Albania mention by Brexit supporters surprises premier

TIRANA, Albania – Albania’s prime minister said he has been surprised that supporters of a British exit from the European Union would want to join his country in a small trading bloc of non-EU countries.

Britain will decide in a June 23 referendum whether to leave the 28-nation bloc. Albania, a full NATO member since 2009, expects to launch EU membership negotiations this year after getting candidate status two years ago.

British Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who backs a “Brexit,” said recently that the U.K. would join Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Ukraine in a European free-trade zone if the U.K. leaves the EU. Critics of Gove’s stance on Albania’s trade model say that the Balkan country doesn’t have full access to the EU’s single market, and that exports to EU countries must pass customs checks.

In an op-ed published in The Times on Tuesday, Prime Minister Edi Rama considered as “odd” that Gove singled out Albania “as a model for the post-Brexit British economic settlement.” Rama said that “it is odder still that he (Gove) wants voluntarily to leave a union that seems to have given Britain so much.”

“Most countries on the edges of Europe want in, because we know the remarkable benefits there have been to EU countries,” Rama said. The process of joining the EU has been helping the Balkans, once considered a powder keg with “our long history of wars and bloody conflicts,” which has now entered “a new era of peace and co-operation.”

For the moment, completing fundamental judicial reforms remains key before Tirana may start another long process of EU membership talks this year. Fighting corruption and organized crime, and improving the administration have been the main issues Brussels has pressed all these years.

“While we work hard in taking the many further steps towards EU membership, we enjoy none of the benefits that Britain has, benefits Britain would lose if it came out,” Rama said.