At the end of last week, the Commission announced it was supporting the opening of accession negotiations with Albania, a decision that the December European Council will be asked to approve.
This comes on the back of a 4 year process since Albania lodged its application, including a series of very stringent and involved demands by the Commission in its 2010 opinion (full timeline here).
Seen as part of a bigger process of securing the Western Balkans, all this might seem rather mundane (except for Albanians): another small member state moving in with no great consequence to the operation of the EU.
Hence my surprise at the line taken by UKIP to the announcement.
On the back of a big press release and frequent tweets, the deputy leader Paul Nuttall decried the decision as “utter madness”, on the grounds of criminality and poverty. The entry of Albania would simultaneously lead to millions being spent on regional development in the country and the flooding of its population to other parts of the Union (i.e. the UK). Moreover, membership would be bad for Albanians themselves, exposed as they would be to continent-wide competition.
Leaving the logic to one side, the more interesting point was that while this might make sense at one level as UKIP policy, at another it would seem to be completely counterproductive.
If we assume that UKIP’s goal is UK withdrawal from the Union and (ideally) the collapse of the Union altogether, then anything that precipitated that happening would logically be desirable.
Letting Albania join – if it is really such a basket case (in UKIP’s eyes) – would therefore actually be to their advantage, since it would highlight the problems of free movement and the Eastern shift that the Union has been undergoing since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
By contrast, siding with ‘small Europeans’ to protect the benefits of membership from outsiders would seem to be working for the perpetuation of the system.
This raises a number of issues and observations.
The first of these is that UKIP has historically not been very interested in what other countries do. They work with partners in the EP, but ultimately they argue that it is each country’s sovereign right to decide what it should do, so getting involved (even if they sometimes get caught up in such debates). Hence, if Albania and the EU decide the former should join, then UKIP doesn’t really care.
Secondly and more consequentially, Nuttall’s pronouncements seem to suggest that UKIP is not as adventurous as it might appear.
Over the past year, the party has been able to argue that it has made much of the running on British European policy (even if Tory backbenchers might challenge that): from Cameron’s renegotiation-and-referendum to the coming EP elections, UKIP has been able to position itself on the side of common sense and a rising agenda. The local elections in the spring were a case in point, as the party sold itself as a more general-purpose protest party. In short, the wind has been in their sails.
And yet, the Albania issue reads like a party that doesn’t expect to win power in any short timeframe. Accession will not happen for years, regardless of what happens at the European Council. Consider Croatia’s 6 years ofnegotiations, plus the almost two years of ratifications.
For such a bullish party, this seems odd, especially in the horizon of building pressure for a 2017 referendum. Even if we accept that the party will rail against any decision that the Union takes, it seems to speak to a vision of at least medium-term future for the UK in the European Union.
Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.