TIRANA, Albania (AP) — German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Albanian leaders Tuesday to pass a judicial reform package which is fundamental to ensuring that the European Union will launch membership negotiations with the poor Balkan nation.
During a visit to the capital, Tirana, Steinmeier said that passage of the legislation "will be decisive on what is to occur in the next months."
"We need a democratic Albania with an independent justice system that fights corruption," Steinmeier said, speaking at a news conference alongside his Albanian counterpart, Ditmir Bushati.
The EU granted Albania candidate status in 2014, and the prospect of membership has sparked other reforms. However there is opposition from the opposition Democratic Party to some details in the draft of the EU-requested judicial package.
In a separate comment published Tuesday in the Mapo daily, Steinmeier said the European Commission may recommend launching membership negotiations with Albania in the autumn — but "only if the justice reform is approved by the Albanian Parliament in the near future."
If not, he said, "Albania's hope for launching membership negotiations will be moved again to a faraway distance."
The parliament faces an end-of-month deadline to pass the package ahead of the European Commission's autumn report, diplomats have said.
The parliamentary commission in charge of the justice reform approved the project on Tuesday, a move not supported by the opposition Democrats, whose representatives left the meeting early.
The U.S. Embassy in Tirana praised that move, calling it "an important step in paving the way toward the full passage of a deep and meaningful reform of Albania's justice system."
U.S. and EU experts have been directly involved in drafting the legislation, and the process has also been reviewed by the Venice Commission, a body of legal experts with the Council of Europe human rights group.
The 140-seat parliament needs a two-thirds majority to pass the package as it includes some constitutional amendments — numbers that cannot be achieved without the opposition Democrats.
Last week Prime Minister Edi Rama of the governing Socialist Party met with the leader of the Democrats, Lulzim Basha, in an attempt to win Basha's support for the reforms, but no consensus was reached on the outstanding differences.
The sticking point revolves around whether the new laws will give political parties any power to make judicial appointments. The ruling Socialists want there to be no party appointees, while the Democrats want some to limit government overreach.