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European Western Balkans
Analyses

IBAR for Montenegro: A more political than a merit-based decision

Prime Minister of Montenegro Milojko Spajić and President of the European Council Charles Michel; Photo: Flickr / Government of Montenegro

Yesterday, Ambassadors of the EU Member States (COREPER) approved the EU’s Common Position on Chapters 23 and 24 in negotiations with Montenegro. At the Intergovernmental Conference next week, the two parties are expected to adopt the much-anticipated Interim Benchmark Assessment Report (IBAR).

“The Intergovernmental Conference will be the final confirmation that we have received a positive IBAR and that we can proceed to the final stage of accession negotiations – closing negotiation chapters”, Gorčević wrote on X.

Montenegro is thus expected to become the first EU candidate country to receive the Interim Benchmark Assessment Report (IBAR). According to the revised accession methodology that Montenegro accepted in February 2020, no negotiating chapter can be closed until the IBAR is received.

The consensus within the EU that Montenegro should receive the IBAR indicates that the country is ready for the next phase of alignment with EU standards on its path to full membership.

While the Montenegrin Government, led by Milojko Spajić, made obtaining the IBAR its main priority since the beginning of the year, EWB interlocutors believe that receiving the IBAR is more a result of the EU’s political will to have one success story in the Western Balkans than a genuine commitment by Montenegrin authorities to the reforms in the most important areas.

“Receiving IBAR is more a political decision by the EU than the credit of the Montenegrin authorities. Some obligations related to appointments in the judiciary have been fulfilled in the previous period, but not everything has been completed (the President of the Supreme Court has not yet been appointed). Some progress is noted in the fight against corruption and organized crime, but not in prosecuting attacks on journalists and war crimes,” says Biljana Matijašević, a journalist for the Montenegrin daily Vijesti, speaking to EWB.

According to Matijašević, the necessary laws were adopted hastily with many deficiencies, which even the authorities acknowledged.

“All of this shows that the Montenegrin authorities are aware that Montenegro will receive the IBAR not because of the achieved results, but because the EU has decided to demonstrate that enlargement is still alive,” adds Matijašević.

Dragana Jaćimović, a Public Policy Researcher at the Podgorica-based Institute Alternativa, believes that Montenegro needed IBAR, assessing it as a positive development. However, she agrees that the key reason for the progress is that the ongoing European Commission wants to show some success in the enlargement policy.

“The fact that it is a (geo)political decision is certainly shown by the fact that civil society in Montenegro, unlike in previous periods, did not have the European Commission on its side when it came to insisting on good legislative solutions. The European Commission settled for the minimum, while on the other hand, the Government used the argument that everything was communicated and received the green light from the European Commission,” says Jaćimović.

IBAR laws – far from ideal solutions

The condition for receiving IBAR was the adoption of a set of laws in the areas of judiciary, fight against corruption, and organized crime. Although, rhetorically, IBAR was the top priority for the Government of Montenegro, the set of laws was adopted at the last minute, and the entire process lacked transparency.

Dragana Jaćimović says that there were no public debates in the form of round tables, where all those involved in this field could contribute and discuss specific provisions of the law.

“Such debates could have led to the best solutions. Most of the comments submitted in written form by civil society organizations, which pertained to some substantive change, were not adopted. As a result, the laws we passed did not create the conditions necessary to reform those parts of the system where numerous problems have been identified and to which we have been pointing for years,” adds Jaćimović.

She underlines that the amendments to the Law on Prevention of Corruption have certainly received the most criticism, while concerns over the composition of the Prosecutorial Council have also been raised.

Photo: Flickr / Government of Montenegro

Opposition and civil society have accused the Ministry of Justice, headed by Andrej Milović, of drafting controversial provisions of the IBAR laws. Although Milović claimed to be Prime Minister Spajić’s “political backbone,” he was expelled from the ruling party Europe Now Movement (PES) in February. Nevertheless, PM Spajić decided that Milović should remain at the head of the Ministry of Justice for the adoption of the IBAR laws, only requesting his dismissal as minister in June, a day after the procedure was over.

Meanwhile, as even the ruling majority is aware that even these poor solutions had to be adopted to obtain the IBAR by the end of the Belgian Presidency, it has been announced that some of the adopted laws could be changed after obtaining the IBAR.

“We have also received indications that one of the adopted laws will soon be amended, specifically that certain amendments to the Law on Prevention of Corruption have been sent to the EC for review, and after approval, they will be submitted to the parliamentary procedure. How long this process will take and whether this law will be improved remains to be seen,” says Jaćimović.

What will come after the “IBAR euphoria”?

Experts in Montenegro warn that although the IBAR is a good signal that the EU accession of Montenegro is progressing, the process is far from complete. The EU will require the implementation of all these laws in the areas covered by Chapters 23 and 24 before the negotiation chapters can begin to close.

“Receiving IBAR does not conclude our accession process. In the period ahead, we must demonstrate that the laws we have enacted are producing results. I am not sure that will happen. Therefore, we need to sit down, have open discussions, and analyze what has been adopted and what needs to be reopened and thoroughly worked on again – the Law on Prevention of Corruption is high on that list of potential priorities,” Dragana Jaćimović says for EWB.

When asked what the IBAR will mean for the citizens of Montenegro, she said that for the first time in a long while, citizens can see some concrete progress.

“I fear that citizens still cannot feel substantial changes in the enjoyment of the rule of law,” Jaćimović nevertheless added.

Biljana Matijašević believes that after 12 years of negotiations, receiving IBAR is indeed a success, but she adds that the government forgets that the European Commission will not overlook Montenegro’s shortcomings in the further process.

“Obligations will have to be met, so everything that was not fulfilled will simply be added to the list of obligations in the next phase of accession. I think the harder part of the process is starting because there’s no turning back, and the government will have to work hard,” Matijašević added.

When asked whether the “incredible political will of Montenegrin authorities to accelerate the path to the EU”, as stated by European officials, is visible, Biljana Matijašević says that, compared to the decades-long rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the current government shows more willingness to carry out reform processes.

“But I see a problem with setting priorities and insufficient focus on priority reforms, which often fall victim to political calculations and power struggles over certain sectors. For example, instead of strengthening the independence of the judiciary, parties continue to focus on placing their people in key positions within it,” Matijašević says.

For months, IBAR has been a key term in Montenegro’s political landscape. It was announced months ago that there could be a government reshuffle after the IBAR, and one of the ruling parties – Democratic Montenegro led by Aleksa Bečić, announced that they would reconsider their participation in the government after obtaining the benchmarks due to conflicts with Prime Minister Spajić over the selection of the acting Police director.

Biljana Matijašević does not expect the announced government reshuffle to occur. She believes that, with the current constellation of political parties, it would risk reducing the ruling majority in parliament to a minimal 41 MPs, which Prime Minister Spajić would want to avoid.

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