Erion Veliaj was a 23-year-old civil society activist full of promise when, in 2003, the European Union made an historic commitment in Thessaloniki to take in the Western Balkans.
Sixteen years on, Veliaj occupies the office of Tirana mayor, but he is still waiting for the EU to fulfil its own promise.
Spooked by the rise of right-wing populists, Europe has gone cold on any further enlargement beyond the 2013 accession of Croatia, with leaders repeatedly overruling a European Commission recommendation that the bloc start membership talks with Albania and neighbouring North Macedonia.
For years the only show in town, the EU helped drive reform and reconcile once-warring foes in the Balkans, but its influence is waning.
“The European narrative has been wounded,” Veliaj, 39, told BIRN in an interview in July hours before he was sworn in for a second term as mayor of the Albanian capital.
“Telling Albania and other countries in the Western Balkans ‘we’ll consider next year, you still have some work to do’ and once you fulfil that list, you see you are not being rewarded, is disappointing,” he said.
“It is as if you choose to reward the best student in the class but not the one that is always on time and is always doing his homework.”
Tirana as ‘a piece of Europe’
While EU appetite for enlargement has declined, Veliaj’s star has only risen.
From a leading figure of the MJAFT social movement in the early 2000s to policy analyst at the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think-tank, Veliaj entered politics in 2011 with the Socialist Party of current Prime Minister Edi Rama, himself a former mayor of Tirana.
Veliaj first became mayor in July 2015 and this June he won a second term in local elections that avoided the violence that frequently marrs polls in Albania but which was boycotted by the opposition.
Veliaj said his job had altered his view of Europe as a ‘destination.’
“The more I do this job, the more I realise that belonging to Europe is a destination within, not a destination without,” he told BIRN.
“It’s about building a European culture here. My aim is to make the city a piece of Europe, where people can thrive, where people want to move to. The fact that Tirana is a dream place for many young people convinces me that we should think of Europe as destination within.”
Speaking on the roof of the city hall, Veliaj pointed out the city’s eclectic skyline.
“The fact that we can sit on a roof and face the Orthodox cathedral, the minaret of the mosque, a Catholic cathedral over there and modern towers being built: to me this is Europe,” he said. “People of different religions and walks of life can live in perfect peace and harmony. And in Albania, religion and Europe never lead people to fight.”
With 2.8 million people, a majority of whom are Muslims, Albania has long been staunchly pro-European and pro-American. It joined NATO in 2009.
Yet for much of the 20th century it was run as a Stalinist state by Enver Hoxha, a paranoid dictator who closed its borders and ordered the building of thousands of bunkers against enemy invasion.
Veliaj said Europe risked forgetting its founding narrative, and hurting its standing in Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans.
“We often forget that we have had decades of peace. Nobody fights with each other anymore. Nobody thinks how to build an army to invade Albania and nobody in Albania thinks anymore how to build bunkers to defend ourselves from Italy invading,” he said.
“But the generation that fought World War II is almost gone. There are only few veterans left. The story they taught – Europe in misery that was transformed into Europe of prosperity – is not being told anymore.”
The delay to enlargement has less to with the performance of the candidate countries than the dangerous search for scapegoats going on right now in Europe, he said.
“With the rise of populism in Europe I sense that there are many European governments that are looking for the enemy,” Veliaj told BIRN.
“Sometimes, it is the refugee, the Muslim, the Other… I think that trying to blame domestic problems that big countries in Europe have on small countries and use this scapegoating to scare the crowds and to turn your population against enlargement is detrimental to the very basic concepts that founded Europe.”
Albania, he noted, is unlikely to change the face of the continent if granted accession to the EU.
“Some people fail to realise that, even if all Albania went to Europe as refugees, it would still be less than the 10 per cent of Romanians who have already done it,” he said with a smile.
Fault lines shifting
Veliaj’s relative youth and activist roots have not made him immune to the public protests that have convulsed Albania under Rama.
Himself a frequent target, Veliaj said he was more encouraged than worried.
“Protesting is the healthiest thing for democracy, it vaccinates democratic institutions. It makes sure the public ventilates the things they disagree,” he said. “The student protests were a fantastic example of how to voice concerns and complaints.”
“We openly said that they were right and we were wrong. We agreed upon a pact and a calendar with the students. We are delivering on those promises. Together with the prime minister, we thought they were raising legitimate concerns.”
Veliaj insisted Albania was changing and old fault lines shifting.
“In politics, even within parties, the primary cleavage is between old dinosaurs from Communism, who remember those old-fashioned ways of conducting public life, and a young generation that sometimes is more modern than the elite and wants change to happen much faster.”