How Montenegro can get its membership bid back on track

Montenegro has been sinking into an increasingly deeper political crisis since last autumn. To realise its long-standing European ambitions, the country needs a new government that can priorities EU reforms
Presidential guards at the residence of the President of Montenegro | Photo: Alamy

By Vladimír Bilcík

Vladimír Bilcík (EPP, SK) is Chair of the Delegation to the EU-Montenegro Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee (SAPC) and the EPP Group’s shadow rapporteur for Montenegro

01 Feb 2023

While Montenegro is one of the world’s youngest countries, it has been commonly known as a frontrunner in the European Union accession process. To date, Montenegro has opened all 33 negotiating chapters and provisionally closed three.

A Nato member with a stunning Adriatic coast and dramatic mountain ranges, Montenegro declared independence from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro following a closely watched referendum in 2006. After having applied for EU membership in 2008, the country started the accession process officially in June 2012.

In principle, Montenegro should have a straightforward path towards accession with no major obstacles to becoming the next EU Member State.

Unlike some other countries in the Western Balkans, Montenegro does not have a protracted bilateral dispute with a neighbouring country. Its citizens have consistently declared overwhelming support to EU accession, with polling figures around 70 per cent in favour of EU membership.

With Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine, Montenegro has also demonstrated a 100 per cent alignment with the EU’s common foreign and security policy, including all sanctions against Moscow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reshaped the EU’s enlargement policy. In 2022, the EU welcomed three new candidate countries: Ukraine and Moldova in June, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in December. The Union has been paying more political attention to the state of play in the accession process.

At the same time, however, by the end of 2022 various EU players noted that Montenegro is no longer running towards the bloc but is instead, at best, standing still. What happened?

This past summer the government in Podgorica lost its majority support in the Skupština, the national Parliament. Ever since, Montenegro has been sinking into an increasingly deeper political crisis. Last October, the European Commission assessed that “political volatility, government instability and tensions” have hampered meaningful progress on the reform agenda and subsequently on the country’s EU accession path.

The most recent and serious escalation of the political crisis took place before Christmas. On 12 December 2022, the Montenegrin Parliament adopted a controversial law curbing the President’s powers, despite the fact it went directly against the urgent opinion of the Venice Commission.

A swift political agreement in Montenegro is needed to end the current government’s term and pave the way for new parliamentary elections

This was a clear challenge to Montenegro’s long-standing European ambitions, including respect for constitutionality and the principles of the rule of law.

The EU and the international community warned Montenegro against the adoption of these amendments and emphasised, time and again, the absolute urgency of electing judges for the country’s Constitutional Court, which it had also failed to do.

Consequently, and for the first time in the history of the joint parliamentary meetings, I had no choice but to cancel the scheduled 21st EU-Montenegro SAPC meeting in Strasbourg last December.

What is the way out of the current impasse? A swift political agreement in Montenegro is needed to end the current government’s term and pave the way for new parliamentary elections.

At the same time, leaders across the political spectrum must accelerate EU integration reforms in order to meet the expectations of the overwhelming majority of Montenegrin citizens who support their country’s future in the EU. There is no more time to be lost in Podgorica.