TIRANA (Reuters) - The European Union and Albania reached a deal on Monday to allow European police to deploy on Albanian territory to handle immigration issues, which Brussels hopes can be a model for other countries in the Western Balkans.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU's Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship initialed the accord along with Albania's Interior Minister Fatmir Xhafaj. It still must be approved by EU member states.
"Albania is a frontrunner in the region, and the agreement will serve as a role model for similar arrangements we are negotiating with other partners in the Western Balkans," Avramopoulos said.
"Closer cooperation between Albania and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency will allow us to be quicker and more flexible in the way we respond to any potential migratory challenges," he told a news conference with Xhafaj.
The Commission is negotiating similar agreements with Serbia and Macedonia and hopes for a swift conclusion to both sets of negotiations, the EU delegation in Tirana said in a statement.
EU officials have aimed to improve immigration operations in the Western Balkans, especially since 2015 when the countries in the region became the main route for the biggest migration into Europe since World War Two.
More than a million people arrived by sea in Greece and then traveled overland to richer countries further north. That route has largely been closed under a deal between the EU and Turkey.
Although the main route did not go over Albania, tens of thousands of Albanians also entered the EU and sought asylum, making it one of the top five countries of origin of newly registered asylum seekers in the EU in 2015. Thousands of those applications have been rejected and the asylum seekers flown back to Albania.
Xhafaj said the agreement would provide opportunities for Albanian police to receive training and for the country to gain other benefits from EU projects.
Albania, a NATO member, is a candidate to join the EU and hopes to receive an invitation this spring to start negotiating an accession agreement.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Peter Graff)