Montenegro welcomed 2020 with growing tensions, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is in an election year as well, however, the opposition announced boycott of the upcoming elections scheduled for August. In the meantime, Montenegro announced its intention to accept the new EU enlargement methodology which was adopted in March.

European Western Balkans talked with Deputy Chief Negotiator for Montenegro’s Accession to the EU Marko Mrdak about the current events and whether they would have consequences for the European path of Montenegro, which is considered to be a frontrunner in European integration.

European Western Balkans: Montenegro recently decided to accept the new EU enlargement methodology. What changes can we expect and what will the new methodology bring to Montenegro?

Marko Mrdak: The new methodology itself can neither slow down nor speed up the process of joining the European Union, but it provides a solid platform that can be very stimulating for intensifying reform processes and enriching communication with EU institutions and member states. When it comes to Montenegro, in technical terms, the new methodology does not introduce a significant change compared to the current course of the negotiation process, but in political terms it reflects the readiness to, through a more intense dialogue with member states, develop our system and society more effectively during the EU accession process.

In negotiations, it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between the technical and political part, but in principle, the most obvious novelties in technical terms are the clusters and structure of the EC report with clear indicators and responsibilities for all chapters. In political terms, we can single out the significant involvement of member states in all phases of negotiations, more frequent summits, ministerial contacts, annual intergovernmental conferences. The novelty is both positive and negative conditionality during the negotiation process – on the one hand, the possibility of greater use of financial benefits offered by accession negotiations in case of more noticeable results achieved by the candidate country, and on the other – the possibility of stopping negotiations, as well as limited financial support in case of significant setbacks in reforms.

When it comes to the area of ​​rule of law and Chapters 23 and 24, the new methodology does not make a significant difference in relation to the current negotiation process in Montenegro. Namely, in accordance with the New Approach to negotiations, Montenegro is already negotiating according to the strictest criteria that place the rule of law at the core of the integration process, so everything prescribed by the new methodology is something that Montenegro is already implementing on a daily basis.

EWB: Montenegro has opened all chapters except Chapter 8 (Competition). How does the opening of the last chapter fit into the new methodology and when can we expect it to open?

MM: The opening of negotiations in the last remaining unopened negotiation chapter – 8 (Competition), comes at the end of a lengthy process of fulfillment, and then, verification of fulfillment of the five initial benchmarks by the European Commission and EU Member States.

We are in the phase of waiting for the final agreement of the member states on the proposal of the joint negotiating position of the EC for this chapter, which would also confirm the fulfillment of conditions for opening negotiations in this area, and we hope to get it this year.

As this is a procedure, which in its previous duration, is identical to the opening of negotiations in the chapters with initial criteria, we do not expect that the fact that Montenegro agreed to the new methodology will have a significant effect on the opening of the last negotiation chapter.

EWB: Given the months-long tensions between Montenegro and Serbia and the fact that Freedom House has classified Montenegro as a “hybrid regime”, what comments can Montenegro expect in this year’s European Commission’s progress report, announced for September?

MM: I have no doubt that the EC’s comments in this year’s report for Montenegro, as before, will be a good signpost for the future steps we need to take in this area. As you know, the annual report is not the only mechanism by which the EU, through the EC, monitors and analyzes progress in rule of law reforms. Moreover, the assessments from the European address so far have been mostly balanced and objective, so I am convinced that this time it will be the same.

In this context, I would like to point out in particular the importance of the non-paper for the area of ​​the rule of law, which the European Commission presented to the member states last week. It is an objective mechanism for assessing the reform efforts that Montenegro has invested in improving the overall situation in the field of rule of law. The assessments from this analysis encourage us that we are one step closer to establishing the balance of results necessary to meet the provisional benchmarks, and thus to enter the next phase of the negotiation process with the European Union.

In this regard, we are particularly pleased with the EC’s findings that the initial results balance in the field of fight against human trafficking has been consolidated and that the balance of results in the field of combating money laundering has been further developed.

Also, again, as in the case of the previous non-paper, the active participation of Montenegro in international police cooperation was highlighted, which resulted in successful operations against organized criminal groups. On the other hand, I would like to emphasize that our efforts are aimed at continuous improvement of the overall system of the rule of law, so in the coming period the special focus of the Government and all state bodies will be on eliminating the identified systemic weaknesses in this area.

We analyzed with equal interest the report of the prestigious think-tank organization Freedom House on the state of democracy in the world. We believe that as a NATO member and a leader in the process of European integration, we are better in relation to certain findings of the FH report, but we will pay very serious attention to those segments that did not deserve the expected assessment.

However, it is not unimportant to mention that the numerical assessments in the FH report on our country remained unchanged compared to the previous year in five important areas: democratic governance at the national level, democratic governance at the local level, electoral process, independent media and civil society. The only two areas in which there was a decline of 0.25 index points each are the judicial framework and the independence of the judiciary and corruption. Given that the average score for Montenegro this year was 3.86, and the threshold is 4.00, that either of these two areas managed to maintain last year’s rating, which means 0.25 points more, Montenegro would find itself in a group of 11 consolidated and semi-consolidated post-communist democracies, with 4.11 index points. And as the only non-EU member as well.

In any case, whether we agree or not, we take into account all assessments and criticisms with the utmost good faith and try to form from them the broadest and clearest possible picture of how to continue the initiated reform processes more effectively and efficiently.

EWB: One of the conditions for a candidate country to join the European Union are fully implemented reforms. How would you assess Montenegro’s progress so far in implementing reforms, especially in the areas of rule of law and the fight against corruption, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration?

MM: I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that we do not see the negotiation process with the European Union as a goal itself, but as an opportunity to improve the living standards of Montenegrin citizens through comprehensive reform activities and the adoption of European values ​​and best practices. In this regard, building a stable system of the rule of law in which citizens will have a sense of full legal security and be able to enjoy human rights and freedoms is of paramount importance, both for our European path and for the overall democratic and economic development of the country. There is a clear awareness in the state administration of Montenegro about the importance of reforms in this area and, based on it, a strong commitment to implement the reforms to the end.

The complexity of the reform process is best reflected in the fact that most of the provisional benchmarks in Chapters 23 and 24 have been met so far, with about 80 systemic laws enacted and amended, all in order to align with the EU acquis and the highest European standards. The legislative framework in the area of judiciary has been reformed and new institutional mechanisms for the fight against corruption and organized crime have been established, primarily through the establishment of the Agency for Prevention of Corruption and the Special State Prosecutor’s Office.

The full commitment of the relevant institutions is reflected in the measurable results achieved on the ground in all areas relevant to the rule of law. The best confirmation of the success of the implemented reforms is the fact that the initial balance of results has been established in the fight against high-level corruption and in certain areas of organized crime such as money laundering, financial investigations, temporary confiscation of property acquired through criminal activity.

In this context, I would say that it is a very tangible fact that 32.5 million euros were returned to the community in the previous period on the basis of a plea agreement in cases of corruption and organized crime. At the same time, there is a constant growth of seized drugs, and Montenegro’s active participation in international police cooperation results in successful operations against organized criminal groups.

EWB: Satisfactory electoral conditions are also one of the conditions for joining the European Union. Many Western Balkan countries are in an election year, including Montenegro. In your opinion, to what extent do the current electoral conditions in Montenegro meet the EU criteria?

MM: Montenegro is aware of the importance of political criteria in the context of accession negotiations and we are absolutely committed to the reform of electoral legislation, which focuses on improving legal solutions in this area and creating conditions for strengthening the trust in the electoral process by all actors.

I would like to emphasize that some progress has been made in this regard and that the Committee for Comprehensive Reform of Electoral and Other Legislation (composed of 14 members of the ruling party and opposition, with the possibility for the NGO sector to participate in its work without decision-making rights) has prepared a draft of the set of laws – Law on Financing of Political Entities and Election Campaigns, Law on Amendments to the Law on Voter Register, Law on Amendments to the Law on Territorial Organization of Montenegro and Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code of Montenegro, adopted by the Parliament on December 27, 2019, while the enactment of the Law on the Election of Councillors and MPs, which was sent to the Venice Commission for an opinion, remains.

Given the difficult political circumstances in which the Committee worked, it is very important to emphasize that the proposals of the mentioned laws were prepared having in mind the relevant recommendations of the OSCE / ODIHR observation missions after the parliamentary elections in 2016 and the presidential elections in 2018.

Nevertheless, the current boycott of the Assembly represents a significant brake on Montenegro’s European path. This is a situation that the EU itself registers and calls for its urgent overcoming. The return of political debate to the Assembly is the responsibility of all political actors, and the active and constructive participation of all parties is necessary in order to increase the responsibility of the Assembly and strengthen the role of this institution in overseeing the executive and better legislation quality.

All this is further actualized by the fact that we are in an election year and that the participation of all relevant political actors is of key importance for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Montenegro.