European Western Balkans
European Integration

Key findings of the 2021 European Commission Report on Montenegro

Flags of Montenegro and EU; Photo: Nikola Ristić

BRUSSELS – European Commission has published the 2021 country reports for the six Western Balkans states and Turkey. Here we present the key findings in the country report on Montenegro.

The fundamentals of the accession process

Concerning the political criteria, the reporting period was marked by tensions and mistrust between political actors. The deep polarisation between the new ruling majority and the opposition persisted throughout 2020 and intensified in the post-election period. Heated relations and mistrust fed frequent escalations and further exacerbated political divisions, including within the ruling majority. The Parliamentary elections resulted in a change of the ruling coalition and transformed the dynamics between organs of the state and demonstrated a need to find a balance in the new political landscape, including on questions concerning religious communities and ethnicity, which dominated the political agenda during the reporting period. Friction between the executive and legislative powers has slowed down reform work. In December 2020, Parliament elected the 42nd government of Montenegro, the number of ministries was substantially reduced. It is the first government in Montenegro composed mostly of non-politically affiliated experts.

In its final report on the 2020 Parliamentary elections, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) limited election observation mission recommended a comprehensive reform to harmonise the electoral legal framework and regulate all key aspects of elections, through an inclusive process, well in advance of the next elections. In December 2020, the Parliament established the committee on comprehensive electoral reform, tasked to deliver legislative reforms by the end of 2021. Progress has been slow due to initial delays and periodic boycotts. Parliament dismissed the President of the State Electoral Commission (SEC) in June 2021, appointment of a new President is still pending in the Parliament. Continued efforts are needed to enhance professionalism, transparency and accountability of the SEC.

In 2021, local elections took place in two municipalities. Despite cross-party agreement to hold all local elections on the same day, the legal framework still provides for their conduct on a rolling basis, leading to nearly constant pre-electoral campaigning at national and local level. A credible, independent and effective institutional response to the so-called ‘envelope affair’ remains to be ensured.

The lack of constructive engagement of all parliamentary actors prevented a meaningful political dialogue, further polarising the political landscape. The boycott of plenary sessions by majority of MPs, from the opposition and the ruling majority caused a suspension of decision-making in Parliament in 2021. Parliament improved the transparency of its work, communicating with the public and stepped up its legislative and oversight role overall.

The ruling majority frequently initiated or passed legislation through the fast-track procedure, without necessary public consultations and without duly taking into account EU accession requirements. Parliament is yet to demonstrate in practice its commitment to Montenegro’s EU reform agenda and improve coordination with the government on legislative initiatives. Parliament should strengthen the professional and expert capacity of its administrative staff and improve women’s political representation.

The composition of the current Parliament is unprecedented in Montenegro’s history. It should endeavour to find a broad cross-party and societal consensus on EU-related reforms, which is vital for the country to make progress on its EU path. It is clear that active and constructive participation by all parties is required to enhance parliamentary accountability, oversight of the executive, democratic scrutiny, to improve the quality of legislation and for key appointments. So far, the Parliament was not able to secure the required 2/3 majority for important judicial appointments and therefore key functions of the judicial system are still filled on acting bases.

As regards governance, there is a need to strengthen stakeholders’ participation, and the government’s capacity to implement reforms. In December 2020, Parliament elected the 42nd government of Montenegro. The number of ministries was reduced to 12; women head four of them. The new government composition is the first expert government in Montenegro, only the position of Deputy Prime Minister is held by a political party leader. The government also adopted a new national programme for EU accession for the period 2021-2023. The negotiation structure was substantially weakened by the resignation or dismissal of 110 of its members, including 16 chapter negotiators and 24 heads of working groups. Most of these key positions remain vacant. Some key ministries failed to show sufficient commitment and constructive engagement in the EU accession process under their new leadership.

The role of civil society is recognised and promoted, however the current legal and institutional framework needs to be further improved to strengthen the consultation and cooperation mechanisms between state institutions and the civil society in the context of the EU accession process.

Montenegro is moderately prepared on the reform of its public administration. Overall, limited progress was made in the reporting period. The change of government and of the parliamentary majority severely affected the civil service: amendments to the Law on Civil Servants and State Employees lowered the requirements for competence, independence and merit-based recruitment of civil servants. Moreover, the recent reorganisations of public administration led to substantial staff changes, including at senior levels, jeopardising Montenegro’s capacity to retain experienced staff in EU-accession process related matters in many sectors. Strong political will is needed to effectively depoliticise the public service, optimise the state administration and implement managerial accountability.

Montenegro remains moderately prepared to apply the EU acquis and European standards in the area of judiciary and fundamental rightsand has made limited progress overall, with limited track record on accountability. No progress has been made in the area of the judiciary and the implementation of key judicial reforms is stagnating. The decisive political commitment needed to unblock important segments of those reforms is still outstanding, with a number of appointments to the judiciary remaining pending in Parliament due to the inability to secure a qualified majority. Despite a more proactive approach of the Anti-Corruption Agency, corruption remains prevalent in many areas and an issue of concern. On fundamental rights, Montenegro continued meeting obligations from international human rights instruments and legislation However challenges remain in ensuring that national legislation on human rights is implemented effectively. There was limited progress in the area of freedom of expression.

Montenegro has achieved some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. It made limited progress, with last year’s recommendations partially met with regard to further results on track records on repression and prevention of corruption and the efforts of the Anti-Corruption Agency to address its challenges. Track record on seizure and confiscation of assets needs to be further improved. The Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) under new management demonstrated a more proactive approach, especially in stepping up its communication and outreach activities towards the general public, media and civil society and in addressing the caseload pending from previous years. Despite this positive trend, challenges related to Agency’s independence, priority-setting, selective approach and the quality of its decisions remain and require sustained efforts in this respect. Corruption remains prevalent in many areas. There is a need for strong political will to effectively address this issue, as well as a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.

Montenegro has some level of preparation/is moderately prepared in the fight against organised crime. It made some progress in addressing last year’s recommendations, in particular in improving access for law-enforcement agencies to key databases and increasing the number of investigators and experts in key areas. The number of organised crime cases investigated and prosecuted continued to grow, and the number of cases adjudicated at courts nearly tripled. International police cooperation is well established and continued to yield results, with unprecedented drug seizures abroad. However, the capacity to address tobacco smuggling and money laundering is not yet at the expected level. Montenegro still needs to address some systemic deficiencies in its criminal justice system, including the way organised crime cases are handled in the courts.

On fundamental rights, Montenegro largely has the legislative and institutional framework in place and made some progress in meeting the obligations laid down in international human rights instruments and legislation. However, challenges remain in effective implementation. The efficiency of investigations into the excessive use of force by law-enforcement and hate crimes needs to improve further. Vulnerable groups, including Roma and Egyptians, and persons with disabilities continue to experience multiple forms of discrimination and difficulties in enforcing their rights in administrative and judicial proceedings. Women continue to experience inequality in participating in political and public life and accessing employment and economic opportunities. Gender-based violence and violence against children remain issues of serious concern. Incidents of ethnically and religiously motivated attacks, hate crimes and hate speech continued to rise. Montenegro has only partially addressed last year’s recommendations. Access to justice, in particular for vulnerable groups remains to be improved. The amendments to the Law on Freedom of Religion of Belief were adopted after limited, and not fully inclusive, consultations with religious communities.

Montenegro has achieved some level of preparation in the area of freedom of expression. Overall, it made limited progress during the reporting period and only partially addressed last year’s recommendations. There were some new developments on investigation into the 2018 shooting of an investigative journalist, but full and effective judicial follow-up both to this case and to other important old cases, remains to be ensured. In April 2021, the government established a new ad hoc commission for monitoring violence against the media, but it has not yet fully or effectively addressed the significant recommendations made by the previous commission. A revision of the legal framework is ongoing, to address the additional issues identified in the 2020 law on media and the law on public broadcaster RTCG, to complete it with a new law on audio-visual media, and ensure their full alignment with the EU acquis and European standards. More efforts are required to limit the effects of disinformation and on-line harassment and hate speech, while ensuring that such measures do not limit disproportionately freedom of expression. Parliament appointed the new RTCG Council in June 2021 without broad cross-party support. Following this change and the subsequent changes of RTCG management, the public broadcaster started to feature politically more diverse content. The media scene remains overall highly polarised, often marked by politically biased and unbalanced reporting, including extensive involvement of foreign media from the region, which was particularly notable during election periods. Self-regulatory mechanisms remain weak.

On the economic criteria Montenegro has made some progress and is moderately prepared in developing a functioning market economy. The country experienced a sharp recession in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on its tourism-dependent economy. This created large negative spill over effects on private consumption, investment, employment, trade and public finances. To support citizens and the economy, authorities implemented several economic support packages. These measures were, to a large extent, well targeted, transparent and of a temporary character. In spite of some delays due to the pandemic, the government continued implementing some of the envisaged reforms to improve the business environment. An orderly government transition in the middle of the crisis preserved the effectiveness of the COVID-19 policy response. The new government managed to mitigate fiscal risks by accumulating sizeable fiscal buffers to cover the 2021 financing needs, including for additional COVID-19 support programmes. The financial sector remained stable during the crisis, as a result of its strong pre-crisis position and the support measures implemented by the authorities, but the delayed impact of the crisis on bank balance sheets calls for close monitoring of the financial institutions.

Montenegro has made some progress and is moderately prepared to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that lack of diversification makes Montenegro’s tourism-dependent economy highly vulnerable to shocks. Some efforts have been made to improve innovation capacities and to introduce EU standards at local companies thanks to public grants, but these remain modest given the scale of the challenge. The quality of the educational system and curricula preferences appear inadequate to raise human capital and address skill mismatches. Modern telecommunication and energy infrastructure is being deployed rapidly, but there is a substantial deficit in transport infrastructure, hindering integration with regional and EU markets. In addition, the low level of sophistication of domestic products, the small size of local companies and low level of participation in external markets represent major obstacles for increasing competitiveness and diversifying the economy.

With regard to good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation, Montenegro remained constructively committed to bilateral relations with other enlargement countries and neighbouring EU Member States, albeit bilateral relations with Serbia were marred by tensions, as nationalistic rhetoric increased. Montenegro is generally an active participant in regional cooperation.

Concerning Montenegro’s ability to assume the obligations of membership, important work on alignment and preparation for the implementation of the EU acquis has taken place in many areas, albeit at a slower pace than previously.

The internal market cluster is key for Montenegro’s preparations to meet the requirements of the EU’s internal market and is of high relevance for possible early integration measures and the development of the Common Regional Market. Progress was achieved on market surveillance, accreditation and standardisation; electronic company registration legislative prerequisites; prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing; company law; state aid and aid transparency; banking; consumer and health protection. Montenegro should now focus on: alignment with the EU acquis governing metrology and standardisation, develop the operational capacity of the Employment Agency; regulated professions, capital movements and payments, including on the acquisition of property rights, phasing out its investor citizenship scheme; company law and corporate accounting; intellectual property; competition and State aid; consumer protection and health protection and on implementing the laws aligning with the capital requirements EU acquis in the banking sector.

The competitiveness and inclusive growth cluster has significant links to Montenegro’s Economic Reform Programme. Progress was made on tobacco control; pensions; industrial policy, smart specialisation, vocational education and training, and trade facilitation. On economic and monetary policy, work to implement the action plan for alignment with the EU acquis is ongoing. Montenegro should now focus on: independence of the media sector; VAT, excise duties and direct taxation coordination of economic and monetary issues; labour law and the anti-discrimination law, safety at work; industrial policy, research and innovation, education and training and EU-compatible computerised transit system.

The green agenda and sustainable connectivity cluster has significant links to Montenegro’s Economic Reform Programme, the Commission’s Economic and Investment Plan and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. Progress was made in creating a day-ahead energy market; Transport Development Strategy, nature protection and the National Energy and Climate Plan. Montenegro should now focus on: the energy sector; trans-European networks, telecommunications, TEN-T and TEN-E Regulations; green transition, waste management, water quality, nature protection and climate change.

Resources, agriculture and cohesion cluster comprises policies linked to EU Structural funds and Investment funds and developing the capacities to assume responsibilities of a future EU Member State. Progress was made in agriculture, food and fisheries, regional policy and structural instruments, financial and budgetary provisions and management of own resources. Montenegro should now focus on: implementation of the IPARD programme, agriculture and rural development as well as fisheries, upgrading food establishments and food safety controls, EU cohesion policy requirements, capacity for the handling of indirect management programmes in IPA and rules of administration for the own resources system.

On the external relations cluster, Montenegro continued to fully align with all EU CFSP positions, declarations and EU common positions. It also continued to implement actions under the common regional market based on EU rules, including through cooperation within CEFTA and the Regional Cooperation Council. Alignment to the integrity of the Rome Statute would allow the provisional closure of the remaining open chapter 31 under this cluster.

Strengthening the administrative capacity to apply the EU acquis remains an important challenge for Montenegro, including the urgent need to re-construct a functional negotiating structure.

On migration, both legal and irregular migration fell sharply in 2020 against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The arrival of irregular migrants fell by 60% compared with 2019, with 3149 migrants apprehended in 2020. The Special Prosecutor’s Office conducted two investigations into migrant smuggling in 2020. In one case, final convictions were issued against eight individuals. Although Montenegro’s capacity to manage mixed migration flows and the integration of refugees is improving, sustained efforts are required in order for the country to cope with migratory pressure, by further increasing its reception capacity and raising standards in the reception centres. This will also include developing further its international cooperation on readmission, supporting the successful reintegration of returnees, increasing its capacity to prosecute migrant smuggling networks, and setting up a modern migrants’ data collection system.

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