I’ve just completed a visit to Albania. This was the second visit as part of a Parliamentary enquiry into the Western Balkans, the first being to Serbia.
Albania and Serbia were both protagonists in the Kosovo crisis of just a decade ago. They are also candidate states for entry into the EU, so there is not a little irony in the fact that they are both seeking access at a time of our exit, something that has caused both consternation and sorrow.
Albania has a fascinating history. There once was an Albanian Empire which confronted the Ottomans. Until 1991, it was renowned for being the only other closed state, apart from North Korea. Under the dictatorial regime of Enver Hoxha, head of state from 1944 until 1985, thousands were incarcerated, many lost their lives, and it was commonplace for relatives and neighbours to inform on each other. In a visit to a museum, we were shown irons and umbrellas with listening devices and a camera set-up that spied through a hole in the wall.
Over the last thirty years Albania has come a long way in overcoming the horrors of the Hoxha years to open itself up as a modern democracy. In 1991, Albania was the world’s third poorest country, now it is a middle-income state. Being such a young country – the average age of residents is only 28 – brings its own strains. Albania continues to shed population, so despite a burgeoning birth rate, the population is getting smaller.
Such rapid development has come at a cost. Albanian crime syndicates today dominate much of the world’s criminal activity. These criminals have taken a huge stake in the drugs market, money laundering and people trafficking throughout the world but particularly in the UK. Tracking and tracing the causes and consequences of this terrible indictment of Albanian society was a major reason for our visit. Whilst major judicial and legal changes are underway, government and opposition MPs are strongly divided on the effectiveness of this programme.
Similarly, there are huge questions over the rate of economic progress and the lack of sufficient foreign investment because of shortfalls in domestic capability.
Britain has a strong relationship with Albania forged during the 20th century, and many people we met spoke perfect English. That relationship looks set to continue whatever happens with Brexit - but it would be helpful if this could happen as part of a genuine belief in the ideals of Europeanism.