June 30, 2020 - Most of the Western Balkans' leaders have been advocating for reforms and good neighborly relations at summits and conferences for years, but without putting words into action, said Pierre Mirel, former director of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Enlargement.
In December 2010, Montenegro became a candidate for EU membership. Eight years after Montenegro opened EU accession talks, Mirel told Vijesti that the "captive state" was still prevalent in most Western Balkan countries, with Montenegro and Serbia considered leaders in European integration, and now considered "hybrid regimes".
"Public administration remains weak. Media freedom has been attacked, as have many journalists, physically. "Montenegro and Serbia, which have often been mentioned as leaders in negotiations, are now considered 'hybrid regimes' according to Freedom House's report on nations in transition in 2020," Mirel said.
You have repeatedly criticized Montenegro for not implementing the necessary reforms. Is that the main reason for the country's slow progress in negotiations with the EU?
Pierre Mirel: Some politicians and research centers often blame the EU for the slow accession process with the Western Balkans. Their main argument is that the fifth enlargement took only six years since the opening of accession talks in 1998, while 20 years after the first Zagreb summit when the European perspective of the Western Balkans was first emphasized, only Croatia is an EU member of the region. They usually forget a crucial fact: the countries of Central Europe have abruptly undertaken all the essential reforms required by the 1993 Copenhagen criteria. Most of them were launched as early as 1992-1997 within the framework of the association agreement.
Indeed, the internal situation in the EU was very different. However, working on the accession process, Central European countries have given priority to the long-term benefits of joining their "return to Europe" over their short-term political gains, regardless of cost, including political cost. It should be acknowledged that in the accession process, the burden of proof lies on the candidates. How could EU members be willing to get seriously involved in the accession process of countries where the phenomenon of "captive state" prevails, as stated by the EC and many NGOs? It is also apparent that many member states would be reluctant to accept countries inspired by the regime of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Mirel: The key to progress is political will
What are the main problems facing Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries?
Pierre Mirel: Why would EU leaders be willing to push the negotiation process when most Western Balkan leaders have been advocating for reforms and good neighborly relations for so many years, at summits and conferences, but without putting words into action? Albania and Northern Macedonia seem to be exceptions. They carried out profound judicial reforms through the vetting process and later by the Prespa Agreement. In both cases, the political risks were high, but they fulfilled their obligations bravely. So far, other countries have not followed this reform process. The captured state still prevails.
Pierre Mirel: The Montenegrin government has agreed to continue the negotiation process according to the new methodology. Do you think that is good for Montenegro? Could this speed up Montenegro's accession process?
The new methodology includes very positive elements: a cluster approach that focuses on sectors; participation in EU programs when clusters are closed; higher political governance of member states. It can only benefit Montenegro. However, the importance of the "basis" of the negotiation process (the rule of law, etc.) remains crucial. A performance-based criterion for IPA funding, coupled with a "reversibility clause" - in the event of severe stagnation or even backwardness - would not help any negotiating country in which significant reforms would be prolonged.
So, regardless of the accession methodology, the key to progress is political will on both sides. The candidate is responsible for fulfilling its obligations, and the EU to fulfill its promises when the conditions are met. Or conclude backlogs. No methodology will ever replace the political will to meet the criteria and requirements for accession.
Pierre Mirel: Is Montenegro accepted to negotiate according to the new methodology a friendly suggestion from Brussels as a consequence of the fact that it did not make substantial progress in the negotiations with the EU?
I am no longer part of the negotiation process between the EC and Montenegro, so I cannot answer this question. Looking at the plodding pace of negotiations on Montenegro's accession, I believe that the state had nothing to lose in accepting the new methodology. Quite the opposite, because IPA funding is likely to increase, with the announced investment plan. However, "increased EU assistance will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and socio-economic reforms, as well as adherence to EU values, rules, and standards," as stated in a recent declaration from the Zagreb Summit.
Therefore, if Montenegro wants the benefits of increased EU assistance, it should implement reforms in line with the new methodology. By the way, what I qualified as the "paradox of Montenegro", i.e. 32 chapters opened, but only three closed in eight years, will continue to prevail.
The EC's main priority is to implement a recovery plan
Members of the new EC say their priority is EU enlargement. Could Montenegro be the next new EU member?
Pierre Mirel: As far as I know, the EC's main priorities as a whole are the implementation of the recovery plan - after the Covid-19 pandemic - and the Green Agreement, with which the countries of the Western Balkans will be closely connected. The consequences of climate change will undoubtedly be much more severe than any virus pandemic. Therefore, the EU and the World Bank should work together to prevent dangerous effects with appropriate measures and funding. And the World Bank should finally honor its reform commitments. It can only bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU member states and thus facilitate their accession to the EU because we share the same fate in this part of the European continent.
Source: Biljana Matijašević, Vijesti