EP rapporteur: Montenegro should start accession talks in 2011

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Montenegro has submitted answers to a European Commission questionnaire on its readiness to join the EU and could realistically expect to start accession negotiations next year, Conservative MEP Charles Tannock (UK, ECR) told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

UK Conservative MEP Charles Tannock is a member of the European Parliament foreign affairs committee and its rapporteur on Montenegro.

He was speaking to Paul Hutchison.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Mr Tannock: As rapporteur of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee for Montenegro, could you tell us where the country currently stands in terms of its path towards EU accession?

Well, Montenegro was described by previous Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn – when I asked him before the end of the last parliament – as a 'good news story', and I think nothing has changed.

The current legal situation as far as Montenegro's EU accession is concerned is that they have submitted answers to a very large questionnaire – which stretches to something like 20,000 questions in hundreds of pages of documents and was delivered by Prime Minster [Milo] ?ukanovi? to the Commission a few months ago – to answer how far or close their legal system and various state institutions are in terms of getting up to speed with the acquis communautaire, the body of laws which make up what is required for all the member states to be in line with all the legislation enacted in the last 50 years by the EU and all the previous treaties.

So Montenegro is at the stage now of having submitted all these answers. I understand that, having spoken to the new enlargement commissioner, Stefan Füle, there may be some additional questions or clarifications required for some of the answers they've given. The Commission is basically analysing all the answers, making sure that they are in conformity with what is required for Montenegro to become a candidate and open negotiations for membership.

My anticipation and what I've understood from having spoken to various Commission officials is that the timescale for all this is that by the end of this calendar year – around November, December or perhaps even January 2011 – the Commission will have given its reply, in all likelihood in the affirmative. It will then make a recommendation to the Parliament and the Council that this country is up to speed and can become a candidate.

The question mark is whether or not they will make a simultaneous recommendation that it is also fit to open negotiations immediately on becoming a candidate. To me, that would be the most sensible approach. Unfortunately, Macedonia – which has been a candidate for five or six years now – is yet to open negotiations because there has been a blockage in the Council as a result of the Greek objection to their name 'Macedonia', so we don't want to see a repeat of anything like that.

At the end of last year, we had a communication from the Commission that provided it is OK with all the answers given – and I understand they will be sending a team of experts to Podgorica to speak to the ministries and seek further clarification on one or two outstanding areas – it will recommend candidate status.

Provided that they give the green light, in my report – which I aim to bring out immediately after – I will be arguing strongly that they should also be allowed to open negotiations, which in all likelihood should be able to start in 2011.

So the Commission's opinion is expected to be positive – provided that certain additional requirements are addressed. Do you know which areas these requirements fall into?

No, I don't. Unfortunately I haven't been able to get that information so I don't know where the possible areas of dispute or query might arise. It is a technical matter that only the experts of the Commission can answer, and at the moment they don't seem to want to divulge that. I did try and ask Commissioner Füle yesterday [17 May] and he said that he wasn't in a position to reveal that information, so clearly it's a confidential matter at this stage.

When I have the information, I will be able to take it up with the Montenegrin authorities. Normally, it tends to be of a very technical nature, like phytosanitary regulations or single market requirements, consumer protection. It's not the big issues such as foreign policy or the CFSP [the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy]. It tends to be micro issues about various technical regulations that need to be brought into line with the acquis.

What about issues such as corruption, organised crime, the rule of law and the stability of institutions?

Well, that is not likely to be issues that come up in the questionnaire – that will require separate independent, external assessment. Obviously in all the Western Balkan countries, corruption, organised crime and poor governance have been a big issue in the past.

Montenegro is not as bad as some, although there have been elements of frankly-admitted dodgy behaviour, like cigarette smuggling, which the government said it had to do to finance their budget deficit at one stage… But what has happened before is to a certain extent not the issue – it's what they do in future and how they behave from now on, once they become a candidate. Those things are very rigorously monitored once they become a candidate and start to negotiate. All sorts of controls and monitoring mechanisms are put in place to supervise money laundering, international crime, and so on.

One area of concern is the fact that Montenegro is not in the euro zone but uses the euro – as a result it doesn't have its own euro-denominated notes in circulation, it tends to accumulate them from wherever. Therefore it is a very easy place for organised crime to go, buy large amounts of unregistered euro notes through the banking system and launder them for their notes coming from another jurisdiction, because the banks don't keep track of where the notes come from. They seem to mysteriously come in from Germany somehow, but nobody quite knows how that works.

So in my view, those kind of issues need to be nailed in the fight against organised crime. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were a large number of €500 denomination notes in circulation in Montenegro, which we now know is linked to that kind of behaviour. So that could potentially be a problem. It is a common problem in the region I'm afraid, but I don't think it is an outstandingly bad one in Montenegro – I've heard worse reports from areas such as Kosovo. So I'm not too concerned about that.

Montenegro using the euro is an accident of history, because they adopted the Deutschmark when they separated from the Serbian dinar and then replaced that with the euro. So they do use the euro but are not officially a part of the euro zone, which of course raises a few eyebrows. This could be an area of inquiry.

Are there other areas of concern?

One of the general problems Montenegro faces is that it is a mini-state, with a population of under a million. Therefore its administrative resources are very stretched in doing all this kind of work and are having to 'reinvent the wheel'.

One of the things I have been urging is that the Croats – who translated the entire acquis – should make that available to the Montenegrin authorities, as they don't really have the expertise or the financial resources to do this kind of work and they need a lot of help from the Commission. But I think they should also get it from their neighbours who speak a commonly-understandable language. So I'm urging the Croats to make their documents available.

A lot of the Montenegrin legal system is based on the former Yugoslavian system and, of course, the Slovenes have actually joined having had the same legal background as well from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. So there is an element of duplication that can creep in very easily and we should try and avoid that – particularly in a small country like Montenegro, which has very limited admin resources.

You mentioned the country's small size – part of the decision to secede from Serbia was to speed up Montenegro's path towards EU accession. Integrating a small country is obviously easier than a larger country with a population of millions. Do you think it has been a successful step – is Montenegro ahead of Serbia? Is it really on the path?

I think that a small country has both pros and cons. One of the pros is that the Commission can go in there and have much better knowledge of what's going on at all levels of society. It's very difficult to hide anything in Montenegro because it is tiny compared to a country like Serbia, which is ten or fifteen times bigger in population.

But the flipside is that it becomes very difficult financially to run a state when you have a population in the hundreds of thousands, to run a proper, modern state with an international presence – foreign embassies, diplomats and the various things that have dead-weight costs. So it's a huge strain on the Montenegrin budget, so it cuts both ways.

I think that Montenegro has surprised a lot of people and it has done extremely well, all said and done. The economy has stood up to the global credit crunch fairly successfully – partly because of tourism, partly because of remittances for Montenegrin workers.

It has suffered the problems of having a very limited industrial sector – it has one Russian-owned aluminium smelter, which has been under a lot of pressure. It does need to diversify its economy a bit more and has a fledgling financial services sector. But obviously it doesn't have the industrial muscle of a much bigger country like Serbia.

You recently went to Montenegro – what are your impressions of it as a country?

I was there about three months ago and met the government – the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and virtually everybody. I know the Western Balkans, having been to Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, so I wasn't entirely surprised but found it to be very warm and welcoming, very keen to rightly join the family of European nations, very eager to make the necessary adjustments to their legal systems and come up to speed with the EU norms.

I was very favourably impressed and as I said, I came as a friend of Montenegro and left as the best friend of Montenegro. As rapporteur, I was there to support their pathway towards EU membership.

Finally, would you dare to put a date on Montenegro actually joining the EU?

I think that would be a risky venture, a date on actually joining, but I would sincerely hope that it happens within the next five years.

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