The EU-Montenegro Stabilisation and Association Council (SA Council) held its sixth meeting on Monday 22 June 2015. This meeting was chaired by Mr Igor LUKŠIĆ, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Montenegro, who also led the delegation of Montenegro. Mr Edgars RINKĒVIČS, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia, led the European Union delegation (on behalf of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini), with Mr Johannes HAHN, Commissioner responsible for Enlargement Negotiations and European Neighbourhood Policy, representing the European Commission.
The SA Council meeting provided a timely opportunity to review Montenegro’s progress in its preparations for accession and to consider priorities for further work within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.
The SA Council noted with satisfaction that continued, overall progress in the context of the accession negotiations had been made. The SA Council welcomed the outcome of the Intergovernmental Conference which had taken place earlier the same day and noted that, overall, twenty negotiating chapters had now been opened, while two chapters had been provisionally closed.
The SA Council reviewed the state of Montenegro’s preparations for accession, particularly in the light of the Commission’s 2014 Progress Report, encouraging Montenegro to continue working on challenges and shortcomings identified during the preparations for accession, as well as further developing the necessary administrative capacity. The SA Council particularly welcomed the revisions of the Action Plans for Chapters 23 and 24 made by Montenegro in February 2015.
Concerning the Copenhagen political criteria, the SA Council acknowledged efforts made by Montenegro, while noting a need for continued further efforts as regards, in particular, the effective implementation of reforms in a number of key areas, inter alia, in order to be able to register further tangible results in the fight against corruption and organised crime.
With further particular regard to the political criteria, including the protection of human, civil and political rights as well as of social and economic rights, the defence of the rights of LGBTI persons, the protection of women’s rights and gender equality, the protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities, the SA Council generally welcomed progress made while encouraging Montenegro to step up efforts and address remaining shortcomings, ensuring that the reform momentum would be maintained and strengthened.
The SA Council recalled that, in line with the new approach for the chapters on judiciary and fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security, both these areas were now being addressed early on in the negotiations, The assessment of the progress of Montenegro in the implementation of the now revised Action Plans for chapters 23 and 24 confirmed that many activities were being conducted according to the deadlines set, but also that some important measures had been delayed. The SA Council encouraged Montenegro to pay further attention to the development of more tangible results and track records in the area of rule of law, in particular with regard to organised crime and corruption cases.
With regard to judicial reform, the SA Council welcomed that the main part of the legislative work had been completed. It was noted that reforms now had reached the stage where pro-active institutions with appropriate resources would be required to bring about expected results and to ensure the full implementation of reforms. The SA Council noted that further sustained efforts would be needed for this step and encouraged Montenegro to continue and intensify its implementation efforts.
With regard to the accountability and integrity of the judiciary, the SA Council welcomed the recent adoption of four new laws expected to strengthen the independence and the professionalism of the judiciary. Continued efforts should be devoted to furthering these reform efforts, as well as on generally increasing the efficiency of the judiciary. The SA Council also looked forward to the formal establishment of the new Special Prosecutor’s Office, expecting it to cooperate effectively with the police and to adopt a pro-active approach. The need to provide this new body with adequate resources was also underlined.
The SA Council looked forward to Montenegro developing an initial track record of investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in cases of corruption and organised crime. In this regard, the SA Council looked forward to the timely establishment of the new Anti-Corruption Agency, expected to be fully operational by January 2016, while noting the onus on existing bodies to ensure the effective implementation of the relevant legislation already today. The importance of carrying out effective financial investigations, including seizure and confiscation of assets, in parallel to criminal investigations of, particularly, organised crime was also underlined. Furthermore, the SA Council underlined the importance of ensuring a more pro-active approach with regard to the domestic handling of war crimes in line with humanitarian law and the jurisprudence of the ICTY, to ensure the quality of indictments, as well as to guarantee access to justice and reparation for the victims of war crimes.
In the field of the public administration, the SA Council welcomed, inter alia, the on-going efforts to strengthen the mechanism for the implementation of the overall public administration reform strategy, and encouraged Montenegro to prepare for the full implementation of the new law on general administrative procedures. Generally, the SA Council underlined the importance of administrative capacity in view of the future effective implementation and enforcement of the EU acquis, and strongly encouraged Montenegro to pursue and accelerate the reform process to achieve a more efficient public administration.
The SA Council noted some challenges that Montenegro had been facing, in particular with regard to the so-called “Audio recordings Affair”, as well as the need to effectively guarantee the freedom of media. The SA Council called for further efforts to be devoted to resolving these issues. With regard to media freedom, the SA Council called for an urgent follow up on the recommendations by the commission monitoring the authorities’ actions in the investigations and prosecutions of cases of violence against the media, as well as for full support for the commission’s work.
The SA Council commended Montenegro for its continued strong commitment to regional cooperation and its constructive role in maintaining regional stability. It also welcomed the active participation, and co-initiation, of Montenegro in numerous regional initiatives in South Eastern Europe and the good neighbourly and bilateral relations it entertained with other enlargement countries and EU Member States. The SA Council encouraged Montenegro to continue working towards finding mutually acceptable solutions to the pending border issues with other countries of the Western Balkans, and looked forward to the signing of the border agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The SA Council warmly welcomed Montenegro’s full alignment with Council decisions and EU declarations in the area of foreign, security and defence policy, and in particular with the EU positions on Ukraine.
Concerning the economic criteria, the SA Council welcomed that Montenegro’s growth recovery had continued in 2014 and supported the government’s efforts to improve the fiscal situation, and to reduce the informal economy. Montenegro’s submission in January 2015 of its first Economic Reform Program (ERP) as part of the enhanced dialogue with the European Commission on economic governance was also welcomed. The SA Council invited Montenegro to ensure a close and timely follow-up to the policy guidance provided in the joint conclusions of the Economic and Financial Dialogue, adopted on 12 May between the EU ECOFIN Council and the Western Balkans and Turkey. The SA Council, however, noted that Montenegro faced certain challenges in economic competitiveness, that external imbalances needed to be reduced and that the unemployment rate remained very high.
Welcoming steps already taken, the SA Council encouraged Montenegro to continue efforts to improve economic competitiveness through further diversification of the economy, by broadening the export base, and through continued improvement of the business environment.
The SA Council welcomed the continued progress made by Montenegro in aligning its legislation and capacity with European standards, EU acquis and in implementing its commitments under the trade and trade-related provisions of the SAA. The SA Council noted the importance of generally strengthening Montenegro’s administrative capacity, in order to adequately tackle challenges in a number of areas. In most areas, there had been some progress, and in some cases a high level of alignment could be welcomed, even if much remained to be done. The SA Council encouraged Montenegro to make further efforts, devoting particular attention to a number of issues which had been identified in the various areas under review.
The SA Council reviewed the situation with regard to pre-accession financial assistance, provided by the EU through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA I and II). It welcomed in particular Montenegro’s ratification of the Framework Agreement and the submission of the request for entrustment of budget implementation, which paved the way for the start of the implementation of IPA II. The SA Council encouraged Montenegro to continue its efforts regarding the sector approach and the strengthening of its multi-annual strategic planning capacity, and welcomed progress made in preparing the action plan for the management of the future cohesion and structural funds.
The SA Council also examined the state of bilateral relations under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA). It welcomed in this regard entry into force, on 1 December 2014, of the Protocol to the SAA in order to take account of Croatia’s accession to the EU, which had been applied on a provisional basis since 1 July 2013. The SA Council also welcomed Montenegro’s continued positive track record in implementing its obligations under the SAA, including its trade related provisions, since the entry to force in 1 May 2010, while noting that further alignment still was required with regard to State aid procedures.
The SA Council noted Montenegro’s active participation in a number of EU programmes, and warmly encouraged Montenegro to continue this participation also for the future.
Finally the SA Council had an exchange of views concerning recent developments in the Western Balkans region.