Former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-Ohio): Time to Give EU Candidate Status to Albania

Driving down the streets of this bustling European capital, it’s impossible not to be struck by Albania’s unbelievable transformation from a psychologically battered, isolated and Stalinist nation just a few decades ago to the thriving, democratic NATO ally it is today.

The sidewalks are lined with bars and cafes, the stores are full of western goods, the hotels are packed with businessmen and tourists – all signs of Albania’s dedication to a free market economy and its emergence as a hot tourist destination.

Newspapers and airwaves are crammed with robust political debate – a hallmark of freedom that shows how deep democracy’s roots have grown. But as critics note, the wrangling is also a sign of deep political polarization that has at times stymied progress: The European Parliament, for instance, recently denied Albania full EU candidate status because it has not enacted several important reforms that are stuck in the country’s deadlocked parliament.

This is hardly unique to Albania – just look at the fiascos in Washington over the fiscal cliff, gun control, cabinet appointments and sequestration. But the conversation about Albania’s internal politics often overshadows an impressive track record that demonstrates the power of European engagement coupled with forward-looking leadership. That brings security to Europe and security to the United States, and that’s why Congress should be strongly pushing our European allies to put Albania more squarely on the path to EU membership.

A lot of credit for Albania’s advances goes to Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who oversaw Albania’s membership into NATO in 2009 and has championed political, economic and social reform. His seven years in office have been marked by tax cuts, privatizations, liberalized trade and labor laws, and greater freedom and social justice -- including passage in 2010 of a landmark anti-discrimination law protecting LBGT rights.

Albania recognizes its problem with corruption and is tackling it. Beginning in 2005, Albania enacted legislation that included model changes in conflict of interest and public procurement, transparency in electoral campaign financing, protection for whistle-blowers, and lifting of immunity for prosecutors. Internal audit systems were reformed and a 10 percent flat tax was introduced.

As the world struggles with economic traumas, Albania’s economy and rule of law have been strengthened by the government’s decision to abolish two-thirds of all permits and licenses and to provide “one-stop-shopping” for business registration. This has reduced the cost and time for new business registration (and the opportunity for bribes) from about $5,175 and 42 days in 2004 to $1.40 and 30 minutes in 2010. Every nation could take a page from this assault on red tape and corruption that is one of Berisha’s signature reforms.

Albania is reaping the rewards. The country has climbed 55 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Rankings and in 2011 was named the Second Best Reforming Country. In 2010, the United Nations awarded Albania its Public Service Award for “improving transparency, accountability and responsiveness in public service.”

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) increased 315 percent between 2005 and 2010, when FDI topped $1 billion. Over the same period, Albania climbed from 68th place to 18th place of 141 countries surveyed by the U.N. for FDI performance, and from 83rd to 12th place in the annual Economic Freedom of the World country rankings, a key anti-corruption benchmark.

Keep in mind that this is an ally that is 70 percent Muslim and that currently has 200 of its soldiers supporting NATO on the ground in Afghanistan. That support is not just checking a box. There are few places in the world where the people so warmly embrace democratic ideals and are so thoroughly oriented toward Europe.

That commitment to democracy and plurality, to stomping out corruption, to European security, to free market economics, to peaceful relations with its neighbors, deserves to be rewarded with membership in the European Union – and soon. Albanians have travelled the road from dictatorship to freedom with courage and gusto. It’s time for Brussels to officially recognize that by giving Albania official candidate status with a timeline for membership and the financial support to help get them there. They have earned it.

Bob McEwen is a former six-term member of Congress from the state of Ohio.