Leading non-governmental organisation Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) has joined forces with senior European Union political figures in urging members of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party to back planned reforms seen as crucial in boosting the country’s EU accession ambitions, writes Martin Banks.
HRWF, a respected, Brussels-based international advocacy group, called the reforms "essential to guarantee the independence of the judiciary" in the country.
Its intervention on Friday comes after leading German MEP Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Albania’s EU accession, and the EU’s enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, made a similar response to current protests by Albania’s Democrat Party.
The Democrats (DP) have blocked the main boulevard in the capital Tirana for several days saying they do not trust the left-wing government to hold June 18 parliamentary elections fairly. DP plans to boycott parliament, a move which the EU fears could delay the planned implementation of a key justice system reform, which aims to create institutions for the vetting of some 800 judges and prosecutors.
The judicial reform is the main step toward launching Albania’s EU membership negotiations. It seeks to root out bribery and ensure that judges and prosecutors are independent from politics.
The DP, which also warns if may boycott parliamentary elections on June 18, has been pushing for electronic voting to allay fears of vote manipulation. But the government has said there is not enough time to implement this for the elections.
The EU wants a revamped judiciary tackling widespread corruption before it starts accession talks with Tirana. The reforms will exclude criminal offenders from public office, provide whistleblower protection and re-evaluate judges, prosecutors and legal advisors.
Hahn told EU Reporter he “very much regrets” the parliamentary boycott announced by the opposition.
Hahn said: “The political debate should not take place outside, but inside the parliament. Cooperation of government and opposition is crucial for the country’s ambition to join the EU. In particular, it is of utmost importance to maintain parliamentary continuity in a time where substantial reforms are on the agenda of the parliament, such as the setting up of the vetting bodies in the framework of the justice reform and the electoral reform including the follow-up of the OSCE/ODIHR election observation recommendations which are essential for ensuring free and fair elections later this year. These reforms are crucial for Albania to move forward on its EU integration path."
The Albanian PM Edi Rama and the country’s ruling party have been praised for pressing for the vetting law and justice reform and Hahn’s comments are endorsed by Fleckenstein, a Socialist MEP who said it was up to Albania’s politicians to implement the reform and start negotiations.
In a reference to the DP’s parliamentary boycott, Fleckenstein, who is deputy leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, said: “I really ask the colleagues and friends at the Democratic Party to come back to work.”
Elsewhere, Willy Fautre, director of respected Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, also called on DP to call off its boycott.
On Friday (24 February), Fautre told this website: “The place of Albania is in the EU family of democratic states. The political debate about free and fair elections in June should not block the justice reform process.The new legislation which has been drafted by the EU and the US but also endorsed by the CoE is essential to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the non-interference of political and other actors in the administering of justice.”
Fautre said: “The opposition should stop boycotting the Parliament so that the democratic legislative process can be resumed and bring Albania closer to EU membership. The sooner the better for both parties.”
The EU’s ambassador to Tirana, Romana Vlahutin, agreed, saying: “We know there are some individuals that don’t want this reform and we know why. But justice will come, despite the repeated attempts to postpone it. There is no time to vote for a new draft and the actual one has our full support. The European future of Albania is more important that the future of some corrupted people.”
EU and US experts were directly involved in drafting the reform, which was verified by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe.Though Albanian lawmakers, including the Democrats, unanimously voted in the reform last year, DP later abstained from voting on how to vet the judges.
Albania’s ruling coalition has won all recent local elections and the government led by Rama has overseen a spell of steady economic growth.This is part of its transition to a market-oriented democracy.
Rama said: “True reforms are not easy at all, and often very painful operations. But there is no safe future for the country, our society and children if we do not operate with courage on the rotten parts of the state organisation.”
MEPs from various parties have welcomed Albania’s progress on EU-related reforms and further efforts to reform the judicial sector, which is a key demand of Albania’s citizens and a factor in restoring trust in public institutions.
Fleckenstein, a foreign affairs committee member, adds,“Since summer 2014 Albania has been an EU accession candidate and since then it has been making constant progress. The adoption of a wide-ranging judicial reform is a milestone on Albania’s path towards joining the EU and becoming a modern country. Less corruption, less organised crime is crucial for everyday life in Albania. However, we should not put off the decision on the start of accession negotiations again and again.”
A European Parliament resolution on Albania was approved recently by 546 votes to 85, and notes that credible implementation of justice reform, good progress in fighting organized crime and corruption, and holding free and fair elections in June 2017 could prove to be a key to advancing the EU accession process and starting negotiations.
Albania, once an isolated country in the Balkans suffering under one of the most severe Communist dictatorships after WWII, is now a member of NATO and a leading candidate for EU accession.
But adoption of the reform package last year, together with the constructive attitude that Albania has adopted in the context of the refugee crisis, serve as further examples of the strong national political momentum and desire to see the country advance on its EU membership path.While Albania hopes to be in a position now to be able to open accession negotiations soon, the EU is likely to first look for the proof of the pudding in the implementation of the reforms.
As Fleckenstein said: “It is important for Albania to maintain today’s reform momentum and we must be ready to support it as much as possible in this process”.
Last chance to register for EAPM EU Presidency Conference
Hello, health colleagues, and welcome to the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update – we are looking forward very much to the 9th EU Presidency Conference, under the auspices of the Portuguese EU Presidency, which takes place online on Monday, 8 March from 9-16h CET – the aim of the game is all about establishing a health policy framework across the EU, writes EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan.
EU Presidency Conference
The EAPM conference will feature a wide range of keynote speakers from across the EU, including Christine Chomienne, vice chairwoman of the Mission Board Cancer at the European Commission and professor of Cellular Biology at the Université deParis, France, MEP Pernille Weiss, and Daria Julkowska, co-ordinator of the European Joint Programme on Rare Diseases.
In terms of the themes undertaken by the conference, these will include propelling health care through an effective governance framework, and update on the Europe Beating Cancer Plan, and the role of biomarkers and advanced molecular diagnostics.
Health-care systems are not always ready to respond to the opportunities. The disruptive nature of personalised care challenges traditional patterns of thinking. Practices, presumptions and even prejudices that date from before the millennium resist a 21st century approach to healthcare.
The conference will be seeking to move towards establishing a policy framework, in order to realize the potential of personalised health care, and not only in Europe: Europe’s engagement in global research and scientific enterprise can benefit the population of the entire planet.
As far as the conference is concerned, it is absolutely clear that it is necessary to formulate a personalised healthcare-centred strategy involving decision makers and regulators in the arena of public health, to enable the EU and member states to contribute to integrating personalised medicine into clinical practicewhile enabling much-greater access for patients.
For the opening session, which is entitled propelling health care through an effective governance framework, at the start of the 2020s, wide-ranging changes are under way in European society and governance, with a new European Commission, a freshly-elected European Parliament, and a growing conviction among Europe’s policymakers that people must be at the centre of any successful and sustainable strategy. The ambition of new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a Europe that ‘must lead the transition to a healthy planet and a new digital world’. And Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides acknowledges that “European citizens expect the peace of mind that comes with access to health care… and protection against epidemics and diseases.”
The second session deals with the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan, and the conference will examine the new technologies, research and innovation that the Cancer Plan is taking as a starting point, in terms of setting out a new EU approach to cancer prevention, treatment and care.
Europe's Beating Cancer Plan will be supported by actions spanning across policy areas from employment, education, social policy and equality, through marketing, agriculture, energy, the environment and climate, to transport, cohesion policy, and taxation. A total of €4 billion is being earmarked for actions addressing cancer, including from the EU4Health programme, Horizon Europe and the Digital Europe programme. Expectations have been heightened by European strategists’ attachment to three key ingredients for courageous transformation: incentives, innovation, and investment. These reflect the pre-conditions for boosting health care into higher levels of efficiency, where the value of personalised medicine approaches can be fully appreciated and make its full contribution to Europe’s citizens.
This discussion of personalised health-care depicts a Europe where many chances for improvement are not yet fully being taken up. But this is not merely a catalogue of deficiencies. The variations and inefficiencies it presents are an argument for triggering radical rethinking, and for making the most of personalised health care. It highlights the endorsement of incentives, innovation, and investment by a new breed of Europe’s leaders. And it focuses on the ambitions that would support the development of personalised health care, diagnostics and medicines.
Everyone - from newborn babies to the elderly, from sufferers from chronic disease to acute cancer patients, and from health ministries to funding agencies - stands to gain. The price is nothing more than a shift in policy. The prize – in terms of value to the economy and to lives - is priceless.
As far as the role of biomarkers and advanced molecular diagnostics is concerned, the conference will also deal with this important subject in a latter session - today, biomarkers have immense scientific and potential clinical value in the diagnostic testing pipeline. They span the broad diagnostic sector from the genome to the phenome over various ‘-ome’ levels and have been used since the earliest days of the application of molecular biology. A biomarker signature is capable of revealing specific biological traits or measurable physiological changes, according to a disease status, physiological or pathological condition, or after drug application.
An understanding of biomarkers ties in to the existing new understanding of epidemiology, precision medicine, and pharmacogenomics, the deployment of technologies such as genomics, single cell sequencing, microbiome analysis and transcriptomics, and the opportunities arising from bioinformatics and digital innovations, which can be transformative for individual patients.
As novel gene-based diagnostics proliferate, they will be increasingly important to drug development, approval and later in clinical practice. There are numerous promising singular biomarkers or more complex multiple biomarker signatures available, the most important of which are currently used for assessing drug development, patient stratification or measuring the efficacy of treatment in therapeutic medicine. Clearly there is a translation problem to transfer the results from molecular diagnostics research to drug development and finally clinical practice. In future, biomarkers and their interaction on various levels will increase the molecular and cellular knowledge of disease and drug mechanisms.
Von der Leyen proposes EU-wide health passport
The European Commission will present legislation for a digital health pass before the end of March. The announcement follows a virtual meeting between EU leaders last week, where Greece and Austria urged other states to adopt vaccination passports in order to restart travel and tourism. However, others remain on the fence due to concerns over vaccine efficacy and discrimination. Following the discussion of vaccines and travel restrictions by EU leaders during the European Council video conference, the bloc is taking further steps to reintroduce travel across the continent. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet that legislation is being prepared for a ‘Digital Green Pass’. This will serve to provide proof of vaccination, test-results for “those who couldn’t get vaccine yet”, or information on COVID-19 recovery.
Von der Leyen, who has been the Commission’s president since December 2019, said that the digital pass was needed to facilitate Europeans’ lives. The proposal, she said, will be finalized and presented before the end of March.
That is everything for this week from EAPM – remember, registration is still open for the EU Presidency conference but only until the end of today (5 March) – 150 people have already signed up, click here to register and join them, and click here for the agenda. To those who will attend, EAPM looks forward very much to joining them on 8 March – stay safe and well, and have an excellent weekend.
EU ready to take further steps if China amends Hong Kong's electoral laws
In response to an announcement by the National People's Congress in China that it would deliberate on amending the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the European External Action Service issued a statement saying: "If enacted, such reform would have potentially far-reaching negative consequences for democratic principles and democratically elected-representatives in Hong Kong. It would also run counter to previous electoral reforms in Hong Kong and renege on the commitments enshrined in Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law to introduce universal suffrage in the elections of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council.
"The EU calls on the authorities in Beijing to carefully consider the political and economic implications of any decision to reform the electoral system of Hong Kong that would undermine fundamental freedoms, political pluralism and democratic principles. As agreed by EU Foreign Ministers, the EU stands ready to take additional steps in response to any further serious deterioration of political freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong, which would be against China’s domestic and international obligations."
A decision can be expected by 11 March.
Fishing firms could go bust over Brexit, MPs told
British fishing businesses could go bust or move to Europe because of post-Brexit trading disruption, industry figures have warned, writes the BBC.
MPs were told paperwork due to new border controls had proved a "massive problem" and should be moved online.
They also heard extra costs had made it "impossible" for some firms to trade profitably.
Ministers have promised action on disruption, and £23 million for affected firms.
The UK government has also set up a taskforce aiming to resolve problems faced by the industry in Scotland.
The Commons environment committee heard funding could have to continue, and be widened further, to help the sector weather Brexit-related problems.
- Eat British fish campaign needed - Johnson
- EU shellfish import ban indefinite, industry told
- What does the deal mean for fishing?
Outside the EU's single market, British fish exports to Europe are now subject to new customs and veterinary checks which have caused problems at the border.
Martyn Youell, a manager at south-west England fishing company Waterdance, told MPs the industry was facing more than just "teething problems".
"Whilst some things have settled down, some obvious issues, we feel that we remain with at least 80% of the trading difficulties that have been encountered," he said.
"There are some extreme forces operating on the supply chain, and we probably will see some forced consolidation or business failure."
"The exporters we deal with are seriously considering relocating part of their processing business to the EU because of the difficulties we face".
He said the "largely paper-based" forms they now have to fill in had pushed up costs, and called for the UK to work with the EU in moving them online.
'Lot of anger'
Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, said the problems could lead to smaller firms in particular stopping trading with Europe in the medium term.
She said the annual costs of the new paperwork, between £250,000 and £500,000 per year, were too much for them to sustain.
But she said many "can't see where they could turn" at the moment because travel bans and the Covid pandemic have closed off other markets.
She added there was "a lot of anger" about the design of the government's £23m compensation scheme, which links funds to provable losses due to Brexit.
She said it meant many firms which had "worked through the night" to get shipments ready had not been compensated for extra costs.
Sarah Horsfall, co-chief executive at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, also criticised the scheme, noting firms that "made massive efforts" didn't qualify.
She also called for ministers to adopt a different approach to persuade the EU to overturn a ban on British exports of some types of live shellfish.
After leaving the EU single market, these exports from all but the highest-grade fishing grounds have to be purified before they can enter the EU market.
The UK government has accused the EU of reneging on a previous commitment such exports could continue with a special certificate.
Ms Horsfall said there had been the "propensity for a bit of a misunderstanding" among either UK or EU officials about the post-Brexit rules.
She urged a "more nuanced approach" from UK ministers in resolving the matter, noting their "bullish" response "perhaps hasn't helped either".
And she said a more "flexible" regime for determining the quality of British fishing waters could provide help to the industry in the long-term.
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