The first hearing of a Montenegro Prime Minister in the European Parliament foreign affairs committee transpired with applause and tears. Applauses for the pro-European affiliation of Milo Đukanović, who otherwise has controversial past, as well as present. The tears were for the Montenegro rapporteur in the European Parliament Charles Tannock (ECR, Great Britain), who announced that due to the Brexit he resigns from his rapporteur duties. Several things were noticeable during the hour-long debate with Mr Đukanović. The first one is that it was set up for a very early time of day and was very short, considering the need of a more in-depth talk with a leader from such a region. At 8 am CET the room was half-empty, which disturbed both the Montenegro PM, in whose country the working day starts very early, as well as the committee’s boss Elmar Brok (EPP, Germany). Later, however, the room got fuller.
The second issue was that support for Đukanović was unanimous, mainly due to geopolitical reasons. Milo Đukanović supports the pro-European orientation of the country, he joined the European position towards Russia (by levying sanctions), secured NATO’s invitation for membership of Montenegro in this organisation as well, and keeps good neighbourly relations with countries in the region. Despite the number of issues that Montenegro has, the small Balkan state is viewed as the one most advanced in the accession process. MEPs of the EP’s foreign affair committee did not attempt to hide their hopes that Milo Đukanović will head the next government as well, for this would guarantee the country’s European orientation, despite Đukanović being seen by many in his country as a mild dictator. It is more important to the EU at this stage that he is pro-European, than him having democracy deficits.
A very strong impression was left by the fact that Milo Đukanović had a very clear and straightforward reply to every question asked. This is extremely rare for a leader in general, let alone one coming from the Balkans. The early hour, as well as the hurry to end the discussion in a timely manner, for MEPs seemed far more thrilled by the upcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama at 9 am, left the impression that Montenegro and enlargement in general are no big deal for MEPs. Judging by the conversation, however, this is not quite so.
Enlargement is important for Europe’s stability as well
Most MEPs demonstrated the EP’s full support for enlargement. Cristian Dan Preda (EPP, Romania), rapporteur on Bosnia and Herzegovina, was outraged by the fact that enlargement was not mentioned even once in this year’s address on the state of the European Union by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “From this Parliament you have strong support for the enlargement process - from my group but also from the big majority here”, said Ulrike Lunacek (Greens/EFA, Austria). “It is true that yesterday [September 14] Mr Juncker didn’t mention specifically the enlargement process but it's also true that in this excellent speech he didn’t mention some key issues such as the relationship between the EU and Russia, EU and Turkey. So, I’m convinced that enlargement of the EU remains our priority in the first round”, assured Slovenian MEP Ivo Vajgl (ALDE).
Sandra Kalniete (EPP, Latvia) expressed her regret that the Thessalonнki process is developing too slow and is also delaying the enlargement process. "I believe that the migrant crisis will help Europeans understand we cannot afford the destabilisation of the Western Balkans", she said. Milo Đukanović replied straight forward, saying he expected more from Brussels. He is hoping for more encouraging messages, not just declarations about open doors. “To us there is a sign of equality between stability in the Western Balkans and their integration. We believe that this is a question of true importance for the Western Balkans, and thus for the stability of Europe”, added the Prime Minister.
He admitted that a year ago the situation with the Western Balkans’ European perspective was never better, but now it is clear that sources of instability in the Balkans were never eradicated. The only answer Milo Đukanović sees is integration. When asked by Lithuanian MEP Petras Auštrevičius (ALDE) what is the public opinion and support for joining “a club of western countries, of civilised countries based on the rule of law”, Milo Đukanović stated that support is currently varying around 50%. In his opinion, there still exists an active minority in the Balkans that wishes to keep the Balkans in the previous muddle and aimlessness. “These two concepts are still in a vicious clash. Our goal is winning the elections and building on the succession of European policy”, he said.
Montenegro and Russia
Questions aimed at the Montenegro PM had mainly geopolitical focus. He was praised on several occasions for the fact that Montenegro levied sanctions on Russia, but was also questioned about Russia’s influence in the region. Cristian Dan Preda noted that joining the European position towards Russia is not ubiquitous in the Balkans, obviously hinting about Serbia. Johannes Cornelis van Baalen (ALDE, The Netherlands) asked straightforwardly what the relationship with Russia is, keeping in mind that at the moment Moscow very much dislikes the fact that Montenegro is so close to the West and NATO. “Did they try to pressure you or your countrymen?”, was his question. Ulrike Lunacek on the other hand wanted to know if after the October 16th elections in Montenegro one could count that the next government of Montenegro will have the same strong support for the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation.
Milo Đukanović assured that there is no need for Montenegro to have a referendum about its NATO membership and explained that such a request “is not an authentic initiative of opposition representatives. You are well aware of who is currently adamantly advocating for organising a referendum with the hope that this will be a reason for postponing Montenegro’s NATO membership or sidetracking Montenegro from this path”, said Đukanović and offered an extremely serious and profound revelation about Russia-Montenegro relations:
"I would like to remind you that Montenegro has had close relations with Russia throughout history and we recently marked an anniversary of the centuries-long diplomatic relations between our states. This, however, does nothing to lessen our concentration on what is our main goal. Our goal is, through a change in the system of values, adopting a new system of values, to create preconditions for the full integration of Montenegro within the European and Euro-Atlantic civilisation. This certainly does not mean we wish to burn bridges with our traditional allies and we will not do so, unless they request it, exactly because of these circumstances. This also does not mean that we are doing this aiming to harm anyone. We do this because of our own interest. [...] You have done well in registering that this is obviously disliked.”
"We believe that we need to put an end to the long history of the practise of the Balkans living their own, somewhat autistic life, disrespecting the fundamental moves and achievements of the current European civilisation. Do you need any stronger proof than this, excluding Slovenia and Croatia, which are EU member states? When we look at the Western Balkans today, Montenegro is a leading economy. Do you know what it means to be a leading economy in the Western Balkans? Still below 6000 euro GDP per capita in a situation when the Europe average is 28 500. What does that tell you? It tells about not decades, but I am afraid centuries-long lagging of the Balkans behind the achievements of modern European civilisation. So, to us it is imperative that we hop on the last train of Euro-Atlantic integration processes”, continued the Prime Minister of Montenegro.
Milo Đukanović stressed several times on how important the Berlin process is for Western Balkans European integration. He assured that the Brexit did not change one bit the country’s views that the EU is the right future for it. “Western Balkans’ Europe-isation has a far greater political importance for the EU than perceived, having in mind Brussels’ preoccupation with other matters”, he said.
Geopolitical questions prevailed, leaving no time for discussing the most serious problem in Montenegro – the rule of law, corruption, and media freedom. Being aware that this is a central subject in European Commission progress reports, Mr Đukanović did stress as early as in his opening statement on what has already been accomplished in Montenegro, assuring that all EC and EP recommendations are being taken under very serious consideration by the government of Montenegro. He stated that it is extremely important that by the end of the year new chapters are opened, but it is even more important that some chapters are closed. “This would be a symbolic gesture for the negotiation process and its outcome. This would be an important signal that the doors of the EU are open and progress along this path is possible”, was the message of the Prime Minister of Montenegro.
Tears for Charles Tannock
The EP rapporteur on Montenegro Charles Tannock made a moving resignation from his position, which upset the committee’s boss Elmar Brok. “I have been a standing rapporteur for 7 years. I think I have been probably the longest standing rapporteur for an accession country now in the Western Balkans in this parliament. We, of course, have always welcomed the good story of Montenegro in terms of economic progress. Your huge progress in the rule of law and fighting crime and corruption. You are clearly en route to EU accession. But, sadly, I have to say as your standing rapporteur after 7 years, and this is a personal statement I'm now making, following the deeply regrettable Brexit vote, which I campaigned strongly against, I feel it inappropriate to carry on beyond the next November report which will be my last as I believe article 50 will be triggered by my country early next year”, said the MEP.
Beyond the Brexit part, however, his speech was rather controversial, for it extended some uncritical praise for the Montenegro PM. “You are an outstanding Prime Minister and a regional leader in the Western Balkans, a true veteran and obviously one of the founding fathers of Montenegro after its successful 10 years of independence”, he said.
Milo Đukanović is the longest-serving leader in the Balkans. He was Prime Minister during the bloody wars, which accompanied the disintegration of former Yugoslavia (1991-1998). From 1998 to 2002 he served as president, after which he again became Prime Minister (2003-2006, 2008-2010, 2012-present). He was a close ally of Slobodan Milošević until 1996. He is the leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), which is the ancestor of the Montenegro branch of the Yugoslav Communist Party.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev