Montenegro and the EU
On 29 June 2012 Montenegro has started EU accession negotiations. Barely six years after declaring independence, Montenegro has overtaken Macedonia on the EU accession path and left all other Western Balkan countries, with the exception of Croatia, behind.
The country submitted an official application for membership in December 2008. In November 2010, the European Commission recommended that Montenegro be granted candidate status, a move taken by the Council the following month. At that time, the Commission held back, however, from recommending the start of accession negotiations. Instead, the Commission's Opinion outlined seven priority areas, which it requested Montenegro to tackle before accession negotiations could begin:
One year later, in October 2011, the Commission was satisfied with Montenegro's progress. In its Enlargement Strategy Paper it recommended the start of accession negotiations:
"Montenegro has successfully addressed the key priorities set out in 2010 by the EU as a pre-requisite to opening accession negotiations. The country has consolidated national consensus on European Integration. In view of the progress made, the Commission considers that Montenegro has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria and in particular the Copenhagen political criteria. Yet, maintaining the reform momentum, with particular focus on implementation of legislation and policies in the area of rule of law, remains essential. To that aim, the Commission intends to propose to apply in the case of Montenegro the new approach for the negotiating chapters on judiciary and fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security … In light of these considerations and taking into account the Council conclusions of December 2010, the Commission recommends that accession negotiations be opened with Montenegro."
Despite the unambiguous recommendation by the Commission, on 9 December 2011 the European Council refrained from immediately launching accession negotiations. However, it stated that negotiations should be opened in June 2012 after a review of progress of the implementation of reforms on the basis of a report to be prepared by the Commission. Particular focus should lie "on the area of rule of law and fundamental rights, especially the fight against corruption and organised crime." The European Council also tasked the Commission to prepare a negotiation framework for Montenegro. It should follow the new approach proposed by the Commission to start immediately with the chapters on "judiciary and fundamental rights" and "justice, freedom and security."
In its report from 22 May 2012 the Commission reiterated its recommendation to start accession negotiations. The 12-page document concluded:
"Montenegro has made further progress in the implementation of reforms in the areas of rule of law and fundamental rights, including in the fight against corruption and organised crime.
In view of the further progress made, the Commission remains of the view that Montenegro has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria and in particular the Copenhagen political criteria, to start accession negotiations. In light of these considerations and taking into account the Council conclusions of December 2011, the Commission reiterates its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with Montenegro."
On 26 June, the General Affairs Council, consisting of the foreign ministers of the EU member states, "endorsed the Commission's assessment that Montenegro has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria … to start accession negotiations." Reflecting concerns of some member states, the Council also "underlined the particular importance it attaches to the area of the rule of law and fundamental rights, and urged Montenegro to tackle the issues of concern identified by the Commission in its latest progress report, especially the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime, and the need for Montenegro to step up its efforts in order to establish a solid track record in the course of the negotiations." Moreover, following a last minute amendment, the Council also invites Europol to present a report on the situation with regard to organised crime in Montenegro, and "asks the Commission to ensure that this contribution is taken into account in the forthcoming screening reports."
The Negotiating Framework, also adopted by the General Affairs Council on 26 June, puts specific emphasis on chapters 23 and 24, reflecting concerns of some member states about issues pertaining to the rule of law, corruption and organised crime. In addition to opening and closing benchmarks, which the member states can set for each negotiation chapter, additional procedures have been determined for chapters 23 and 24:
"Given the challenges faced and the longer-term nature of the reforms, the chapters 'Judiciary and fundamental rights' and 'Justice, freedom and security' should be tackled early in the negotiations to allow maximum time to establish the necessary legislation, institutions, and solid track records of implementation before the negotiations are closed. They will be opened on the basis of action plans to be adopted by the Montenegrin authorities. Screening reports to be prepared by the Commission for these chapters will provide substantial guidance, including on the tasks to be addressed in the action plans, which will constitute the opening benchmarks. Where justified by exceptional circumstances arising during the screening process, the Council or the Commission, each in accordance with their respective roles, may determine that the action plans should include measures to address the identified shortcomings within a specific timeframe, including where necessary as a matter of urgency. Once the Council is satisfied, on the basis of an assessment by the Commission, that the opening benchmarks have been met, the Council will decide on the opening of these chapters and lay down interim benchmarks in the EU opening positions. These interim benchmarks will specifically target, as appropriate, the adoption of legislation and the establishment and strengthening of administrative structures and of an intermediate track record and will be closely linked to actions and milestones in the implementation of the action plans. Subsequently, the Council will lay down in an interim position closing benchmarks requiring solid track records of reform implementation."
The Negotiating Framework also introduces a "safeguard clause" that allows member states to put the overall negotiation process on hold if progress in the chapters 23 and 24 is lacking too far behind:
"An overall balance in the progress of negotiations across chapters should be ensured. Given the link between the chapters "Judiciary and fundamental rights" and "Justice, freedom and security" and the values on which the Union is founded, as well as their importance for the implementation of the acquis across the board, should progress under these chapters significantly lag behind progress in the negotiations overall, and after having exhausted all other available measures, the Commission will on its own initiative or on the request of one third of the Member States propose to withhold its recommendations to open and/or close other negotiating chapters, and adapt the associated preparatory work, as appropriate, until this imbalance is addressed. The Council will decide by qualified majority on such a proposal and on the conditions for lifting the measures taken. The Member States will act in the Intergovernmental Conference in accordance with the Council decision, without prejudice to the general requirement for unanimity in the Intergovernmental Conference."
On 29 June 2012 the European Council endorsed the decision of the General Affairs Council and negotiations were formally started the same day.
4 July 2012
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