45. The Council welcomes Albania’s steady progress in pursuing reforms related to the five key priorities: public administration reform, reform of the judiciary, fight against corruption, fight against organised crime and protection of human rights, including rights of persons belonging to minorities and property rights. Institutional restructuring of the judiciary is ongoing, as a cornerstone of a comprehensive justice reform. The re-evaluation process for judges and prosecutors (vetting) has started to deliver its first tangible results, including on high-ranking members of the judiciary, under the oversight of the International Monitoring Operation. The Council encourages Albania to continue its good cooperation with the International Monitoring Operation. The Council encourages Albania to build on the progress so far and pursue intensively the justice reform, aimed at increased independence, accountability, professionalism and efficiency of the judicial system, notably through further advancing the vetting process, which is crucial for its success.

46. The Council welcomes the efforts towards establishing a solid track record of pro-active investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in the fight against corruption and organised crime, while taking note that dismantling organised crime groups remains an important challenge. The Council stresses the importance for Albania to further pursue tangible and sustainable results, including in the specific area of countering cultivation and trafficking of drugs. The Council encourages Albania to continue and deepen efforts to reduce cannabis cultivation, building on the first significant results which were observed in the last months. The Council commends Albania for its close and strengthened cooperation with lawenforcement agencies of EU Member States and expects this mutually beneficial practice to be continued.

47. The Council also underlines that Albania needs to intensify its efforts in all these areas and ensure that further tangible results are achieved also in the fight against corruption at high level, as well as in dismantling organised criminal networks. There should be systematic judicial follow up to successful law enforcement operations. In the framework of the ongoing justice reform, the specialised institutions to fight corruption and organised crime still need to be established according to the legal framework already in place. The establishment of a solid track record of proactive investigations, prosecutions and convictions in the fight against organised crime and corruption, at all levels, remains an essential long-term objective that continues to require further structured and consistent efforts.

48. The Council reiterates the need for effective legislative and policy measures to reinforce the protection of human rights and anti-discrimination policies, including the equal treatment of all minorities and access to rights for persons belonging to them throughout Albania, and to ensure consistent implementation of the framework law by addressing in relevant bylaws all outstanding issues, including the right to free self-identification. The Council also reiterates the need for efficient implementation of property rights.

49. The Council notes that consistent and constructive dialogue between the government and the opposition on EU-related reforms remains crucial to advance on the reform agenda to the benefit of the citizens, and move the country closer to the EU.

50. The Council reiterates that Albania should step up reforms aimed at increasing competitiveness and tackling the informal economy. In line with the Joint Conclusions of the Economic and Financial Dialogue between the EU and the Western Balkans and Turkey, the Council encourages Albania to further improve the business and investment environment, including ensuring enforcement of property rights, vigorously pursuing fiscal consolidation and strengthening tax administration. The Council welcomes some progress made in the liberalisation of energy market, transport infrastructure and digitalisation. The Council encourages Albania to take steps to address the problem of waste management.

51. The Council strongly commends Albania’s continued full alignment with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Council welcomes the commitment and progress in fighting terrorism and countering violent extremism and encourages Albania to further pursue efforts.

52. The Council welcomes Albania’s continued constructive engagement in regional cooperation. The Council also welcomes that Albania intensified dialogue with neighbouring countries to address important bilateral issues and to ensure good neighbourly relations, which remain essential.

53. The Council positively notes the increased efforts by Albania to put in place effective measures aimed at countering the high flow of manifestly unfounded asylum applications lodged by Albanian citizens to EU Member States and Schengen Associated countries. These measures must be further pursued, along with continued cooperation and dialogue with the most affected countries, until sustained results are achieved.

54. In view of the above progress, in particular on the five key priorities, the Council agrees to respond positively to the above progress made by Albania and sets out the path towards opening the accession negotiations in June 2019. Accordingly, the Council underlines the critical need for Albania to further consolidate progress made on judicial reform in particular through the vetting, and to deliver further tangible results in the fight against corruption at all levels and in the fight against organised crime, in particular on the cultivation and trafficking of drugs, maintaining and deepening the current reform momentum. This includes:

– further advancing the process of re-evaluating judges and prosecutors, in particular completing all priority dossiers, and finalising the establishment of the independent judicial structures as foreseen by the Constitutional reform;

– finalising the establishment of specialised bodies, namely the Special Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime Structure (SPAK) and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and Court;

– strengthening the track record of proactive investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in the fight against corruption and organised crime, including at high level.

To this effect, the Council calls on the Commission to monitor closely the above reform efforts by Albania and will assess progress on the basis of the yearly Commission report. The Council recalls that the decision to open accession negotiations with Albania will be subject to completion of national parliamentary procedures and endorsement by the European Council and will swiftly thereafter be followed by the first Intergovernmental Conference by the end of 2019, depending on progress made. The Council underlines that this assessment of progress should include further tangible and sustained results focusing in particular on the rule of law. On elections, the Council attaches particular importance to Albania addressing the outstanding recommendations of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The Council also attaches particular importance to Albania’s continued efforts in reducing the number of manifestly unfounded asylum applications and also asks the Commission to ensure that this is taken into account.

The Council takes note of the intention of the Commission to begin the necessary preparatory work.

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