A decade of Montenegrin negotiations and lost chances – what to do next?

After a decade of accession negotiations with the EU, from the former frontrunner in speed, Montenegro is now the leader in the duration of this process in the Western Balkans and the number of lost chances. While citizens strongly support the path to the EU, decision-makers increasingly go astray, putting the private before the public interest. The first decade of Montenegrin accession negotiations was marked by numerous scandals, an ineffective fight against corruption and organized crime, the erosion of institutions, attacks on journalists, and immature political bickering that led to dangerous polarization in society. In addition, recent years have been accompanied by clericalization and radicalization, along with the re-problemization of some freedoms that seemed to have been won, but also the endangering of the civic concept of the state of Montenegro. There are also certain successes, primarily those on the foreign policy level, but the uncertainty facing Montenegro may also call this into question.

These are some of the key conclusions of the study Decade of Montenegrin negotiations with the EU: how to get out of the roundabout? whose authors are Milica Zindović, Nikola Mirković and Daliborka Uljarević, and which was done by the Centre for Civic Education (CGO) with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

The study deals in a qualitative manner with Montenegro´s path towards the EU, then gives an overview of the negotiation structure that was changed seven times in ten years, which collapsed both institutional memory and fragile capacities. Even the application of the new methodology did not fundamentally change this cumbersome and bureaucratized mechanism, while contamination with political combinatorics left its mark on the dynamics of negotiations. The focus of the study is also on chapters 23 and 24, as the backbone of the negotiation process, but also of the overall democratization of the country, according to which progress or lack of progress is assessed. Furthermore, the study gives an overview of some specific issues, such as controversial economic citizenship.

From being the leader of European integration in the region, which was an encouraging and not essentially accurate characteristic, the country has reached a stage where stagnation or regression is recorded in numerous areas, becoming a destination of frequent visits by special envoys – from US, UK, EU and member states – who usually come where there are problems. The two most recent EC reports give the lowest progress assessments compared to recent years, while the identified steps forward are minimal, as noted in the study, among other issues.

During the rule of the DPS, a system of control and monopoly was developed and abused, due to which, in relevant international reports, corruption was described as endemic, and the public interest was so suppressed by the party that Montenegro bore the epithet of a capture state. That simulation of reforms and political will, followed by resisting the substantive adoption of democratic and European patterns of behaviour in conducting politics and managing institutions, while preserving party appetites and satisfying personal interests, was and remains characteristic of all Montenegrin governments. According to the study, such an approach damaged Montenegro’s credibility in European circles, and it gained in intensity especially in recent years, because things happened quickly and everything was even more exposed.

Even the parliamentary elections in 2020 did not lead to the necessary qualitative changes, and the last two Governmentsthe 42nd Government of Zdravko Krivokapić and the 43rd Government of Dritan Abazović – represent Governments that have betrayed the expectations of those who believed that the focus would be on the Europeanization of society. Bad practices continued, with the conscious ignorance of democratic rules, characterized by extensive employment based on party or ideological suitability (especially during the technical Government of Abazović) and irresponsible decisions, getting on inappropriateness with the notion that those governments were already without legitimacy. At the same time, the Parliament marginalized itself from the process of European integration.

As particularly concerning the study notes that the EU and member states are losing their leverage in Montenegro. It is also visible through the lengthy process of appointment of the Constitutional Court judges, adoption of massive legislation in an accelerated procedure, without public consultation, or ignoring recommendations and even warnings from the EU.

Overall, the ability of the authorities and institutions to fulfil the undertaken commitments on the way to the EU is getting weaker, and the political will exists mostly on the rhetorical level. The absence of a track record is accompanied by an increasingly polarized and toxic political situation, characterized by mistrust among actors, but also by the multiplication of political factors that are not resistant to malignant foreign influences. Consequently, Montenegro has today dysfunctional institutions, with the continuity of the predominance of the party and particular interests over the public interest. The gap between the declarative commitment to Europeanization and the resistance to the adoption of democratic patterns of behaviour in the conduct of politics and management of institutions remains a constant of the government, although the changes have gained momentum, as the studies emphasize.

Among the recommendations of the study, it is stated that in the direction of normalizing the situation in the country, in addition to the election of judges of the Constitutional Court, it is necessary to elect the Supreme State Prosecutor for a full term as soon as possible, complete the Judicial Council and call for extraordinary parliamentary elections to know who and what legitimacy to decide on some issues.

Also, it is stated that it is necessary to work further on strengthening the judiciary, through amendments to the Law on the Judicial Council and Courts and the Law on the State Prosecutor’s Office, through inclusive consultations with stakeholders and following the recommendations of the Venice Commission and GRECO, and through a change of cadre.

The negotiating structure must be a technical-coordinating mechanism that exists independently of who is in power, with a political consensus on the importance of institutional memory and strengthening of administrative capacities in this domain, to restart the process at that level as well.

The fight against corruption must be more than attractive media headlines and statistics, and in that direction, rightly, there are much higher expectations from the Chief State Prosecutor and Anti-corruption agency than they are currently giving in terms of results, even though they are different institutions, with different mandates and results. Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully monitor the employment processes, especially in the bodies for which significant personnel changes have been announced, to limit inappropriate political influence and strengthen the institutions professionally.

Civil society should be more involved in the decision-making and public policy shaping processes, and the Government must provide regular financing of NGOs from public funds and work on improving the legal basis for the sustainability of the NGO sector.

All actors must contribute to the reduction of tensions and the limitation of clericalization, which calls into question the civic concept of the state of Montenegro but also to establish mechanisms that will strengthen resistance to external malignant influences.

Finally, it is recommended that, in this context, the EU and its member states, as well as the US and the UK, more actively support initiatives to establish and deepen social and political dialogue, as well as progressive actors, to overcome the existing polarization, strengthen institutions and the overall resistance to regional or broader hegemonic projects, and to direct the country to the path of Europeanization and democratization.

Nikola Mirković, Programme associate