EU Referendum

Albania: 'We don't want to be outside EU'

View of the city of Tirana Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption View of Tirana: Under Hoxha's communist dictatorship Albania was isolated

Cabinet minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove has suggested Britain could prosper outside the EU by joining Balkan countries such as Albania in a European free-trade zone. However, Albania is keen to travel in precisely the opposite direction.

In an effort finally to throw off its dark past, Albania is itself applying to join the EU - but it faces a long journey.

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"There used to be soldiers with Kalashnikovs blocking the main road here," says Albanian journalist Aleksander Furxhi. "People knew they couldn't go in."

Mr Furxhi is pointing at the area known simply as The Block - for 40 years, a forbidden city inhabited only by the dictator Enver Hoxha, his family and other members of the ruling Communist elite.

Albania was one of the most sinister regimes to emerge from the chaos of World War Two.

Under Hoxha, this small country in the western Balkans was almost entirely cut off from the outside world.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption During 45 years of dictatorship by Enver Hoxha, more than 3.5 million Albanians were kept virtual prisoners

Albania was often described as the North Korea of Europe.

During 45 years of tyranny, more than 3.5 million Albanians were kept virtual prisoners.

More than 34,000 political prisoners were jailed, while nearly 60,000 others languished for decades in labour camps or died there.

Torture was widespread, and 5,400 political prisoners were executed, often after sham trials.

Hoxha carried out frequent purges of the country's military and political leadership.

All forms of religion were banned.

Since the fall of the regime in 1991 and the coming of democracy, Albania has struggled to come to terms with that past.

Corrupt politicians and even judges have stood in the way of integration with the rest of Europe.

Even a number of former Communists have managed to survive in power.

Albania sees membership of the European Union as the most powerful sign and symbol its decades of isolation are at an end.

Recent polls by the EU itself suggest more than 90% of Albanians want in - but it still has to overcome the ghosts of the past if it is ever to achieve its dream of EU membership.

Image caption Farmers are keen to join the EU

The most fervent advocates of EU entry are business people and farmers, because they currently suffer a huge trade imbalance.

Two-thirds of imports come from the EU - but Albania cannot export directly to the EU.

"If we could do that, it would have a huge impact on Albania - particularly our agricultural produce," says Nikolin Jaka, of the Tirana Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Image caption Nikolin Jaka, from the Tirana Chamber of Commerce, wishes Albania could export to the EU

In a recent speech, Mr Gove appeared to point to the trading advantages of Albania being outside the EU.

"Here is a free-trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU," he said.

"After we vote to leave we will remain in the zone. The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Ukraine would remain part of this free-trade area — and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus — is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker [President of the European Commission] joining Ukip."

Those comments have annoyed and amused Albania's political elite in equal measure.

The Socialist Mayor of the Albanian capital, Erion Veliaj, widely tipped as a future prime minister, tells me Europe could not compete with Russia for "hard power" planes and bombs.

"It is the soft power which makes Europe what it is," he says.

"There are no advantages of being in a ghetto, and the western Balkans are a ghetto surrounded by the European Union.

"To tell someone who is at the epicentre of European public life that it is much better to sit on the backbenches of Europe and of decision-making and sell this as a success story takes a lot of faith."

Albania is treating its application to join the EU so seriously it has established its own ministry to try to make it happen.

The ministry of European integration is a honey-coloured pebbledash office block in central Tirana.

The EU's Ambassador to Albania, Romana Vlahutin, says the incentive of EU membership is driving efforts to tackle the political and judicial corruption that remains an obstacle to Albania's future.

"It is really a surgical cut into unhealthy tissue," she says.

Image caption Money from the European Union has already been spent on new roads in Albania

By 2020, the EU is budgeted to spend almost €650m (£500m) on Albania.

Already, EU money has been spent on new roads, police stations and prisons.

Other countries in the region, including Serbian, Kosovo and Macedonia, also hope to join the EU.

Ms Vlahutin extols the "transformative power that the EU had on half of the European continent" and wants Albania to share in that success.

But with his journalistic scepticism, Alexander Furxhi says it will be another decade at least before Albania joins the EU, with new conditions imposed every year.

"This is why people are a bit tired of the process," he says.

Albania's leaders remain optimistic.

The winds of change are coming to Albania, and the strongest is blowing from Brussels.

The country joined Nato in 2009, and acquired EU "candidate status" in 2014.

Many Albanians believe only EU membership will finally help them exorcise the ghost of Enver Hoxha and the legacy of his terrible regime.

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