The virus does not stop at borders, people say. But we do, and especially in countries like Albania, borders seem more rigid and impenetrable amid the coronavirus pandemic than they have for a long time.
Albania wants to join the EU. Pro-European sentiment is higher in Albania than anywhere else, with well over 90 percent of survey respondents indicating that they are in favor of European integration. All of the political parties agree, and important reforms have been made in recent years. Although Albania still has its work cut out for it in terms of the rule of law and fighting corruption, the general direction is clear. Everything was poised for a breakthrough in 2020, when talks on joining the union were announced. But that was followed by a sobering realization. No conference opening the talks was held, so 2020 became yet another year of postponement. The impact was felt across Albania. The country’s people – who do not have EU passports, residence permits, or other special travel status – were barred from entering the EU as soon as the pandemic started, and now the message this delay is sending is anything but welcoming as well. As a result, the rhetoric used in Albania has changed, too. The EU is still very popular, and none of the country’s decision makers has broken with the pro-European consensus. But criticism has grown louder. Although civil society largely embraces the goal of EU membership, there are growing doubts about the EU’s credibility. The fact that it is individual governments that are blocking the process, not the EU itself, does not matter. While Albania sent medical professionals to help in Italy, which was hard hit by the pandemic, several times in 2020, the EU’s vaccination plan left out the candidates for membership who are located right in the middle of Europe.
People in Germany speak of the “vaccination debacle,” but they seldom mean the debacle of lack of international solidarity. It affects the global south in particular, but also countries like Albania. The virus has struck the country with particular cruelty. In 2020, the national statistics office recorded 26.4 percent more deaths than the average for 2016 through 2019. Infections were higher than ever in February 2021. The virus is everywhere – in every family, in every group of friends, at every workplace. And they say it doesn’t stop at borders.
Stine Klapper is the head of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung office in Tirana, Albania (website). Her work there focuses on strengthening participation in society, progressive economic policy, and European integration. Klapper previously worked for FES in Thailand, Cambodia, the former Macedonia, and the Czech Republic.