Tony Blair to advise Albania on efforts to join European Union

TIRANA (AFP) - Former British prime minister Tony Blair will advise Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, in its efforts to become a member of the European Union, the country's Premier said on Thursday.

"Tony Blair will personally, totally and voluntarily" advise the Socialist government, Mr Edi Rama said at a joint press briefing with the former Labour leader.

It was not disclosed if or how much Mr Blair - who can command huge fees for his consultancy work - would be paid, and no questions were taken from reporters at the briefing.

"I am convinced that with his extraordinary experience and political genius, we will be able to overcome every challenge," added Mr Rama.

When Mr Rama, then opposition Socialist leader, met Mr Blair in London ahead of Albania's June election that brought him to office, he said the consultancy deal "will not hurt the pockets of Albanian taxpayers", the local media reported.

Mr Blair ruled Britain from 1997 to 2007, and his London-based government advisory practice, Tony Blair Associates, has 200 employees.

Among its clients are Mongolia, Kazakhstan and the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo, for which the contract is thought to be worth around 4 million euros (S$6.8 million).

Last year, Mr Blair reportedly helped broker a deal between mining giant Xstrata and commodity broker Glencore. Some reports said he was paid US$1 million (S$1.25 million) for three hours' work.

Mr Blair, 60, is also a frequent visitor to Abu Dhabi in his role as head of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

As well as consultancy work and giving lucrative speeches, Mr Blair is the Middle East envoy for the Quartet of the United Nations, Russia, the United States and the European Union.

Brussels has twice rejected Albania's bid to join the EU, citing the need for further political and economic reforms to strengthen the rule of law and show concrete results in the fight against corruption and organised crime.

"The big challenge of the government today... is to turn the ideas into a reality on the ground," Mr Blair said.

Albania is one of Europe's poorest countries.

Around 14.3 percent of its 3.1 million population live on less than two dollars a day while the average salary is around 300 euros a month.

Unemployment has reached 14 per cent, while public debt is estimated at more than 60 per cent of gross domestic product.

Mr Rama's government said it expects to obtain EU candidate status by the end of this year.

In late 1990s, Mr Blair was among the most popular Western leaders in Albania and neighbouring Kosovo for his support for Nato air war against Serbia in 1999.

The bombings were aimed at halting Belgrade repression on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Mr Rama, who was sworn in as prime minister in September, has promised to revive industrial production and attract more foreign investments.

He pledged to decrease taxes for small enterprises, reduce public debt and poverty and create 300,000 jobs.