The article was originally published on BiEPAG Blog.

Montenegro has welcomed this year’s European Commission report in a better mood. Not because the administration (or citizens) hoped for better grades as a result of hard work in the past year and a half, but because the country is waiting for a new government, the first without Đukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in 30 years. All eyes are on this new government, which should take at least some important steps to speed up the country’s path towards EU membership. However, many challenges lie ahead for it, at least when it comes to what is said in this year’s EC report.

The Commission’s assessment of the situation in the country is as expected. Montenegro has continued to make limited progress in most chapters, thus maintaining an average overall score, which is disappointing more than eight years after the opening of accession negotiations. This year has affected this attitude to such an extent that the crisis caused by the coronavirus allowed the reforms to be put “on hold”. The negotiations themselves have been stuck for some time, despite the Commission’s new methodology presented in February, and regardless of the fact that Montenegro accepted it, even though it was not binding for the country. This is certainly a good sign, in the sense that it sends the message that Montenegro wants to negotiate under stricter conditions, but without a clear picture on either side of when this could bring significant results.

Many things are repeated in this report that also appeared in previous ones, which on the one hand indicates a lack of progress, while on the other hand again raises the question of whether the Commission’s reports are a sufficient guide to candidate countries for reforms and whether this most visible mechanism should be even more concrete. In this report particular attention is paid to the general atmosphere and functioning of the system, as well as the situation in the country when it comes to polarisation, the politicisation of institutions and the involvement of all actors in the democratic process, particularly in the parliament, and its role in democratisation.

It is problematic that some scandals have found a place in the report almost since the beginning of negotiations. The details of the DPS’ governing body session were published back in February 2013, revealing the party’s mechanisms of misuse of public resources for election purposes (known as “the audio recordings affair”), and this has found its place in each Commission’s annual report on Montenegro. In each report, the EU seeks “the political and judicial follow-up of the alleged misuse of public funds for party political purposes” to which the government is persistently turning a blind eye. The same goes for the many other scandals and abuses we have witnessed. This is mostly what any response to the Commission’s recommendations looks like in practice if it demands reactions and cuts that are in direct conflict with the party’s interests. This is also the first guideline of what should be done in the future for better results.

The Commission has maintained the practice of defining priorities for key areas, for example in the part relating to the fight against corruption, pointing out problems in the work of the Agency for Prevention of Corruption, the manner of conducting financial investigations and securing track records both in prevention and repression. In practice, though, the institutions persistently respond only to some of the problems identified, while there is no link between the European Commission’s instruments and greater pressure to address and adequately respond to the burning issues.

In this sense, the recommendations/priorities could be even more concrete and measurable. In principle, a clear task and an answer to it also give a basis for a stronger assessment of whether it has been fulfilled or not. In other words, this should be an important matter in the application of the new EU methodology – linking specific priorities with the announced incentives and sanctions.

In short, this year’s European Commission report confirmed that Montenegro is a country with serious problems in the judiciary, the electoral system, and the functioning of the system in general, with corruption at all levels. It is also strongly polarised as a society. Montenegro also continues to respond to these problems partially and superficially, which requires a stronger and more serious reaction from all actors in the society. A more committed partner from Brussels is needed to turn things around and achieve better results.