Ian Birrell in Albania for Brexit story
Picture: Erion Mecaj/Demotix
Qemal was sitting in the shade of a peach tree in the village of Gërdec, trying to find a buyer for a dishevelled donkey munching on the kerbside grass nearby.
When I stopped to chat, the father of four explained he was having to sell his animal because he was broke. ‘There is no state help here,’ he said. ‘If you do not work you die.’
No wonder both owner and beast looked a bit disconsolate. Then I asked Qemal whether his nation might be a role model for Britain.
He looked at me as if I was mad, then gave a big gap-toothed grin. ‘That sounds very weird,’ he said. ‘This is a very poor place. The situation is very bad. Why would you want to follow us?’
A good question.
Qemal was sitting in the shade of a peach tree in the village of Gërdec, trying to find a buyer for a dishevelled donkey munching on the kerbside grass nearby
Albania is an impoverished Balkan state, still struggling to escape the legacy of cruel communism and infamous for crime and corruption. Britain, by contrast, is one of the world’s richest nations, the birthplace of the industrial revolution and mother of democracy.
Yet that is precisely the preposterous proposal put forward last week by Michael Gove, when the Justice Secretary indicated Albania was an unlikely inspiration for post-Brexit Britain.
Never mind that Britain has 20 times more people – and they are on average almost ten times richer; indeed, the Albanian economy is smaller than the size of Tesco. Nor that the Balkan state remains heavily reliant on small family farms while Britain is a leading global financial centre.
For when Mr Gove gazes across the Adriatic, he sees an alluring vision of Britain’s future if our nation opts to abandon Brussels in June. In a keynote Vote Leave speech, he highlighted Albania as part of a continent-wide free trade zone yet supposedly free from meddlesome interference
That bemused donkey-vendor was far from the only local here to laugh at talk of Britain emulating their country. ‘This is just a joke, surely,’ said Donika Mici, the nation’s biggest shoe exporter with five factories and 1,000 workers. ‘You can’t want to be like Albania. We are a democracy in name only.
‘It would be crazy to follow us. You respect the law, you follow the rules, you start work in the morning instead of drinking coffee in cafes. We need to follow your country.’
There were similar sentiments from Zef Preci, former government minister and executive director of the Albanian Centre for Economic Research, who struggled to stop smirking at the idea anyone might want to mimic an ‘Albanian model’. ‘It’s a joke – we do not even have a model,’ he said, pointing out his nation was responsible for just 0.1 per cent of European trade. ‘We are like a colonial economy that relies on cheap labour and cannot exploit its own resources.’
This is not entirely true. Two years ago, hundreds of armed police backed by helicopter gunships stormed a mountain village employing 3,000 people to grow marijuana for the European market.
Almost half of Albania’s population live below the global poverty line of $5 a day
After a five-day advance against villagers armed with an anti-aircraft gun, grenades, mortars and machine guns, the police destroyed more than 80,000 marijuana plants and 23 tons of cannabis. An official report suggested the illicit enterprise was equivalent to about one third of Albania’s GDP.
But certainly Albania has struggled to escape the legacy of Europe’s most paranoid and suffocating Communist dictatorship, which cut off the country from outsiders before coming to an end 25 years ago.
There are few visible signs of those 45 years when private cars were banned and even the number of chickens a family could own was controlled by the state, beside thousands of concrete bunkers littering the landscape and a derelict rocket-shaped museum to former despot Enver Hoxha.
Yet several analysts told me that the old mindset remains strong despite the transition to democracy, with endemic corruption and politics used often for self-enrichment.
‘We are still ruled by the past,’ said Preci. ‘People taste freedom but we do not have the institutions yet to deliver it.’
The country frequently belies its bad reputation thanks to its friendly people, fine food and glorious scenery, encompassing rugged mountains and golden beaches. But these deep-rooted issues explain its struggle to develop.
Club Med, for instance, gave up on a £50 million resort plan after a five-year dispute over land ownership, while the cheap flight revolution that transformed travel failed to touch down in Albania.
And one American billionaire gave up on discussions to invest in the oil industry earlier this year, reportedly fuming it was ‘easier to do business in Iraq than Albania’.
I apprehended one of the most notorious political operators in a smart hotel, a wealthy man said by local journalists to be more powerful than any of the organised crime chiefs. He shook hands, but when I started asking questions he just stared at me then strode off with his burly minder.
So yes, it may have an enviable top rate of tax at 23 per cent (a recent rise from the previous ten per cent flat tax, a progressive measure I heard blamed on the prime minister’s pal Tony Blair). But for all its quirky charms, Albania seems a strange place to pick as anyone’s post-Brexit nirvana – especially when growth has slackened; a quarter of the population emigrated; and almost half those remaining live below the global poverty line of $5 a day.
Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, indicated last week that Albania was an unlikely inspiration for post-Brexit Britain
‘Look at us – this is no life,’ she said. ‘There are no jobs. We do not even have enough food to eat, so we go without bread.’
Over the road, her neighbour Serme, 64, was collecting firewood to cook dinner with her grandchildren. ‘We are poor people who would die to get to Western Europe,’ she said.
And there’s the rub. The Out crowd do not really seek to emulate this impoverished corner of our Continent. But they are struggling badly to define the shape of Britain if it quits the Brussels club, stumbling with each flawed example they pick from Canada to Norway.
Mr Gove highlighted Albania alongside other strange paragons of peace and prosperity – Serbia, Bosnia and Ukraine – because they have access to European markets without having to accept all those pesky rules from Brussels pen-pushers.
Yet Albania’s deal took six years to negotiate with the EU, which does not bode well for British stability. There is no free movement only because visa-free travel was rejected. And ironically, almost all Albanians see this as a stepping-stone to the full membership they crave so badly.
Ilir Zhilla, a businessman and former head of the Albanian Chamber of Commerce, told me they sought integration with the EU because they wanted the imposition of higher standards.
‘By joining we will get pressure put on us to drive reforms and do lots of good things for our country,’ he said.
This puts a different spin on that ‘Albanian model’. Yet for all the mirth this provoked from rural donkey-traders through to owners of the biggest businesses, the debate over Britain’s role in the world should not be a laughing matter.
Perhaps the Brexit campaigners should listen to Besart Kadia, British-educated director of the Foundation for Economic Freedom think-tank, which promotes free-market policies in Tirana.
‘You can’t compare the countries for many reasons,’ he said. ‘But we are acting out of a sense of inferiority to improve Albania – so they are not doing any favours for Britain with this absurd comparison.’
You would need the stubbornness of a mule to disagree.
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