The announcement that the European Union could enlarge by 2030 has been particularly welcomed in Montenegro. The President of the country which has made the most progress in the enlargement process so far, Jakov Milatović, is convinced that Montenegro could be ready for EU membership even before 2030. He assessed that important conditions for intensifying the reform process, especially those related to the rule of law, have been met since the democratic changes in Montenegro three years ago. “We can truly be ready much earlier than 2030 to become a new EU member”, Milatović said.
Even before Michel’s speech at the Bled Strategic Forum, where it was emphasized that mutual readiness for enlargement should be achieved by 2030, European leaders have been repeating for years that Montenegro is first in line for future EU membership.
“Montenegro is the most advanced candidate for accession, an important ally, and a future member. That’s why I want to emphasize that you are the first in line and the most advanced candidate for accession”, said the EU High Representative Josep Borell in May.
Despite being a frontrunner in the process, since it began negotiations for membership in 2012, Montenegro has managed to open all negotiation chapters, but only temporarily closed three.
Due to insufficient progress in the rule of law area, coupled with an accompanying institutional and political crisis in the country, Montenegro’s European path has been blocked for two years now, since the last intergovernmental conference was held.
The stagnation of European integration is evident in the fact that for over six months now, the Parliament of Montenegro has not adopted any laws related to European integration. All eyes are now on the new government, which has not been formed even three months after the elections. The prime minister-designate, Milojko Spajić, the leader of the pro-European “Europe Now” movement, prioritizes progress in the process.
Milena Muk, a researcher at the Alternativa Institute from Podgorica, tells European Western Balkans that the new government doesn’t need much creativity to establish priorities regarding European integration.
“The list of outstanding obligations is long enough to fill the government’s work programs for the next few years, especially since more than 11 years after the start of negotiations, Montenegro has still not fulfilled the interim benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24, which are a prerequisite for meeting the final criteria for these chapters and for progress in other chapters,” Muk notes.
According to her, despite Charles Michel’s acknowledgment that the EU sometimes uses the lack of progress in candidate countries to avoid confronting its own readiness to accept new members, the main obstacles to Montenegro’s accession are within Montenegro itself.
“All relevant actors in Montenegro, especially political parties as the drivers of the process in the government and the Parliament, have shown a kind of unity in their inability to reach political consensus and move from technical alignment to demonstrating the necessary agility and consistency in achieving sustainable results where they are most needed: in judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organized crime, and other aspects of the rule of law,” Muk emphasizes.
More than three missed years
The first significant setback in the European integration process began as early as 2017 during the government of Duško Marković when the pace of reform processes slowed down. However, in European Commission’s reports from that period, the assessments were much better than they were after the change of government in 2020.
Despite expectations that the country would accelerate its European integration efforts following the democratic changes, the process stalled due to constant political crisis and polarization. The political majority formed after the August elections struggled for a long time to reach a political consensus on appointments to judicial bodies. Over the past three years, institutional instability has significantly impeded both the technical alignment with European standards.
The European Commission’s non-paper on the rule of law warned that Montenegro has lost focus on key EU reforms, particularly in the area of the rule of law. The document states that there was no progress in investigations, prosecutions, and trials for old cases of violence against journalists and media workers. As stated in the informal document, the absolute priority of Montenegro should be to fulfill the critical deficiencies identified within the temporary benchmarks for negotiation chapters 23 and 24.
It is said that the functioning of the entire justice system continued to face a deep institutional crisis. The non-paper assessed that many institutions continued to suffer from a lack of appointments or were operating in an acting state.
“This has significantly limited the capacity of the judicial system to function, with a weak or non-existent sense of direction and strategic planning/vision, which has affected Montenegro’s ability to administer justice,” the document states.
It is recalled that the Assembly appointed three judges of the Constitutional Court in February, which ended the unprecedented institutional blockade for Montenegro, which left the court without a quorum for decision-making between September last year and February this year.
Montenegro has not yet amended the Law on the Judicial Council and Judges, nor the Law on the State Prosecutor’s Office, in accordance with the recommendations of the European Commission and the opinions of the Venice Commission.
In the report of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) of the European Parliament, adopted on Wednesday, MEPs urge for political stability and substantial progress in key EU-related reforms, particularly in electoral and judicial reforms, and the fight against organized crime and corruption. They assess that Montenegro’s EU accession progress is losing momentum.
“MEPs expect the formation of a pro-European government as soon as possible, one which will clearly and unequivocally support European policies and values, in accordance with the expectations of a significant majority of the country’s citizens”, said EP Rapporteur for Montenegro, Tonino Picula.
The path to EU integration remains within reach, provided Montenegro seizes this moment. It all depends on the new Montenegrin government, which has the opportunity to prepare Montenegro to meet all the necessary criteria in the next few years. Unlike neighboring countries, Montenegro does not have bilateral conflicts with its neighbors that could further complicate future accession. All political obstacles within the country could be resolved if there is political will among its leaders.