Unlike other countries such as Macedonia or Serbia which have problems with their neighbours, Montenegro has no “political issues” to solve and should be able safely to consider itself the next EU member, the country’s chief negotiator Andrija Pejović told EurActiv Germany in an exclusive interview.
Ambassador Aleksandar Andrija Pejović is chief negotiator for Montenegro’s EU accession and state secretary for European integration. He spoke to EurActiv.de's Ewald König.
One and a half years ago, Montenegro began accession talks. What progress have you made so far?
We have provisionally closed two chapters and now, and over the past few weeks, we were able to open the two most important chapters regarding the rule of law. We hope to open more chapters at the intergovernmental conference in December.
I would say that the first two years of experience in the accession process have been extremely positive. The European Commission has been, and continues to be a very helpful partner. In addition, we have been able to improve the cooperation with member states; negotiations should not only be conducted with the EU institutions in Brussels, but also with the capitals. That is why this is my third visit to Berlin. And starting in January, we will begin the first bilateral consultations with Austria.
Apart from this, we are using the accession process to establish first contacts with countries Montenegro has not regularly dealt with before such as Finland, Lithuania, or Ireland.
Which member states would you say are the closest?
Well, that's difficult to say. With Germany, we have several levels of cooperation on many issues ranging from the rule of law to economic chapters. Slovakia is also very present and very interested. The Croat expertise is also a great assistance and obviously we have very good cooperation with Slovenians as well, as they are ex-compatriots. We are their greatest priority. As a small country, this support means a lot.
What are you able to learn from Croatia, who has recently joined the EU as its 28th member state?
We have been extensively using their expertise in many chapters, from taxation to food safety and agriculture. Our relationship with Croatia is an excellent example of how two countries use European integration to improve their bilateral ties. Through this, you see how much we are actually building up our common future. That is exactly what we are trying to do with the rest of the region now. We are currently trying to transmit the experiences we have accumulated over the past two years to the Serbs, to the Macedonians, to the Bosnians.
So Montenegro is taking on its own special role for the rest of the Western Balkan countries?
Yes. For example, I meet with the Serbian Chief Negotiator regularly. We have sent some of our experts to Serbia and have exchanged materials and documents. The same goes for the Bosnians and the Albanians. In this way, we hope to pursue a basis for better cooperation with all the countries in the western Balkans.
Montenegro is likely to be the next EU member state. When do you think Serbia and the other countries will be able to join?
It would be ungrateful for me to talk about them because, unlike Serbia, Croatia or Macedonia, we don't have a political issue. The technical process we are face with is much easier; you do your homework and you reach the goal. With political issues, you never know how much time is needed. In any case, we hope for equal progress in the entire region without large discrepancies among the countries.
You mentioned that your country must do its homework. How far has Montenegro progressed with regard to corruption, unemployment, youth unemployment, etc.?
Of course corruption is also addressed in chapters 23 and 24. We have planned many measures, most notably the creation of a new agency for anti-corruption. We are creating track-record tables to monitor how many corruption cases are there and are working with the prosecutors in the judiciary to monitor how these are dealt with.
On unemployment, Montenegro is a specific case. At 13.5%, it is relatively low. According to the latest figures this is close to the euro zone average. Montenegro imports a high amount of labour from Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, showing that we have a very flexible labour market.
On the issue of youth unemployment, obviously this is a key area of focus for the new government. The question is, how to find and qualify young people for the jobs on the labour market and how to improve the education system. Basically, the primary concern of the new government is employing more people, creating jobs, and creating smart growth through better education system and better access to the labour market.
Europe has certain problems in the eurozone, problems with the relatively weak leadership at the top of the European Union and the possibility that one-third of the seats in a new European Parliament will be won by populist MEPs. Is the European Union still as attractive as it was for the Montenegrin people?
Yes. We have polls that show 75% are in support of joining the EU. So, if we had a referendum today, 75% would vote in favour. I think people feel overwhelmingly positive about not only the EU, but how the integration process transforms the country and pushes reforms. In our case, we have never had a problem with negative perceptions on the EU. But we should work to improve this feeling even more. Through the communication strategy, we would like to reach out to citizens and explain the benefits they would receive throughout the process.
Which countries, in your opinion, should join the EU after Montenegro's accession?
We would have liked Iceland to join because we have cooperated quite a lot in previous years. As far as the western Balkans, we naturally feel that the Balkans should be in. Turkey should also do its homework and carry out the necessary reforms so as to join the EU one day.
Do really believe Turkish accession can be accomplished?
Of course I cannot speak on behalf of the Turkish government, but in Montenegro we see how the integration process helps the country. In terms of a long-term plan, Turkey could be in the EU between 2020 and 2030.
Are you afraid of growing Euroscepticism in the EU? Has this made joining the EU more and more difficult? Even for Montenegro, as the next country...
Yes. In a way we are concerned because there is less than 25% support for enlargement in Germany and in France less than 40% are satisfied with the EU, according to the latest polls. Obviously we need to recon the idea of European and also show that enlargement is not a negative thing.
Actually, enlargement has created an enormous benefit for growth, improved trade and has opened up markets. In addition, it has greatly spread democratic principles and rule of law governance on the European continent, to an extent that we have never experienced before.
When you look at it from this viewpoint, you see that enlargement has only produced benefits. Somehow there is a lack of communication among the population, that they do not recognize this as a productive process.
So it has also been a question of the media?
Yes, but also the communication from the political elites. Especially in Germany and Austria, two countries who have actually experienced the impact of foreign labour coming in but who are also exporting to the markets of the new member states. Austria, for example, is one of the biggest foreign direct investors in Montenegro. So obviously, it is in the interest of their business for Montenegro join. They should understand why our accession will be good for them.