The leading country in the EU enlargement process; the poster child of the Western Balkans; a good news story – These are all epithets that have been ascribed to Montenegro to describe its ongoing bid to join the European Union, and as Standing Rapporteur for Montenegro in the European Parliament for a second term they are sentiments that I share.
Having now opened sixteen of the negotiating chapters and provisionally closed two, Montenegro is far ahead in the regatta of any of its peers in the region. These chapters included the all-important Chapters 23 and 24, which now underpin the entire accession process as part of the overall balance clause, as well as Chapter 31 regarding foreign policy. In this regard, I particularly welcome Montenegro’s efforts and note that it has fully aligned its position with EU Member States in applying economic sanctions against Russia in response to the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Similarly, Montenegro is supporting the coalition against ISIS and has proposed a law criminalising those who join foreign, non-state actor militant groups.
The Commission’s Progress Report highlights a number of areas where Montenegro has made progress and the joint resolution to be voted on by the Parliament this week echoes much of that. The election of Ivica Stanković in October last year as the Supreme State Prosecutor, after a process lasting eighteen months, is a particular success. As a key part of Montenegro’s judicial reform overcoming the obstacles in the election process has symbolic value and should be used as the basis for pushing ahead with further reform of the wider judicial system, particularly in terms of the appointment process, career development and disciplinary procedures for judges.
As we look forward to 2015 there are a number of areas where Montenegro is able to build on existing progress. As is noted in the Progress Report, incidents of violence against journalists and media premises have continued but this year has seen a decrease in the number of those incidents and I am pleased that the Parliament’s resolution has noted this fact. The Government has set up a commission to investigate such incidents and it will be important to see those recommendations implemented.
Ensuring a free press is not only of value in its own right but is also vital in Montenegro’s battle against corruption. Much has been achieved at the legislative level with laws adopted on anti-corruption, lobbying, public procurement and removing conflicts of interests. It will now be important in the coming years to support the implementation of those laws. With this in mind, the Agency for Anti-Corruption should take a proactive approach and should be provided with sufficient funds to do so. A free press which pursues all avenues of investigative journalism that is able to observe the implementation of those laws and highlight cases where they are falling short is invaluable and can contribute much to the fight against corruption.
As Montenegro works towards joining the EU, it should not be forgotten that it is also working to become a member of NATO and 2015 has the potential to be the year that Montenegro is invited to join the alliance. Montenegro is working towards reaching the 2% of GDP threshold for defence spending in the medium term and I fully support their membership.
Montenegro’s commitment to the EU accession process is strong and it will be important to retain cross-party support for this regardless of splits on domestic issues. The European Acquis sets tough benchmarks for membership and there is still much to do before Montenegro can meet all of the criteria but is remains on the right track to doing so. As the country moves towards elections in 2016, it is important that the focus this year remains on fighting corruption and organised crime, improving the rule of law and bolstering press freedom.
Author: Charles Tannock MEP, European Parliament Rapporteur on Montenegro
Photo: European Parliament