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Four years of EU accession talks progress only on paper?

Four years after the opening of negotiations with the European Union, we mark the results with the opening of two thirds of 35 chapters. Yet, counting is one thing, but the reality is something else altogether. Many analysts don't see tangible results that should have followed the standards we allegedly adopted. The question is also whether the citizens have experienced any improvements. Nonetheless, our interviewees agree that legislative alignment with the European Union rules is clearly visible in some of the chapters.

Mitja Drobnič, Head of the EU Delegation to Montenegro, recently said that “Montenegro took some important legislative steps in the previous year and made further progress in institution building, especially in the area of the rule of law. From these two angles, progress is visible, and what we now expect are the tangible results, the so-called track record… Our impression is that the country is currently heading in that direction, which is important not only for the process of European integration, but above all for the citizens of Montenegro and for attracting foreign investors”. “When we speak about the transformative process of EU integration, the journey is as important as the destination, or in this case – the date of accession. The citizens believe that, even before the accession, this process opens up many opportunities ,” Drobnič said. The EU is one of the largest donors in Montenegro, with more than EUR 235 million already previously invested through the EU’s funds in the period 2007- 2013. Another EUR 270 million have been allocated to the country in the following

The EU is one of the largest donors in Montenegro, with more than EUR 235 million already previously invested through the EU’s funds in the period 2007- 2013. Another EUR 270 million have been allocated to the country in the following seven year period. The process of European integration brings tangible benefits to the Montenegrin citizens that they can feel in their everyday lives, said Drobnič, bringing up the examples such as toy safety. Though this may seem too technical, it practically means that parents can rest assured that their children will be safer when they play with the toys that are produced in line with the strict health and safety standards. He also mentioned the example of the modernisation of BarVrbnica railroad, which significantly reduced travel time and increased the safety of the Montenegrin part of the Belgrade-Bar railroad. The EU had also recently provided up-to-date equipment to the Institute for blood transfusion. Students have been using the benefits of Erasmus+ programme ever more frequently to attend courses at the universities in the EU. Drobnič explained that “the progress regarding alignment is assessed separately for each individual chapter. It is obvious that there are differences between the level of

Drobnič explained that “the progress regarding alignment is assessed separately for each individual chapter. It is obvious that there are differences between the level of alignment in different areas”. He also warned that the key to the success of this process is a public administration capable of responding to the challenges posed by the European integration, i.e. functional, stable and professional institutions.

State secretary for European integration and chief negotiator, ambassador Aleksandar Andrija Pejović, told European pulse that “if we take into account the fact that we have been negotiating for only four years, as well as that we are conducting the negotiations in line with the new, more rigorous approach, I am sure that we can be very satisfied with the results so far. We opened 24 chapters, another six are ready to be opened, and we are completing preparations for the opening of another three. In addition to this, in a number of opened chapters we already meet the conditions necessary to close them. We conducted comprehensive reforms in the legislative and institutional part, we have significantly enhanced our administrative capacities by adopting the missing knowledge and practices, and by enriching the existing ones. High quality solutions in almost all areas are already yielding visible results in practice, making a positive impact on the life and work of our citizens, and bringing us closer to the quality of life of the EU citizens”. The new approach to negotiations, Pejović said, created an important new challenge of developing detailed and comprehensive action plans for the chapters 23 and 24: “We used the action plans to define the measures and activities to meet 83 provisional benchmarks which we received for these chapters. The extent of our success is reflected in the fact that the rate of implementation of these action plans exceeds 80%, and that we expect to soon receive the final benchmarks and begin the work on the provisional closure of these chapters”.

As for the concrete benefits so far to the citizens of Montenegro, Pejović said that the freedom of movement of goods has already given citizens more choice in the selection of consumer products, as well as better quality and lower prices: “In the area of information society and media as well, we now have cheaper, faster and more secure access to the Internet. Reforms under chapter 12 gave us better and safer transport and better energy supply. The results of reforms in chapter 28 – Consumer and health protection – provided us with have safer products and better quality of health services. Also, our young people have better access to education and scholarships at the universities of EU member states, which was gained by concluding chapter 25 – Education and culture”. Pejović insists that the benefits will become more visible as the process unfolds: “This is why it is so important to prepare ourselves well ahead of the membership, not only to fulfil the future obligations, but also to make the best use of the benefits offered by the membership of this club.”

Due to the central position occupied by the rule of law in the process of negotiations, Pejović announced that most attention in the future will be on the implementation of commitments from chapters 23 and 24, but also noted that he expects more effort will be needed in chapters 1 (Free movement of goods), 8 (Competition policy), 11 (Agriculture and rural development), 12 (Food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy) and 27 (Environment). These are the chapters with the most extensive legal acquis, and which require sizeable administrative and financial investments. The chief negotiator clarified that the improvement of administrative capacities is one of the basic prerequisites for the accession to the Union. “The lack of administrative capacities is not a Montenegrin specialty. On the contrary, it burdened nearly every country in the process of accession to the EU. This is exactly why the EU added the criteria relating to institutional and administrative capacities to the original three Copenhagen criteria. Montenegrin administration is small, and yet in the process of negotiations we encounter the same commitments and challenges that had been posed to the larger states with much bigger administrations. Even so, at every stage of the European integration so far, we have demonstrated that we have developed institutions and quality staff to meet every challenge of this process. There are many well trained, professional individuals not only in the public administration, but also in the Parliament, the judiciary and the civil sector, who poses specific knowledge and experience necessary for making progress on particular negotiation chapters. There is of course always room for improvement, and we continue to work on that, especially through training programmes and expert and technical support of the member states”. According to Pejović, the building of administrative capacities and of an efficient and responsible public administration is not only our obligation and a requirement of membership in the EU, but part of an internal need to have strong institutions and high quality officials who will ensure that all processes and policies, as well as the necessary reforms in the country are implemented effectively and efficiently.

Marijana Laković Drašković, general director of Directorate for judiciary in the Ministry of Justice and head of the Working group for the preparation and conduct of negotiations on chapter 23, stressed that with the new set of laws on court organisation the changes of the judicial system that began with Amendments to the Constitution on July 2013 had been completed, and that the country is now facing the challenge of implementing all the novelties brought by these laws. Laković Drašković noted that the Prosecutorial council had appointed a Chief Special Prosecutor in June 2015, alongside eight special prosecutors, and filled out the two remaining posts in June 2016. “Efficiency was improved by significantly reducing the backlog of cases, as a consequence of a series of activities, including transferring judges to the courts with backlogs, delegation of cases, application of alternative methods of conflict resolution, especially mediation and postponement of prosecution. The start of implementation of the new Code on criminal procedure which introduced the institution of prosecutorial investigation, as well as the Law on misdemeanours and the application of misdemeanor warrants also contributed to the efficiency of the judiciary. A comprehensive reform of the judiciary resulted in great improvements in the quality and quantity of criminal legislation. Hence, Montenegro made significant progress in the previous period in aligning its criminal legislation with the European and international standards”, Laković Drašković concluded.

According to her, all these processes took place according to the plans for the rationalisation of the court network, which were adopted on grounds of three analyses of the need for rationalisation. The analyses were adopted by the Government of Montenegro in 2009, 2013 and 2015, respectively. “The institutions are very dedicated to the implementation of legislative innovations created by the organisational laws that came into force on 1 January 2016, and this dedication has been recognised by the European Commission. Strengthening of administrative capacities and the quality of cooperation between institutions in the following period are prerequisites for further improvement of these legislative innovations. The most challenging will be the measures to rationalise the network of courts and establish a single information system for the judiciary, the State Prosecution, the Ministry of Justice and the Institute for the for Execution of Criminal Sanctions. In the upcoming period we should continue with the strengthening of public bailiff services, which will require additional work on the legal framework, as well as monitoring of the notary and bailiff activities. We should also continue with the work to ensure that the Training Centre for judiciary and State Prosecution will become fully operational, by providing adequate space and staff ,” Laković Drašković said.

Fight against the corruption is one of the key preconditions for further integration into the EU. Laković Drašković reminds that a number of steps have been taken in that direction, such as the changes to the Code on criminal procedure of June 2016 and the adoption of the Law on the management of seized property that had been criminally acquired of September 2015, and especially the establishment of Agency for the prevention of corruption as a central, independent, preventive anticorruption body that brought under a single roof the competencies and capacities of the former Administration for anticorruption initiative, Commission for the prevention of the conflict of interest and some competencies of the State Election Commission, in particular those related to the financing of political parties and election campaigns. Regarding fundamental rights, Laković Drašković notes that greater emphasis was placed on the implementation of those activities and projects that improve the status of minority groups, prevent the discrimination, but also improve the overall protection of human rights and freedoms. “Notable progress was made in the protection of members of the LGBT population. Montenegro organised four Pride parades so far – the latest was organised in December 2015, and passed without incidents. In the coming period, we should work more on raising the awareness of the citizens at the local level, as well as of the practitioners, to advance the rights of LGBT persons. It is also important to work on the education of police officers and prison staff at the local level, to improve the treatment of prisoners and prevention of torture”, Laković Drašković said.

Ana Nenezić, coordinator of the European integration programme at the Centre for Civic Education (CCE), believes that Montenegro made certain technical progress in the negotiations so far, which is reflected in the number of opened and provisionally closed chapters. However, Nenezić believes that more could and should have been done. “The much announced comprehensive social reform that Marijana Laković Drašković 9 European pulse Focus of this issue was supposed to bring progress in all areas is still intangible to the citizens of Montenegro. Even though we prepared and adopted a number of quality laws and strategies, established new and strengthened some of the existing institutions, concrete results are still lacking,” Nenezić said. According to her, the negotiation process was accompanied by a lot of optimism from the get-go, which further raised the citizens’ expectations. “Now, more than ever, the public expects concrete and tangible results, although Montenegro had only taken the very first steps towards full membership of the EU. It would appear that the conflict between the lightly promised speed and the complexity and difficulty of the process for which the authorities were not prepared caused some fatigue within administration. There is also the added burden of the continuous internal political crisis, of accumulated economic and social problems, as well as of the latest developments within the EU. All of this takes a toll on the speed of negotiations with the EU, but it should not be an alibi for the lack of results” Nenezić stressed out.

As for progress, she agrees that some improvement was achieved with regard to the rule of law, through the establishment of the Special Prosecution, which already produced some tangible results. “On the other hand, we had greater expectations from the Agency for anticorruption, which should have become the cornerstone in the fight against the corruption. Six month later, however, we can already see that political interference and questionable administrative solutions will ensure that these expectations are not met and that results of this new institution will be very limited,” Nenezić said. She added that for now the citizens cannot experience much improvement in their everyday lives, because the adopted documents are not being adequately implemented. In her opinion, the political will and commitment to implement this process properly are crucial. “The deeper we go into this process, the more the monopolies of authority dissipate and are replaced by a system based on the rule of law and strong and independent institutions, free of political influence. It is obvious that there will be resistance from those who thrived on the manipulation of institutions, and this is why they spend more time talking about the problems within the EU then investigating responsibility for our own failures meet the commitments we undertook on the path to the EU”. It is also reasonable to ask whether Montenegro can meet the financial challenges of the accession process. “The current economic situation, with high levels of debt, unsustainable public finances, and high unemployment gives good reasons to suspect that we cannot successfully carry out this very expensive process. It is enough to just remember the chapters on agriculture and environment, which we know are the most demanding and difficult to negotiate, as well as very expensive”, Nenezić said.

She especially stressed the role of NGO sector in the accession process: “Montenegro is the first country to involve NGO representatives in the working groups for the preparation and conduct of negotiations, which is of course commendable, and, in a formal sense, it is a step towards better cooperation between the civil sector and the state. However, when we examine the experience of cooperation in the previous four years, one gets the impression that this was rather a forced move to get a “tick” from the EC, rather than genuine desire to improve cooperation. A good illustration is the fact that WG members from the ranks of the NGOs do not have the access to important documents such as the EC’s comments on the key laws and reports of its expert missions to Montenegro. Another is the establishment of the Council for the rule of law, which took over coordination of the process in the most significant chapters 23 and 24, and whose sessions are closed to the public and unavailable for representatives of the civil society. This is a clear step backward and does not contribute to the transparency of the process,” Nenezić said.

Author: Svetlana Pešić

This article was originally published in the European Pulse, issued by Center for Civic Education. You can find the original article here.