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[EWB Interview] Gorčević: Montenegro regained the leadership status in the enlargement

Authorities in Montenegro expect to receive IBAR – Interim Benchmark Assessment Report for Chapters 23 and 24 related to the rule of law in June. In February 2020, Montenegro accepted the new enlargement methodology, according to which no chapter can be temporarily closed until the IBAR is obtained. Obtaining IBAR indicates that the country has made progress in areas like judiciary and that is ready for the phase in the accession process.

About the Montenegro’s accession process, progress in rule of law and challenges on the road to full EU membership we spoke with Maida Gorčević, Minister of European Affairs in the Government of Montenegro.

European Western Balkans: Is there political will in Brussels for Montenegro to become the next EU member state? What kind of messages are being sent to the Government of which you are a part?

Maida Gorčević: By addressing the most complex and politically sensitive issues, Montenegro has sent a clear message that it is committed to European integration with all its professional and political capacities.

I will remind you that within the first 100 days of the Government’s work, we managed to solve the issues in the area of the rule of law that have been slowing down and burdening the negotiation process with the EU for almost a whole decade.

It was precisely this enthusiasm and results that were the subject of the Intergovernmental Conference held at the highest political level after a 2-year pause in dialogue.

The messages of encouragement that we heard in Brussels from the EU member states continue to resonate through Montenegro, and we can proudly say that we have regained the leadership status in the enlargement policy.

The government plans to maintain Brussels’ favor solely by implementing the necessary reforms, which, in addition to achieving formal progress in European integration, will essentially bring our society closer to European standards. Along these lines, I would like to point out the extremely intense pace of implementation of activities in chapters 23 and 24, with the aim of finally obtaining the IBAR, and introducing Montenegro into the final phase of the negotiation process – closing the chapter.

The messages we receive from Brussels and other European capitals are clear and give a clear European perspective to Montenegro, provided that we all unite our efforts and focus on the numerous obligations that EU membership entails.

EWB: Montenegro is one of the few countries in the region that has developed a proposal for a reform plan for the withdrawal of funds from the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans. Which reforms would you single out as key that will help progress and bring Montenegro closer to European standards?

MG: In cooperation with the European Commission, we have defined priority reforms in four vital sectors through the new EU Instrument for Reform and Growth. Our strategy includes improvements in the business environment and competitiveness, key steps towards the energy and green transition, digitization, and human capital development. Following the new Methodology in the EU accession process, special emphasis was placed on reforms in the area of the rule of law, which includes strengthening democracy, the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime, and the improvement of fundamental rights and freedom of the media.

The draft of the reform agenda currently represents a comprehensive framework of 32 indicative reform benchmarks in 14 sectors, which will be the basis for finalizing the document by the end of April. Each of these segments is crucial for the progress of our country on its path to the European Union.

We are aware that the implementation of these reforms is not only a path to faster EU accession but also to the sustainable development and prosperity of our country. Therefore, each department, with a high degree of responsibility, has proposed measures that will contribute to our national progress and the fulfilment of European standards by 2027.

Montenegrin PM Spajić with EC President Von der Leyen; Photo: Flickr/ Government of Montenegro

We were also pleased with the recent decision of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe to approve a generous Growth Plan that will provide financial assistance for implementing comprehensive and ambitious plans from the Reform Agenda. We appreciate this decision as an indication of the intention to give the Western Balkans a historic chance to transform economically and democratically, and Montenegro will do everything to seize that opportunity.

By moving closer to the EU’s single market of 500 million people, we will gain access to benefits that until now have only been available to member states.

EWB: Montenegro is the only country in the region that has ratified all agreements signed within the Common Regional Market initiative. What is the significance of this initiative for Montenegro?

MG: First of all, I expect that the European Commission’s New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans will, through CEFTA, which represents the central mechanism for managing the Common Regional Market, contribute to the improvement of economic integration among the countries of the region, as well as with the EU.

I believe that with significant support from the EU, the instruments at our disposal will enhance segments pertaining to the free movement of goods, services, and people, as well as access to the Single Euro Payments Area and the Digital Single Market.

So, the goal is to speed up the integration of the Western Balkans into the single EU market by establishing a functional common regional market with the support of the EU Growth Plan.

EWB: Some say that IBAR is the most popular word in Montenegro these days and that the political scene is divided into the time before and after IBAR. What does receiving the Interim Benchmark Assessment Report actually mean for the process of European integration?

MG: In the current context of the European integration of Montenegro, the Interim Benchmark Assessment Report (IBAR) will represent a turning point in the EU accession process. Certainly, the European path of Montenegro will not be the same before and after receiving IBAR.

The IBAR, which has been talked about a lot lately, shows that the state has taken a significant step forward in terms of implementing the most demanding reforms, separating the political and social dynamics into the period before and after IBAR.

Montenegro is the first country to negotiate with the EU under the new accession methodology, which was introduced in February 2020. This methodology focuses on chapters 23 and 24, which concern the rule of law, and which are among the first to be opened, but also the last to be closed in the process of negotiations. I think that our experience in negotiating under the new methodology can be significant for other candidate countries, and Montenegro is ready to offer assistance and share insights gained from this process.

Progress in the areas of justice, fundamental rights, freedom, and security, i.e. obtaining the IBAR, enables the successful closure of other chapters in which Montenegro has reached internal readiness for membership.

Obtaining the IBAR is not only a milestone but also a confirmation that Montenegro has achieved a significant degree of reform in key areas. This success allows us to make further progress in harmonizing our legislation and standards with the EU, laying a solid foundation for closing other chapters and finalizing the negotiation process, while at the same time confirming our determination and ability to achieve significant reforms as a society and show that we can be a credible 28th member of the EU.

EWB: What transitional benchmarks do you see as the biggest challenges in the future?

MG: On our path towards full membership in the EU, we are particularly focused on improving the judiciary and fundamental rights, as well as enhancing justice, freedom, and security for all citizens, as outlined in negotiation chapters 23 and 24. Montenegro entered this process with the task of addressing a total of 83 interim benchmarks, and so far we have made significant progress, but we still have 31 benchmarks in front of us that require work and commitment.

We have singled out two primary challenges along the way: the first is improving the efficiency of our judicial system, where final judgments play a key role. Another challenge is the application of the standards and solutions introduced by the new laws. In that regard, the key question is whether the amended reform laws produce the results for which they were adopted: essential reforms in all fields.

The Government has adopted a dynamic plan outlining its path in the negotiation process, specifically addressing the fulfilment of tasks within the framework of temporary benchmarks in chapters 23 and 24. Not all benchmarks are in the hands of the executive power, but the Government, to the extent that they are, has foreseen and rearranged the deadlines in order to respond to the dynamics expected of it. We know that communication with the European Commission is crucial, therefore we have strengthened our dialogue and cooperation, we communicate daily and finally, we can say that we have a partnership relationship.

Every law or strategy that we have passed within these criteria has been submitted to the European Commission and Venice Commission for their opinion. We also included experts from the EU who helped us draft a set of systemic laws in the field of justice, media, and the fight against corruption.

For now, according to the dynamic plan for obtaining the IBAR and the deadlines agreed upon with the EC, everything is going according to plan and we expect to receive the Interim Benchmark Assessment Report in the summer.

EWB: In one of your statements, you said that Brussels will seek concrete results, not just the adoption of laws. Can the government cite any tangible outcomes from its efforts thus far?

MG: It is of vital importance for us to show real results and progress because this is the only way we can ensure a faster path for Montenegro towards the EU. We are aware of the challenges, but we are also determined to overcome them. I believe that our dedication to reforms and cooperation with the EU will lead to the achievement of our common goals, making Montenegro a better place to live for all its citizens.

From the very beginning of this Government’s mandate, we have been committed to strengthening the negotiation structure, creating an effective dialogue between the executive and legislative authorities, and strengthening cooperation with both the parliamentary majority and the opposition. We also paid special attention to improving relations with the civil sector and intensified communication with the European Commission. This is important to point out because the process of European integration is inclusive, it concerns the entire Montenegrin society and everyone can make a significant contribution in the domain of their competences.

It is important for us to strengthen synergy in this field because, in the previous period, energy and focus were wasted due to divisions at almost all levels. Our goal is to consolidate resources, knowledge and expertise, in order to achieve common goals and ensure progress that will benefit all citizens. I am sure that the wave of positive energy and enthusiasm that can be felt both in the administration and in society, and which is certainly reflected in the never-greater support of citizens for EU membership, will contribute to this.

Apart from this important result that contributes to social cohesion, there are many other results achieved in this short period, but I would like to emphasize the positive evaluation of Montenegro by the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL), as well as the successful preparation of the draft of the Reform Agenda which represents a step towards securing significant economic benefits for our citizens, and I have already spoken about the importance of the Intergovernmental Conference and the upcoming IBAR.

EWB: How far have you come with the formation of that structure and have the administrative capacities for conducting negotiations been strengthened since the beginning of the work of the new Government?

MG: Since the beginning of this Government’s mandate, we have been actively engaged in significantly improving Montenegro’s negotiating structure with the EU. We have successfully established working groups for all 33 chapters of the EU acquis, bringing together over 800 national experts from various sectors, including many from the civil sector. This confirms our commitment to the inclusive process of European integration.

With the prior appointment of the Chief Negotiator of Montenegro with the EU and the appointment of six negotiators for clusters, we laid the foundations for effective planning, decision-making and communication with representatives of the EU and its member states, thus rounding off the most important part of our negotiation structure.

However, as a small country, we face challenges related to the availability of experts in specific fields. In this regard, the support we have from our European partners and various international organizations plays a key role. This support is not only a confirmation of our common commitment to European values but also a necessary resource for further strengthening our administrative capacities, which enables us to make continuous progress on the road to EU membership.

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