Archbishop George Frendo of Tiranë-Durrës, President of the Albanian Bishop’s Conference and its General Secretary, Bishop Gjergj Meta, were in Brussels this week to meet with high-level representatives of the European Union and of the Church and to discuss challenges and opportunities for Albania’s EU integration.
The meeting was organized by COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, which monitors the political process of the European Union in all areas of interest to the Church.
During their respective exchanges, the delegation highlighted that “the EU enlargement is not only a necessity, but a unique historical opportunity, which is in our joint political and economic interest”.
The bishops said they were eager to accept the opportunity to highlight the values Albania has to offer the bloc, to douse the fears of some members, and to point out that EU accession is also a way to halt the haemorrhage of young talent from the Balkan nation as young people continue to look abroad for professional and economic opportunities.
Archbishop Frendo told Vatican Radio about the event at COMECE and pointed out that notwithstanding increasing euro-scepticism, at a time in which the UK has just split from the bloc, the people of Albania are not abandoning their dream to become EU members.
Listen to the Vatican News interview with Archbishop George Frendo
Archbishop Frendo explained that COMECE invited him to address a group of EU politicians in which he had the opportunity to make the case for Albanian EU membership.
In my talk, he said, I explained the reasons why Albania deserves to be accepted as a member of the EU and answered some of the concerns expressed by some members who oppose Albania’s accession.
At a time of euro-scepticism, he said, most Albanians continue to want to become part of the EU: “Because geographically, Albania is on the margins of Europe, whereas Albanians have always considered themselves part of Europe, and rightly so.”
In fact, he said, they share European values and he quoted a recent survey which showed that 97% of the Albanian population is in favour of becoming members of the bloc.
A sense of marginalization
The Archbishop said the veto last October by some politicians on the opening of EU accession talks with Albania has created a feeling of demoralization in the country.
“Since then, unfortunately many young people are seeking to leave Albania and to settle in another European country; this is an impoverishment for society because some of the best elements are leaving Albania,” he said.
Something to take and something to give
However, he said, “we are duty-bound to give hope to the youth, and that’s why Albania needs the European Union, while at the same time we also have something to offer.”
Frendo highlighted the fact that “in a society that is increasingly anonymous, Albanian hospitality makes society a more human environment”.
The Albanian family, which is still very united, is another positive value in a society, he said, in which the family is under threat.
And then, he continued, there is respect for the elderly: “the elderly in many societies today are considered a burden,” in Albania they are still very much respected.
“These are all values that make our society a more human society,” Archbishop Frendo said, adding later to SIR that “whoever enters our country is touched by its core values – openness, hospitality, respect”.
The Archbishop went on to underscore another value the Albanian nation has to bring to the EU: its model of interreligious harmony.
He said that some have expressed a certain scepticism regarding Albania’s membership because they consider it a Muslim country.
But, he pointed out, Albania is a secular state. Although Muslims constitute the majority (around 57% of the population), he highlighted that “the Constitution explicitly states that it is a secular state and that all religions are treated with equal dignity and respect.”
Moreover, he added, the interreligious harmony that exists in Albania sets an example to so many other nations:
“Pope John Paul and Pope Francis both visited Albania and both of them expressed their respect for the fact that there is this interreligious harmony which sets a good example to so many other countries”.
Frendo said to SIR about this Albanian harmony:
“And I am not talking about tolerance, but about harmony. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom to defend human dignity, democracy, are spoken of as European values. All these values already exist in Albania”
“I have held numerous conferences”, Frendo continued to Sir, “in which I spoke of the need for reforms, including electoral reform, the fight against corruption and organized crime.
“That is why we should be seen as an example for the whole region.
“To some extent Albania’s accession to the EU could encourage our neighbouring Balkan countries, with which we have good relations, to make the necessary efforts to facilitate the start of their respective negotiations”.
The meeting in Brussels with politicians and ambassadors, Archbishop Frendo concluded, has given him hope: “I will return to Albanian more positive, more optimistic”.