Montenegro to open final chapter in talks to join the EU amid domestic tensions

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic (R) and European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Oliver Varhelyi (L) hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Podgorica, Montenegro, 07 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/BORIS PEJOVIC]

The EU will give Montenegro a green light to open the last chapter, competition, of its accession negotiations to join the bloc, the Western Balkan country’s Prime Minister Duško Marković announced on Tuesday (23 June).

“This is a great day for Montenegro, which will thus become the first candidate country to open all negotiating chapters,” Marković said, referring the six Western Balkan countries, of which four are formal candidates for EU membership: Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia.

The formal decision by the member states is expected in the Council on Friday (26 June).

Croatian MEP Tonino Picula (S&D), the lawmaker leading the Western Balkans file in the foreign affairs committee, congratulated Montenegro.

“They are the closest to the full EU membership, which still depends on the fulfilment of all set criteria,” Picula wrote on Twitter.

Podgorica started accession talks with the EU in 2012 and has so far provisionally closed three out of the 35 so-called negotiation chapters.

The tiny Adriatic country of some 620,000 people has also announced its intention to voluntarily accept the EU’s new enlargement methodology, which is supposed to breathe new life into the withered enlargement process.

Commission tries to breathe new life into EU enlargement

The new enlargement rules presented by the Commission on Wednesday (5 February) are supposed to inject credibility, predictability, dynamism and a political steer into the increasingly moribund process. “This is a geostrategic investment,” promised Olivér Várhelyi, the Commissioner for enlargement.

Though the new methodology introduces no significant technical changes for Montenegro, “in political terms it reflects the readiness to … develop our system and society more effectively during the EU accession process,” the country’s deputy chief negotiator, Marko Mrdak, told European Western Balkans in an interview.

Meanwhile, political tensions have grown in Montenegro in the run-up to the August parliamentary elections since the passage of a controversial religious freedom law last year, which the influential Serbian Orthodox Church says is discriminatory and aims to nationalise its assets.

Periodic protests have rocked the country ever since, and have restarted after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.

The bill also caused a stir regionally, including in Serbia and Bosnia, where Bosnian Serb lawmakers are expected to adopt a declaration condemning the law on Thursday (24 June), Balkan Insight reported.

Political tensions have also escalated recently after a local council member in the opposition-led coastal city of Budva switched to the Democratic Party of Socialists, (DPS) which has ruled Montenegro for the past three decades.

The new DPS majority dismissed the opposition mayor, Marko Carević, and city council chief, Krsto Radović, who refused to hand over the power amid accusations of corruption.

The police stormed the municipality last week and arrested Carević, Radović and other councillors, using what the opposition said was excessive force.

On Monday (22 June), local politicians said dialogue to resolve the crisis in Budva had failed and mediation by the representatives of the EU was necessary.

Last week, European Commission spokesperson Ana Pisonero said the EU was calling on everyone in the country to respect rule of law and democratic principles, “and to demonstrate political maturity to find a viable solution to the current situation in Budva on their own through dialogue and mutual respect.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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