Running the wrong way: Rama's spat with the EU over vaccination underlines growing frustration
The public spillover of criticism towards the EU marks a new and unprecedented development in Albanian politics. Rama’s statements about the EU’s ‘second-hand’ treatment of the Western Balkans during the pandemic highlights the significant shift in what is said about and how the EU is being perceived in the region.
A case in point is the criticism of the Serbian President who called the bloc out for banning exports of medical equipment to non-member states, including the Western Balkans. Eager to salvage his political standing at home, President Vučić turned Eastward to secure needed assistance, which was provided by China and Russia who stood ready to fill in the vacuum.
In the same month, Albania saw medical equipment blocked at the border with Greece under the same EU ban on exports of medical equipment. Striking a similar chord to developments in Belgrade, an airplane filled with equipment arrived in Tirana two days later from Turkey. Although Rama’s criticism has not gone as far, he has repeatedly echoed the stance of his Serbian colleague. Curiously, both instances correspond with pre-election periods.
At a press conference announcing the country’s immunization plan in January, Rama criticized the EU “for thinking only for itself.” According to him, the bloc was unable to come up with a unified approach and “left it up to Member States to cooperate with non-Member States” such as Western Balkans, in spite of remarks that the pandemic crisis can only be overcome by working together.
In an interview, the EU Ambassador to Albania admitted to have been surprised by Rama’s statement considering the unprecedented solidarity the bloc has shown to Albania in 2020, among which is the allocation of 115 million euros for reconstruction from the earthquake, and the organization of a donor’s conference where €1.15 billion were pledged.
In a late-night political show, Rama responded to the ambassador’s claims by noting that he did not think it was the Commission’s fault for the exclusion of the region. Instead he laid the blame on some EU member states which he dubbed as egoistic and cynical. According to him, France is among countries which have kept vaccines in stock, although they are not ready to used them in the next few days or weeks, instead of distributing a small portion to Western Balkan countries, enabling them to vaccinate at least their respective medical staff.
The rebuke was firm and immediate, as the French Embassy in Tirana sent a verbal note to the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, pointing out the untruthful nature of the claims stated by the Prime Minister. Further, the note pointed out the inappropriate nature of the attacks made toward a friendly country and ally. The German ambassador to Albania responded by calling Rama’s statement “a sign of impatience in a time of crisis.”
Having understood that the criticism was not sitting well with Brussels, nor with EU Member States, Rama was quick to provide an explanation that his criticism was not directed to France per se, but rather to the general exclusion of “Western Balkans from the distribution of the vaccine by the EU,” which according to him “is unjustifiable.” However, he stopped short from retracting his previous statements, demonstrating his conviction on the matter.
Notably, the fight was unnecessary but timely for Rama, whose allies in EU and key member states were already few and far between, as illustrated by the lack of bilateral meetings he has had with European counterparts. However, one would have expected that the OSCE Chairperson-in-office and Albania’s Chief Diplomat until a month ago to be subtle and tactful with his criticism, but to the surprise of many, he opted for direct language. Irrespective of the validity of his criticism, it is important to consider the underlying local context.
A Spat Albania Did Not Need
With his second term coming to an end, during which his party has governed largely unchecked, Rama has set his sight in the upcoming elections. Strained from making welfare and economic-based pledges, immunization forms a central piece of the electoral promise upon which he aims to salvage his party’s electoral hopes for a third mandate.
The usual tricks on the campaign book seem less appealing this time around as trust in political parties remains worryingly low. Consumed by propaganda, Rama’s government has failed to deliver on many fronts, including on EU integration. Although the country was granted candidate status within one year of his first mandate in 2014, progress on opening accession talks has been met with several hurdles, some of which cannot be attributed to Tirana’s lack of effort alone. Aware the process is outside of his sphere of influence, something he has willingly accepted long before as a vindication point for reform shortcomings, Rama has a vested interest in having a larger say on the narrative around it.
Criticizing the EU on its immunization scheme may be justified within the context of its credibility and commitment to the region at a time when integration has become less predictable than it used to be. As a result, be it in Skopje, Tirana, Pristina or elsewhere in the region, the process evokes notions of broken promises, missed opportunities and a phasing out of enlargement interest among member states. Tellingly, the current Portuguese Presidency of the EU does not even list enlargement among its priorities.
However, Rama’s criticism sounds shallow when delivered from Turkey, a country with fraught relations with the EU. They sound even more cynical when considering the domestic context in which they are delivered, as major parts of the country grapple with the effects of recent floods, including shortage of water and power supply, or limited road access due to the severe damages caused by poorly built infrastructure. Evidently, shifting public attention away from such issues is a more appealing alternative three months before general elections.
With less to offer Albanians than in 2013 or 2017, but equally eager to win elections, the ruling party has hoarded political figures from opposition parties and welcomed back in its fold individuals previously dismissed from politics by the decriminalization law, which sought to clean Albanian politics from incriminated individuals.
In light of rising debt and an economic slowdown due to the pandemic, Rama’s electoral promises have become more tangible this time. Instead of economic growth, more jobs and higher salaries, he has pledged to deliver uninterrupted water supply for all urban areas within a third mandate.
Considering that immunization has become a central piece of the campaign, Rama may stand to gain the most from publicly criticizing the EU. At best, it may result in more assistance and attention, and at worst, it may help shift the attention from his governments shortcoming.
Lessons to Be Learned
It is difficult to see if vaccine politics will be reserved for meetings behind closed doors in the coming months. However, it has become clear that Rama’s criticism has not gone down well with EU counterparts and Member States, all of which have invested large sums of their taxpayers’ money to fund public projects in Albania and the Western Balkans.
A repeat of Serbia’s scenario where public perception has been manipulated to the point where 40% believe that China is the country’s largest donor, must serve as a reminder of what is at stake. In Albania, public perception is still very positive towards the EU, with 86% considering membership as a good thing, compared to only 32% in Serbia. However, this is bound to change if the current rhetoric persists. That is why Member States, Brussels, local media, and civil society must deliver a convincing rebuke of damaging statements that could sacrifice long-term progress in exchange for daily political points.
However tempting or justifiable it may be, Mr. Rama and his regional colleagues would do well not to bite on the hand that “feeds” their people, invest in their future and build their schools. Winning elections should not hinder on relations with the EU, which is Albania’s main donor, investor, and economic partner. This will not change after the upcoming elections.
This blog is published as part of the regional blogging initiative “Tales from the Region”, led by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies, in partnership with Macropolis,
Lupiga (Croatia), Sbunker (Kosovo), Ne Davimo Beograd (Serbia), Analiziraj (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Pcnen (Montenegro), and HAD (Slovenia).
*Alfonc Rakaj is a researcher and coordinator of the project for democratization, security and integration of Albania and the Western Balkans at the Institute for Political Studies in Tirana. He has a master's degree in international relations from King's College London. He completed his undergraduate international studies at Oregon State University, USA.