EWB Interviews: Mitja Drobnic, Head of Delegation of the European Union in Montenegro

European Western Balkans continues with series of interviews with key people from Western Balkans countries which are involved in European integration process of their countries. H.E. Mitja Drobnič is Head of Delegation of the European Union in Montenegro. Mr. Drobnič was born in 1951. He got his PhD in economics from the University of Ljubljana. Apart from Slovenian he speaks fluently English, German and French, and Montenegrin/Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian. Mr. Drobnič had significant diplomatic career, which began in 1978 as the Yugoslav Consul in Dortmund, Federal Republic of Germany. From 1994 to 1998, he was the Deputy Head of Mission of Slovenia to the European Union in Brussels. In the period 2002-2006 he was Slovenian ambassador for Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2009 he was appointed, Slovenian ambassador to Berlin. He became Head of the EU Delegation to Montenegro in July 2012.

Mitja Drobnič: Twitter

Delegation of the European Union in Montenegro: Facebook

European Western Balkans: At the beginning, tell us about your work in the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the time when Slovenia was candidate country. Was it more difficult to Slovenia then or to Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries now?

H.E. Mitja Drobnič: I was member of a small group of not more than ten civil servants who started to work systematically in the field of EU integration of Slovenia. Later on I was Deputy Head of the Slovenian Office in Brussels and member of the Slovenian negotiation team. The EU has always been the main field of my professional interest and my work. The most important difference between Slovenia and other Western Balkanscountries is in the early beginning of the EU integration. Slovenia began the process of integration already in 1994, soon after the establishment as an independent state. The process started with the conclusion of the Association Agreement, which was similar to the agreement between EU and Montenegro.  Almost all reforms of Slovenian political and economic transition were accomplished before the beginning of accession negotiations.  In other Western Balkans countries, transitional reforms were delayed because of the war and specific political circumstances. At the end of the process, however, candidate country has to fulfil the criteria, implement the European legislation, achieve stability of democratic institutions and a functioning market economy. The way of Slovenia was short and fast but the amount of reforms was similar.

EWB: What your personal opinion is about the European Union and about the importance of integration of Montenegro and the region in the EU?

MD: I usually begin to present my ideas and views about the EU with the statement that EU membership is not a free gift. It brings new opportunities which the country tries to make use of.  Through the process of integration, the Western Balkans countries will accomplish important political and economic reforms and will become modern states.  They will be able to benefit from the EU membership, they will contribute to the development of the EU, but they will share the problems of the EU as well. The history of recent accessions shows that all candidates were able to make use of the EU membership and improve the quality of life for their citizens. I am convinced that the Western Balkan countries will be able to achieve similar developments, some of them faster some of them slower. Montenegro is the most advanced of them at the moment. The process started well and this should encourage everybody to cope with serious tasks which still lie ahead.

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Mitja Drobnic, Head of Delegation of the European Union in Montenegro. Photo: Savo Prelević (RFE/RL)

EWB: What is the role of EU Delegation to Montenegro?

MD: The Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro is part of a diplomatic network of 139 Delegations and Offices across the globe which represents the European Union. The Delegation to Montenegro is responsible for analyzing and reporting on political, economic and trade developments. In addition, the Delegation implements and manages the EU financial assistance portfolio and strives to improve visibility and communication of the EU in Montenegro.

Our key mission is to pursue EU policies and represent the Union in Montenegro in line with our headquarters in Brussels. We monitor and support progress on Montenegro’s path to EU membership and to do this, we provide substantial financial aid which we implement in accordance with the principles of sound financial management. The Delegation supports Montenegro’s reform efforts through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) in areas ranging from the fight against organised crime and corruption, judicial reform, infrastructure projects, to activities in the field of environment and agriculture.

As the European External Action Service rightly puts it, the Delegation to Montenegro, as in other parts of the world, acts as the eyes, ears and mouthpiece of the European Union vis-à-vis the authorities and population in the host country.

EWB: Do you have good cooperation with the Government, ministries and the Chief Negotiator of Montenegro?

MD: In our daily work, we maintain close links with the Montenegrin authorities, the public, the media community, other international organisations and civil society. Our cooperation with the government, ministries and the Chief Negotiator’s Office is carried out through our contacts at the level of intergovernmental conferences between the EU and Montenegro, at the level of various peer-review missions, missions dedicated to monitoring the implementation of measures stemming from action plans on Chapters 23 and 24, through sub-committee meetings on topics addressed in the Stabilization and Association Process Agreement.

Apart from these ‘technical’ meetings, cooperation is evident in our day-to-day work as we assist the authorities in undertaking important legislative reforms needed to achieve alignment with the acquis prior to accession.

In short, the EU Delegation works closely with the Montenegrin government to ensure that accession negotiations are running smoothly. In addition, we work with the government on the delivery of a wide range of programmes in support of the country’s accession priorities with a view to implementing economic and structural reforms, judicial and public administration reforms and to assisting the country in the fight against corruption and organised crime.

EWB: What about your personal contacts in Montenegrin society?

MD: The Delegation and I strive to maintain a constructive relationship with the Government, the Parliament, political parties, interest groups, NGOs and direct contacts with citizens through numerous events. I and my colleagues wish to have a proactive approach. Obviously we did not meet everybody’s expectations. The PM recently referred to my activities as interference into Montenegro’s internal affairs. It is not usual, even not decent for ambassadors to comment on the statements of the Prime Minister or the ministers. I regret that PM Djukanovic interpreted my activities as an interference into internal affairs. They were and still are aimed at helping to maintain the momentum of the EU integrationprocess.  However, it is upon each country to determine the speed of the reforms.

EWB: From your point of view, what are the main problems faced by of Montenegro on its path to EU membership?

MD: Montenegro, as other candidate and potential candidate countries, faces challenges in a number of areas which we expect will be overcome in the years ahead of us. The new approach to accession negotiations, reflected in the early opening of Chapters 23 and 24 related to the rule of law, indicates that the EU is determined to tackle the issues related to the judicial reform, fight against corruption and organised crime and protection of fundamental rights, at the early stage of negotiations in order to allow for a maximum time for reforms in this area to take root.

There are several challenges Montenegro will have to cope with in its path towards the EU:Strengthening citizens’ trust in the electoral process through the appropriate legislative reforms;ensure an effective fight against corruption at all levels and fight against organized crime which will result in building of a solid track-record of investigations, prosecution and final convictions. For this fight to be successful, it is necessary to continue with the judicial reformin order to ensure that the judiciary and the prosecution are fully independent and impartial. Reforms should equally progress to guarantee that the public administration is professional and de-politicised and that it serves the interests of all citizens. Tackling discrimination of vulnerable social groups is essential for demonstrating that fundamental rights of all persons, regardless of their differences, are protected and enforced. We also encourage the authorities to continue with their efforts in resolving all older and recent cases of attacks against journalists and media property. Media must be allowed to work without pressure and fear of repercussions in the form of physical violence for their writing. Of course, at the same time, much work remains to be done by the media themselves in terms of professional reporting and for that it is necessary to improve media self-regulation. Finally, civil society is a vibrant part of every healthy democracy and it is important to create conditions for a more efficient cooperation between the government and the non-governmental sector because Montenegro must use all its know-how and human resources to overcome all these challenges.

In parallel to meeting the commitments related to political criteria and the already well-known Chapters 23 and 24, the negotiation process requires wide-ranging reforms in many different fields which ­­are aimed at helping the candidate country to prepare to take on the obligations of membership. These reforms will demand significant legislative and policy adjustments, but also significant resources which will need to be invested in achieving EU standards in certain areas covered by the acquis

The challenges ahead are many and all accession countries still have a long way to go in getting ready to become full members of the EU – both in terms of being able to handle obligations of membership and exploiting the benefits of being a part of the Union. In this context, the EU integration is much more than ticking the boxes from the EU agenda. It requires a lot of work and continuous dedication to irreversible reforms.Iam confident that the reforms are going in the right direction and the European Union will continue supporting Montenegro in all these endeavors.

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Seat of Delegation of the European Union in Montenegro in Podgorica

EWB: How is the adoption of European standards, regardless of the integration of Montenegro into the EU, important for the citizens of Montenegro?

MD: The accession negotiations with Montenegro offer new opportunities for the Montenegrin citizens to learn more about the EU, its values, history, organisation, policies, practices and membership benefits. Successful completion of this process, which the EU has been supporting through significant technical assistance to the country and its citizens, will lead Montenegro to full membership in the EU.

It is important to underline that the reforms implemented in Montenegro in the framework of negotiations for EU membership are being implemented primarily for the sake of Montenegrin citizens – be it students, pensioners, workers, entrepreneurs or any other category. This is a clear message we wish to convey. Of course, there is a technical aspect of this matter if we talk about the alignment of national legislation with the acquis. However, even in this case, the accent is on the citizens and how they may benefit from such an improved legal framework. To give you a concrete example, I wish to highlight the adoption of amendments to the anti-discrimination law which brought Montenegrin legislation in this area almost fully in line with the acquis. At the same time, this improved legal text now provides better protection to all Montenegrin citizens from discrimination and that is what counts the most. Adopting EU standards in the field of environment may seem technical and costly, but it is in the interest of people living in this country to have a clean, safe and well-protected environment in order to enjoy the benefits of beautiful rivers, sea, lakes, mountains. It is also profitable, for example, if you look at the possibilities recycling offers in terms of generating income while simultaneously being good for the environment. Adopting EU standards in terms of food safety and quality will allow Montenegrin products to reach the single market consisting of more than 500 million consumers. These are just some of the examples of how the adoption of European standards brings benefits to citizens.

To put this story in a wider regional context, we must remember that the EU is committed to taking forward the enlargement to include all countries of the Western Balkans because we see this process as crucial for achieving prosperity, security and stability, a process which contributes to regional cooperation and reconciliation – and what is more beneficial to citizens than being able to live in peace. It should not be forgotten that one of the greatest successes of the process of European integration has been the consolidation of peace in an area that experienced devastating warfare on its soil.

EWB: What do you consider to be especially important for further integration of Montenegro in the EU?

MD: As I mentioned earlier, we encourage and fully support the authorities in continuing with the ongoing reforms. While the focus is on the rule of law challenges, the period ahead of us will require increased efforts in other spheres as well that will be equally if not even more challenging – for instance in the field of environment or agriculture. Because of the complexity of all these reforms, it is important that both the EU and Montenegro are together on this mission to bring the country closer to membership because that is the only recipe to achieve the necessary standards.

EWB: Thank you Y.E. for your time. European Western Balkans wishes you very best in your future activities in Montenegro and elsewhere for European Union.

Authors: Nemanja Todorović Štiplija and Nikola Ristić