Milo Đukanović and Johannes Hahn; Photo: European Union

PODGORICA – In accession negotiations with Montenegro still needs to open only the Chapter concerning competition policy. The number of opened Chapters (32) and provisionally closed Chapters (3) makes this country the undisputed informal leader of the Western Balkans in the process of European integration.

However, this year’s European Commission report does not give much room for optimism for the so-called “frontrunner”, because despite the progress in the field of basic rights, public administration reform, the involvement of civil society organizations in the decision-making process and the growth of the economy, there was also concern over low confidence in the electoral process, fragmentation of the political and media scene, lack of political dialogue, and the existence of corruption in many areas, with the lack of progress in the field of freedom of speech.

Opposition or “Envelope” – who bears responsibility for “progress”?

Unlike the EU, which warns of the unsatisfactory fulfillment of political criteria for membership, Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović said that the report does not contain any surprises and that it is a confirmation of the country’s leadership position. The most powerful political figure in Montenegro, explains that weaker results are due to the already implemented reforms in the previous period.

This opinion is shared by the Deputy Chief Negotiator of Montenegro and the European Union, Marko Mrdak, who sees the report as realistic. He thinks that “the closer the candidate country is to the membership, the criteria that come from European addresses are stricter because it is expected from the state to soon transition into a way of functioning that is completely similar to the structure of advanced European countries.”

Unlike the Government representative, for Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon network and a member of the BiPAG group, this year’s report is, above all, sharper and more concrete.

“These grades are expected, and the way the European Commission presents them could be even more concrete,” concludes Marović.

Brussels has focused its criticism on the low level of confidence in the election process, as well as the lack of political dialogue, reflected in the partial boycott of the Assembly by the opposition since the end of 2016. The criticism has also been influenced by the affairs that are linked to the Montenegrin authorities, such as the “Envelope” affair.

This affair of illegal donations to the ruling party has shaken the Montenegrin political scene, and the clear linking of its solution to the strengthening of citizens’ confidence in the electoral process is evidence that it has not been done enough in this field, explains Marović. She adds that Montenegro can not progress further in the process until it shows clear determination and concrete results in solving such cases.

On the other hand, Mrdak argues that the opposition is the side that rejects the dialogue, which in turn causes the lack of confidence in the electoral process. He reminds that a parliamentary committee which deals with changes in electoral law was formed on the initiative of the opposition – but so far, it has not yielded any tangible results.

“The opposition does not send a good message when it refuses to cooperate within the framework it has itself initiated,” claims Mrdak.

There is also no progress when it comes freedom of expression, it is stated in the EU Commission’s Report. Jovana Marović says that this is only confirmation of what was reported by Reporters Without Borders. Montenegro is currently on 104 out of 190 countries on the media freedom index.

However, government and civil society have opposite view on how to improve this situation. While Jovana Marović believes that it is necessary to work on reducing media pressures and to resolve cases of violence against journalists, Mrdak claims that  remarks about the violence refers to the cases from the past and that the country is recording better results with the cases in previous year.

“During 2018, we had 4 cases of assaults on journalists, of which 3 cases were resolved by final convictions, while the fourth case –  an attack on a female  journalist – is in the criminal proceedings,” said Mrdak and adds that the Government is also working on the drafting of three media laws, which should improve the media environment – the Law on Media, the Law on National Public Broadcaster and the Law on Electronic Media. He reminded that all regulations will be fully harmonized with the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the European Commission, which will further enhance the professionalism and independence of the media.

How to close key Chapters?

Despite the fact that Montenegro, according to the latest EC report, has not made significant progress in key areas and that political dialogue is in a state of crisis, Mrdak thinks that it is expected that Montenegro will soon open the remaining Chapter 8 – Competition Policy. According to him, the conditions for its opening were met even during the last year. Mrdak believes that all chapters will be opened, but stressed that the key moment of the negotiation process lies in obtaining reports on the fulfillment of the Interim benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24 – a signal to the state that the negotiations entered the final phase.

“By obtaining the closing benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24, Montenegro would get a new energy and perspective, and we would know which last steps we need to complete in order to close these key chapters,” Mrdak said.

From the civil society perspective, Jovana Marović believes that Montenegro has not achieved significant results in fulfilling interim benchmarks for Chapter 23 and 24 so far, and that the fulfillment of technical conditions will not be sufficient for obtaining the closing benchmarks.

“The European Commission has pointed out that it is necessary to move from the technical level to essential and measurable results, to eliminate political influence on the work of institutions and also to ensure impartial application of the law,” warns Marović.

As an illustrative example of the situation in the area of the rule of law and the functioning of institutions, Marović mentions the construction of the highway through Montenegro from Bar to Boljare. This project is financed by Chinese funds and implemented by a Chinese company. She points out that the entire project is marked by a lack of transparency and numerous controversies, which she claims polarizes Montenegrin society in terms of benefits and damages from such a project.

“Lack of rule of law has affected the negotiating capacity of the Government in contracting this deal and now high public debt can also affect the state’s ability to repay the loan,” Marović highlighted as the main problems of this project. She also added that there is currently political influence of China that could jeopardize the European agenda of Montenegro.

Although it was not explicitly mentioned in the report – Chinese influence was mentioned by Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations,  at the presentation of the EC reports for the Western Balkans 6.

On the other hand, Mrdak pointed out that there is no significant Chinese investments in Montenegro. He explained that the investor in the project of the highway is Government of Montenegro, while the Chinese side is responsible for carrying out works and securing loan, which at that moment was the most favorable on the market.

“First we asked European institutions for the loan. However, as the Government did not received proposal of sufficient amount, we have obtained a loan on the international market. China has offered the best conditions that we have accepted from the economic and social interests, bearing in mind that the highway will contribute to the more dynamic development of Montenegro and will develop potentials of the north of country,” Mrdak says.

He added that in order to improve infrastructure, the Berlin Process is of the great importance, as a European initiative created to give additional impetus to the accession process by strengthening the relations of the Western Balkan states.

“The initiative came in the right moment to financially support infrastructure projects that contribute to a better connectivity between the countries of the region and where significant financial resources are required,” Mrdak explains.

Marović agrees that the process itself is a positive signal for improving cooperation in the region. However, she warns that the concrete results of the process are modest and that it is necessary to “improve it’s visibility and transparency, redefine goals, improve reporting and monitoring commitments.”

Chapter on Competition Policy has not been opened during the meeting of Council of EU in June. However, given the slow pace of the reforms of the second-placed Serbia, Montenegro remains with a consolation prize – a leader in the group of less successful countries in the Western Balkans, with a long and dedicated work ahead in meeting the essential criteria about achieving democratic standards.