Foreign policy chief presses EU integration in Albania

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2017 5:29 PM
Foreign policy chief presses EU integration in Albania

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The European Union's foreign policy chief on Friday told Albania's opposition that its boycott of Parliament was hampering the country's ability to integrate with the bloc and therefore join the EU.

Federica Mogherini met with senior Albanian officials and political leaders to remind them that reforming the justice system and holding free elections were two steps needed to convince EU members to launch full membership negotiations with the country.

For two weeks, hundreds from Albania's main opposition Democratic Party have blocked the main boulevard in the capital, Tirana, saying they don't trust the left-wing government to hold the June 18 parliamentary election in a fair manner. They want a caretaker cabinet instead.

Democratic lawmakers also have boycotted Parliament, thus blocking the creation of vetting bodies to assess how the country evaluates the personal and professional backgrounds of some 800 judges and prosecutors.

"We are ready to launch negotiations at the moment that the justice reform starts its application," Mogherini said at a news conference with host Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. She also met with opposition leader Lulzim Basha.

Albania was granted EU candidate status in 2014.

A reform package approved last year calls for a legal overhaul meant to restructure the Albanian justice system to ensure that judges and prosecutors are independent from politics, and to root out bribery.

Mogherini is on a tour of the Balkans that started in Montenegro and will end in Kosovo, trying to reassure the region that the EU remains open for enlargement despite crisis in the 28-nation bloc.

Earlier Friday in Belgrade, Mogherini faced pro-Russian chants and boos in the Serbian parliament as she called for the integration of the Western Balkans into the 28-nation bloc.

Far-right Serbian lawmakers, who favor closer ties with Russia over Serbia's EU integration, banged on benches with their hands and chanted "Serbia, Russia, we don't need the Union!" during Mogherini's 25-minute address.

"It's the matter of politics," she later said of the incident. "It's about a difficult political environment here and in the region, and it is also about different ways of interpreting the path that Serbia has taken."

Serbia, which is formally seeking EU membership, is deeply split between those seeking pro-Western integration and those wanting a close alliance with traditional Slavic partner Russia.

Tensions recently have mounted in relations between Serbia and its former war foes Bosnia and EU member Croatia. Serbia also has refused to recognize the Western-backed independence of its former province of Kosovo, while political instability threatens Macedonia to the south.

"Peace in the Balkans is peace in Europe," Mogherini said at a joint press conference with Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's prime minister. "We have faced in the recent times — and we might face in the times to come — some attempts to put this into question."

Vucic criticized the ultranationalists' chant during Mogherini's speech as "not gentlemen-like," insisting that Serbia "remains firmly on the European path."

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AP reporter Jovana Gec contributed to this report.