The European: Mr. Rama, it seems that the European Union remains very occupied with its own affairs at the moment. How can the European Union shift its focus away from its center and give proper attention to the Balkans?
Rama: The concept of the European Union used to be tied to hope, but now it’s tied to fear, and this fear remains at the foreground of how the EU approaches the problems and challenges facing the world. If there is no shift back from fear to hope we will not see any further significant development of the European project.
The European: The narrative of Europe since the Second World War has been one of growing peace, social justice, and prosperity. After the 2008 financial crisis, some were saying that this narrative was outdated. But when you speak about the motives for your country’s entry into the European Union, you invoke this same narrative.
Rama: As a matter of fact, this is the first year ever that Albania has been at peace along all its borders. The countries of the Balkans come together and we are now able to sit around the same table and look towards the future. We do this not because we are naive. We do this because there is no alternative to peace, and so I think the old narrative is still a valid one. Unfortunately, there is another narrative as well: that we must stop the enlargement of the EU in order to thwart the anti-European actors. It’s becoming a Union that is more technocratic and less political. There’s this plea for a more tactical and less strategic Europe, but that will not work as a strong narrative.
The European: Less tactics more politics: To what values should these politics be aligned?
Rama: It is still precisely the old narrative: Europe is a family of democratic nations fostering and building prosperity for all, and this remains very important and cannot be changed because it is the essence of the European dream.
“The solution is always more Europe and not less.”
The European: There is a new wave of Nationalism all around Europe: France, Hungary, Denmark – countries with parties that emphasize their own individual states over Europe. On the other hand, Albania and the other Balkan states have had the challenge to try to overcome nationalism. How do you explain this anachronism?
Rama: There are many reasons to have doubts about this Union. It is obvious that nationalism is on the rise in Europe because of these doubts. The question is: Do the problems in the EU derive from the European project itself or from how the project so far has been accomplished? I believe it’s the second. There are problems in Europe. But the solution is always more Europe and not less.
The European: There was a certain fatigue and discontent when Bulgaria and Romania became full-fledged member states. Do you understand this fatigue from a central European perspective?
Rama: The Union seems to be more and more about finding scapegoats and less about tackling the problems. The Union has somehow stopped moving forward, but it needs to move forward in order to regain its breath and momentum.
The European: And how can they overcome these petty stagnating tactics?
Rama: How can it be that the Union gives more weight to national policies and less to finding common ground between all the member states? Coming together to form a United States of Europe is the answer. Of course this could not be a copy of the United States of America, but a United States of Europe where every particular place has a voice and ads to the diversity of the whole. It won’t be easy, but it is the only way that I see for our future.
The European: Would the European Union serve as a safe and secure place for the Balkan countries to overcome their difficulties with one another? Is stable, long-term peace also a hope you combine with your country’s aspiration to enter the European Union?
Rama: There is no reconciliation without a dream, and there is no dream in the Balkans without Europe.
The European: The religious landscape in your country is diverse. The people of different denominations live together in harmony as Pope Francis pointed out during his visit to Albania lat year. In Western Europe many countries struggle with the new emerging Muslim minority. Could Albania’s story and culture contribute to how the rest of Europe comes to live in harmony with religious minorities?
Rama: It is not about learning. It is about integrating. You have to watch out for models of inte-gration. There is no learning as such. Integration leads to change.
The European: And how would this integration work? Every European country would say that it’s not so simple. It has to do with learning the language for instance.
Rama: Europe should not be afraid of being Europe. But at this point it is. That’s what makes integration so difficult.
The European: You were once an artist. Is there any relation between art and politics?
Rama: Maybe politics can be related to art in the idea of how form follows function in an or-chestra. But the creative process in art is not democratic. And in politics it can only be democratic otherwise it is not creative but destructive.
The European: Art can be a dissident force; politics sometimes needs to be the same if the circumstances make it necessary.
Rama. I don’t believe in art as a dissident force. I don’t believe in art as a revolutionary tool. I believe in art as a fantastic expression of what the human imagination can do and how many possibilities we may have even where we don’t see any.
“Integration is a must for guaranteeing the future for the next generation.”
The European: One of the things you did first when you became the mayor of Tirana was you painted many edifices of the city with new colors. Why did you do that? Some would argue this was art.
Rama: It was not art, it was politics with colors in a situation where we didn’t have a budget. So it was low-cost politics of change. Later it was seen as art but in the beginning it was pretty much a need for change that happened through colors, not through words and not through other instruments that politicians normally use. And then of course when the need was over, the aesthetical gesture became more then the ethical gesture in the beginning.
The European: Albania is a diverse society. Your family reflects that.
Rama: Such a family can only exist in Albania, and it happens there quite a lot. My father was orthodox, and my mother too. Except for my grandmother all my family were orthodox. But she was the only person in the family back then that believed seriously. So she baptized me in the Catholic tradition. My son and daughter are both orthodox, my wife is Muslim, and our little boy is Catholic because he decided to be so. When my wife and I met the pope she was pregnant with him. After he was born we met the Pope again. So it was clear to us that this boy can neither become Orthodox nor a Muslim.
The European. What big steps must be taken on the road to your country’s full membership in the EU?
Rama: I always say that the fantastic thing about the integration process is the process itself, not the end of it, because it is the only process I know and that I can imagine that can force a country to modernize. For a country like ours this is a must, because otherwise we would have chosen the easier life, the Mediterranean life. A life every Latin and every Mediterranean country and people would chose. So the integration process is somewhat a straightjacket to impose a certain way of standing and walking straight, without having really time to sit be lazy and forget about the rest. So somehow it is not as fun as the life would be without it. It is absolutely a must for guaranteeing the future for the next generation.
The European: So would you see the Albanians part of a family with the European nations around the Mediterranean Sea? Do you share a common Mediterranean culture that contributes to the whole of Europe?
Rama: The French would be offended if I said so (laughing), the Spanish would not like it at all, and the Greeks and the Italians would find something to contradict me, but we are the same group of people. I say that the Italians in the end are Albanians dressed in Versace.
The European: To lend from Heinrich Heine, do you “think about Europe at night?" And if so, what feeling does it invoke?
Rama: In fact for me and for many people that lived during the era of communism, this is not just a metaphor. It was a dream we had every night about shining cities and the possibility to cross the borders without being asked where we are going.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with John Major: “We are the grit in the oyster”