So Close Yet So Far

Twelve years after opening membership talks with Brussels, Montenegro warily watches EU attention turning to Ukraine.

Jovana Marović, former deputy prime minister of Montenegro.
Jovana Marović, former deputy prime minister of Montenegro.Irena Bajčeta

Montenegro is in the best position to join the European Union. It is a small country and cannot destabilise the European Single Market. It nurtures good neighbourly relations. It is aligned with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union. It has opened all negotiating chapters in the EU accession talks (33/35). The potential membership of Montenegro in the EU does not require any institutional and internal reforms at the supranational level. Nevertheless, Montenegro has been in the best position for membership in the EU since 2012 when it started negotiating about it. Although it formally managed to take some important steps towards the EU, it never actually had a real chance to speed up the integration (because of its captured institutions), nor did it receive a truly and sincerely extended hand from the EU or its member states. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission back then, did not contribute to the enthusiasm in the country after the opening of negotiations by his statement that there would be no enlargement during his mandate. At that moment, Montenegro had already been negotiating for two years and closed two negotiating chapters. Then, the Union closed its doors for five years. There is no doubt that the situation in Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries in 2014 was far from meeting the Copenhagen criteria.

„Only by the ability to further integrate can the EU become stronger. Not the other way around.“

Jovana Marović

But the negative effect of such a statement on the pace of reforms and motivation is also undeniable. Pushing the country automatically to the last bench — the predetermined minimum of seven years of negotiations classified it as the country that would negotiate for membership for the longest time — was neither the promotion of the merit-based principle nor was it diplomatic. The Juncker statement has been used many times in the EU’s approach analysis, but the most damage was done to Montenegro because back then it was still on the “good path.” Later, in a nod to reforms in the country, 2025 was named as the year for possible membership along with Serbia in the 2018 plan entitled “A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans.” But the plan contained neither a roadmap nor incentive mechanisms and was quickly archived.

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