EU helps Albania parties agree on judicial package reform


TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Responding to international pressure, Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party agreed Wednesday to accept the final draft of a judicial reform package, considered fundamental to convincing the European Union to launch membership negotiations with the Balkan country.

Following a letter from the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn on remaining issues, Prime Minister Edi Rama of the ruling Socialist Party and Democrats’ leader Lulzim Basha confirmed their disagreement was resolved and the draft would be voted unanimously the next day.

Hailing their response, Hahn tweeted: “This agreement shows leadership and responsibility for Albania on its EU path.”

Basha also had a telephone conversation Wednesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to confirm his party’s approval of the draft.

The 18-month old reform has been the main focus of talks of many Western diplomats, including Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and others, who visited Tirana this year.

The draft has been prepared by local, EU and U.S. experts and it has also been reviewed by the Venice Commission, a body of legal experts with the Council of Europe.

Albania, already a member of NATO, has been working to reform its judicial system which has been criticized as corrupt and lacking professionalism. Changes being sought in the package include checking the incomes and property holdings of judges and prosecutors, a step seen as helping to root out bribery.

The opposition had continually changed objections to the draft, finally opposing the role of international experts in selecting the vetting panel that will check personal and professional background of judges and prosecutors.

On Tuesday, Washington’s patience seemed to have reached a limit.

U.S. ambassador to Albania Donald Lu threatened “severe and long-lasting” action against politicians who would not vote for the judicial reform. He did not elaborate but said he was “delivering details of these consequences to political parties on specific instructions from Washington.”

Brussels too has warned that failure to agree on judicial reform would end the possibility of launching membership negotiations with the bloc soon. Albania was granted EU candidate status in 2014.

A vote has been planned for Thursday, in time to allow the European Commission to decide whether full membership negotiations can begin this year.

The ruling Socialists need support from some opposition members in the 140-seat Parliament to approve the reforms.