Montenegro – on its way towards the EU and NATO

Whilst Montenegro continues to make visible progress towards achieving its key foreign policy priorities, further steps are required to ensure that its internal reform processes maintain a similar pace.

By M. Bogetic

Shortly after the Parliament of Montenegro adopted the Declaration of Independence in June 2006, the Government defined three key foreign policy priorities – a) integration into the EU and NATO, b) improving good neighborly relations and regional cooperation, and c) developing bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Three and a half years later, visible progress has been achieved on all three listed fronts.

The key priority of Montenegrin foreign policy, and one of the core strategic goals of the government’s overall agenda, is Euro-Atlantic integration – i.e. achieving fully-fledged membership of Montenegro in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

When it comes to EU integration, Montenegro has been moving ahead rather swiftly – the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU was signed on 15 October 2007, and at the end of November 2009, only three EU countries have yet to ratify it (Belgium, Greece and the UK). Bearing in mind that the average ratification time in previous cases has been over three years, Montenegro seems to be doing rather well. In the meantime, the Interim SAA has been in force without significant difficulties.

Popular support for EU integration now stands at around 76%, and it has never gone below 70%; all eleven parliamentary political parties are in favor of Montenegro’s integration into the EU. Schengen-zone visa liberalization, which is set to enter into force on December 19th 2009, will give another major push to the pro-European sentiment of the population as a whole; with many viewing it as the most palpable sign of progress that Montenegro has achieved since renewing its independence.

At present, the state administration is in the final stage of answering the European Commission Questionnaire, and the complete answers are supposed to be handed over to Brussels by the end of November. Montenegro could then expect additional questions by the EC in the first trimester of 2010, and would like to hope for a positive avis by the Commission in the fall of 2010. Montenegrin officials state that the goal is to achieve candidate status by the end of 2010, which, at the moment, does not seem implausible, but which will also depend on a whole range of factors, not least the decision of Brussels to grant candidate status on a country-by-country base, or to support a “regatta” principle, which could, consequently, delay Montenegro’s candidate status.

Integration into NATO has been causing much more public debate than the issue of EU integration, and understandably so – many Montenegrins still vividly recall the NATO bombing campaign conducted in 1999 against the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Another factor of skepticism is the still dominant perception of NATO as first and foremost a military alliance, which will force Montenegro to participate in unrelated wars across the world. Public opinion polls from October show that as many as 44% of the population oppose NATO membership, whereas only 31% support it. The Government has been conducting an intensive communication campaign for almost two years, but the results of it are yet to be seen.

It is exactly this low public support for NATO which could derail the Government’s hopes to have Montenegro invited into the Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the upcoming NATO Ministerial Conference in December. Montenegrin cooperativeness in the Partnership for Peace (a participant since December 2006) and the Adriatic Charter (a member since December 2008) has been positively viewed by NATO partners. The decision to send an infantry platoon and a medical team to Afghanistan in March 2010 is also highly regarded. NATO representatives have continuously praised the progress Montenegro has achieved in reforming its defense sector and creating a small professional army (both processes essentially started from scratch in summer 2006), but have at the same time warned that public support ought to be higher if Montenegro were to move forward towards full membership.

Another equally significant obstacle is the reluctance of certain European countries (especially Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands) to extend an invitation to MAP to Montenegro at the upcoming Brussels conference. These countries would rather see Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) invited to MAP together, once BiH fulfills the necessary criteria, and at the same time insist that Montenegro should do more on its internal reforms, primarily the fight against organized crime and corruption. Whether Montenegro’s strongest ally, the US, will manage to cajole the skeptical Europeans into granting MAP to Montenegro (and possibly to BiH as well) remains to be seen.

Regardless of the dynamics of the integration process and the time-line of eventual membership in both the EU and NATO, Montenegro needs to continue its internal reform processes. In particular, it needs to target the regularly identified weak spots – to strengthen its administrative capacities, fight organized crime and corruption, and to enforce the rule of law. That way, Montenegro should be ready for membership once the current EU enlargement fatigue is over and there is no more reluctance of some NATO countries to accept new members.

M. Bogetic is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy Vienna and the Johns Hopkins University-School of Advanced International Studies.

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