strážay underlined the importance of cooperation between experts to develop long-term solutions, since the work to maintain and promote the rule of law values continues even after the EU accession.

Nirvana Deliu, Working Group Coordinator of Convention from European Movement in Albania, moderated the second part of the plenary session, focusing on the activities and results of the Convention during the period 2021-2023. Giving a brief description of the Convention project as a cooperation and dialogue platform, Deliu illustrated more specifically by talking about the working groups established: WG I “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights”; WG II “Justice, freedom and security”; WG III “Agriculture and Consumer Protection”; WG IV “Trade and economic issues”. Furthermore, she spoke about the synergy created by the work o Convention with other consultative platform such as Partnership Platform on Europian Integration and National Council on European Integration,  carried out during the Working Group sessions between the line ministries, public institutions, civil society and foreign experts by advancing the integration process, but also bringing benefits to citizens, especially regarding some sensitive issues for the Albanian society. In the second part of the meeting, Deliu gave the floor to the co-chairs and experts of the 4 Working Groups to share the experience of collaboration between institutions and civil society, the progress made and the challenges encountered during this process.

Elona Bano, Director, Directorate of Integration and Negotiations, Ministry of Justice, started her speech thanking EMA for the continuous cooperation with the Ministry, but also the participants of the Partnership Platform (PPEI) and the Inter-institutional Working Group (IWGEI) for their involvement and their contribution. Bano described briefly the formats of PPEI and IWGEI, focusing on the development and enhancement of cooperation with representatives from different CSOs, representatives from the private sector, but also with the local government of different cities. While describing the preparatory work and the bilateral meetings held for Chapter 23, Bano mentioned successful cases of collaboration between different public instances and civil society actors. Furthermore, she spoke in detail about the cooperation with EMA in the framework of the Convention, where the sessions of the Working Group I have resulted successful in the addressing some very important topics for Chapter 23. The establishment of the WGI tables has created an environment that enables effective engagement of civil society in the integration process, bringing many valuable results to the process. Bano ended her speech by encouraging civil society actors to be more involved and proactive in the process by not only contributing with their expertise, but also by monitoring and acting as a ‘watchdog’ of the process in the interest of the groups that they represent.

Suela Jahaj, Director in the Directorate of Integration, Agreements, Coordination and Assistance, Ministry of the Interior, started her speech by summarizing the work of the Ministry and the preparation for the bilateral meetings presentations within the screening process. Jahaj stated that Chapter 24, since it includes many subchapters and areas, represents some challenges during the process. However, based on the results of the bilateral meetings, all the relevant structures involved showed a strong will in preparing and in fulfilling all the tasks. Jahaj stressed the importance that civil society has in a democratic society, so she confirmed that the Ministry of the Interior aims for the continuous involvement of representatives from CSOs, not only in Partnership Platforms, but also in different formats. Furthermore, outlining the activities organized in cooperation with EMA in the framework of the Convention, Jahaj valued the recommendations issued from these activities, so that the problems are not only identified but also accompanied with relevant measures. Underlining the importance of developing cooperation between the parties in the process in good faith and with professionalism, Jahaj encourages the involvement of civil society, to provide the extremely valuable expertise accumulated in the sector.

Agim Rrapaj, Chairman of the Albanian Agribusiness Council, welcomed the activity and the Convention project, where the interest groups of the field have come together with Slovak experts to find specific solutions for the challenges that the integration process presents. Rrapaj spoke about the importance that chapters 11, 12, and 28 represent, since it includes food, all chain of production and more. In order to address the current issues and bring about the relevant transformations, Rrapaj stated that it is essential to bring expertise and learn from good practices in this sector. The working sessions of WGIII have been invaluable to discuss current problems related to quality, organic production, legislation, traceability, accompanying theory and techniques, with practical developments. Rrapaj mentioned also some of the problems and sectors in which efforts should be increased, in order to guarantee food security alongside the development of rural areas, such as the progress of cooperation, the inclusion of the zootechnical order or mechanization and digitization in the sector. Moreover, Rrapaj talked about the economic potential that Albanian organic products may have in the European market if there is faster progress regarding the quality certifications.

Flutura Xhabija, President of the Association of Professional, Business and Artisan Women of Albania (SHGPAZ), started her speech by talking about the fruitful cooperation so far with EMA in the framework of the Convention, which has facilitated the cooperation with various actors of the civil society. Xhabija presented shortly the work that the SHGPAZ has carried out to improve the position of small and artisanal businesses, underlining the importance of assistance from state agencies through facilitating policies or financial support. Recounting SHGPAZ’s own experience and practices, Xhabija noted the importance of the involvement of civil society in this process that affects all Albanian citizens, starting with informing those in the other cities, listening to their needs and implementing changes with concrete steps. Xhabija estimated that a fruitful cooperation now can also help in making up for lost time and opportunities, further developing Albanian businesses and artisans.

During the discussion part, the participants shared their evaluations and suggestions for strengthening the role of civil society and interest groups in issues of particular importance, such as: agriculture, consumer rights, food safety, but also in the negotiation process. It was also discussed the need for support and encouragement from civil society actors, who can exert a ‘positive pressure’ to address issues of interest to the groups they represent.