Four students, rejoicing in the good news, partied in one of the numerous Irish pubs in Podgorica. Fed up with nationalism, populism and other breeds of pestilence engulfing the Western Balkan region, they reveled in a brighter future awaiting them in the European Union. It was summertime, the Thessaloniki Summit had just ended, and the promise of EU membership had been conveyed to the region.
No Credible Alternative to the US Grand Strategy in Europe
For the students, the EU was not a gold pot you could dip your hand in and harvest the low-hanging fruit. Quite the contrary, at their very core, they felt that the EU resonated with them in a peculiar but enchanting harmony. German punctuality, cars and the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change”; French “liberte, egalite, fraternite” and wine; Italian canzone and eternal Rome; Greek philosophy and the cradle of democracy; Spanish flamenco and the mesmerizing sound of guitars — all came together in a beautiful constellation, comprising the 12 stars on the blue flag.
Fast forward two decades and one of those four students has become the minister of foreign affairs of Montenegro. Without pretending to be Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from the famous Rembrandt painting, looking back at the lost time in between, I cannot help but ask whether both Montenegro and the EU could have done better. Are we where we wanted to be?
Over those years since Thessaloniki, Montenegro has accomplished a lot. It opened up its economy and became a WTO member. It has no open issues with its neighbors. It joined NATO in 2017 and is ahead of others in the region in the EU accession process. It is also the only aspiring member country showing 100% alignment with EU foreign policy. Looking at these achievements, some may wonder why Montenegro still isn’t part of the European Union.
Well, things are never that simple. In contrast to the undeniable success of its foreign policy, the murky labyrinths of domestic politics are still blocking the country’s path to EU membership. Since negotiations with Brussels began, the ruling party has acted as if it were the sole custodian of the process. But to be successful, the course must involve the whole of society and political spectrum. Montenegro is joining the EU as a community, not as a ruling majority. Every success in this effort belongs to all political stakeholders, NGOs and other participants. The same applies to all failures.
Of course, the main responsibility lies with the government that creates the framework for how the accession will evolve, but the sustainability of the process can only be attained if utmost inclusion is assured. There was a persistent lack of political will to tackle the most treacherous pestilence of any society — corruption and organized crime. For too long, political stakeholders turned a blind eye to these flaws blocking Montenegro’s European path and deferred the attempts to eradicate them to better times.
Finally, the regional context of the Western Balkans further complicated Montenegro’s course toward Brussels. No matter how much one excels in class, the performance of your classmates can hold you back. Montenegro has been a beacon of good neighborly relations. However, it exists in a region permeated with bilateral disputes that have detrimental spillover effects — an endless game of thrones.
But every cloud always has a silver lining. In August 2020, the Democratic Party of Socialists — the heir of the Communist Party — headed by President Milo Djukanovic, suffered defeat in elections, marking the first peaceful transition of power after nearly 30 years of one-party rule. The process has been smooth; the absence of riots, rallies or protests on the streets showed how mature the Montenegrin society has become.
The new political habitat brought to the surface new hopes, zeal and also stakeholders. There emerged a myriad of new, young politicians, with political roots in neither the Communist Party of old nor in the nationalist blocs. Young and prominent, they shine brightly, unburdened by the dark clouds of the wars of the 1990s and the legacy of clientelism. They are progressive, Western-orientated, and they truly walk the talk. They present a stark contrast to the ruling elites of the past, the indoctrinated ex-members of the Communist Party who, despite being able to subscribe to the messages coming from our European partners, never genuinely understood them.
And how could they? A vast majority of these party cadres never lived abroad, never left the confines of former Yugoslavia and seldom spoke foreign languages. Unlike them, the new generations are fully in sync with the heartbeat of Europe. They have been raised on Western films, music and culture. They have studied or lived abroad and speak at least one foreign language. Most importantly, they detest corruption. Unlike their predecessors, these new Montenegrins are law-abiding not because the criminal code demands it, but because they find corruption to be a great social ignominy that mars the country’s image. In their mindset, corruption is a red line that must not be crossed.
Against the backdrop of this mixed bag of legacies, the new government has maintained the same foreign policy and conducted, in parallel, an intrepid fight against corruption and organized crime, achieving outstanding results in a very short period of time. These results have been recognized by the EU and the international community at large.
Thanks to these accomplishments, the myth that only one political party could lead Montenegro toward EU membership has been debunked. Montenegro’s EU and NATO partners have realized that other, young and genuinely progressive political forces are capable to reach the final destination of the country’s EU journey and that they are sparing no effort to deliver. But again, this is a process that belongs to all Montenegrins. Membership in the EU is voluntary and requires dialogue and cooperation from all sides of the political spectrum, no matter how hard it may sometimes be.
Let us now look at the situation from the EU’s perspective.
It is widely known that every structure has, among others, a raison d’être, one where others look up to it and find it worth emulating. Without this interaction, its allure would be in vain, creating an inwardly-oriented edifice. This approach is embedded in the EU Global Strategy 2016, meaning that the union must become a more globally-present and assertive international actor. Its enlargement policy, which compels countries to conduct reforms to better align with the EU, is its most appealing stratagem. We in the Western Balkans understand that most clearly.
Societies in the former communist countries, from “Sczeczin in the Baltics to Trieste in the Adriatic,” hold this to be a self-evident truth. Enlargement policy has had a hugely transformative effect on all its beneficiary countries and represents the best of Europe to date — its attested power to unite in diversity. This is even more remarkable given the fact that the past decade has not been the easiest ride for the EU. Many crises befell the bloc one after another, including the 2008 global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the 2015 migrant crisis, Brexit and now COVID-19.
I don’t think it would be wrong to suggest that some states might not have survived these great ordeals if the union, the spiritus movens of European nations and values, had not been there to support them. This structure has proved time and time again that democracies might be shaken, but, when united, they will, at the end of the day, always prevail.
There is no doubt that the EU needs to enter calmer waters in order to recuperate from a decade of crises before it can continue to expand. Nonetheless, the dream of European might is still vivid and alive among those who have been dreaming about such a European future for almost two decades.
For all our sakes, we should keep sharing this approach together. Enlargement is a question of credibility, something that the US realized in the wake of the Cold War and manifested in the motto “the US promises — the US delivers.” The EU, if it wishes to have a truly global status, should act along the same principle.
In the case of the EU, credibility is twofold. First, neither Brussels nor the member states should permit themselves to leave a geostrategic blackhole in the heart of the continent. It would be a blunder, as it would lead to the penetration of other global opponents in the union’s backyard. If the EU fails to secure the very heart of the continent, it will become its Achilles’ heel that would prevent the union from expanding, consolidating and deepening.
On the other hand, it is also an issue of credibility for the aspiring countries. Since 2003, only two candidates have become member states, so if enlargement becomes too much of a moving target, at the end of the day, the aspiring countries might start looking to other centers of power that are more credible, reliable and able to deliver on promises.
The Western Balkans is the only region where enlargement coincides with reconciliation among nations. And if incentives for good behavior disappear, bad behavior might prevail.
For all these reasons, the EU has to be prudent, astute and bold enough to realize that it is much better to have the aspiring countries at the table for the sake of its future, stability and raison d’être.
The Last Mile
The case of Montenegro should be an easy one. A country of 620,000 inhabitants, with 75% in support for EU and NATO membership, as well as being fully committed to EU foreign policy, is something that the union could easily digest. A country this size could not, by any means, hamper the EU decision-making process.
The benefits of this easy enlargement would be manifold. It would demonstrate that, in spite of some setbacks along the way, the EU is still delivering. That would, beyond any doubt, reinvigorate mutual trust. Furthermore, the power of the Montenegrin example would encourage other Western Balkan countries to show real interest in becoming the next member states.
At the same time, it would be a strong signal to third parties that the region has not been forgotten, that the EU has just made a short break and now, again, claims its full right to it. That would make life easier for NATO as well by providing stability and security on its southern flank.
The best journeys are never easy or short. But one old European state, too small to have enemies, too smart to create them and too proud to be talked down to by anyone has been on the road for almost two decades, is hurrying toward the European family of nations where it has always belonged. It is high time for Montenegro to get there and for the story of those distant student dreams and hopes, music and harmony to have a happy ending.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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