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Interview of Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. Dr. Srđan Darmanvić for daily newspaper “Pobjeda”

Interview of Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. Dr. Srđan Darmanvić for daily newspaper “Pobjeda”
Published date: 13.07.2019 18:36 | Author: MVP

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The Union will not give up the enlargement policy

Montenegro, as a NATO member state, does not have the alternate agenda. We believe that the perspective of EU membership is a key driver of reforms, guarantor of stability, democracy, further economic development and competitiveness of our region. That is why accession to the European Union represents principal foreign policy and strategic objective that has no alternative, stated Minister of Foreign Affairs Srđan Darmanović in the interview for “Pobjeda.”

Darmanović said that he cannot envisage that EU will give up its most successful policy – the enlargement policy. He added that member countries have to prove that they are able to reform their societies in accordance with the European standards, but also the EU has to know what it wants and to demonstrate that with the clear policy in the Western Balkans.

Pobjeda: French President Emmanuel Macron recently stated that now it is not the moment to discuss the EU enlargement with the Western Balkans, since EU member states cannot agree upon different issues. Many understood that statement as the current discontent with elections of EU leaders, but it is, definitely, a bad message for the Western Balkans. Is that the announcement that the enlargement process will be postponed?

Minister Darmanović: President Macron gave this statement in what was indeed a specific moment, when it seemed that the EU leaders, due to their disagreements, were far away from electing holders of the highest positions in the Union. In that sense, it is certainly possible that the statement was the reflection of particular resignation, but also a sort of pressure on partners to speed up the process of EU leaders’ election. On the other hand, French President, from the beginning of his term of office, has expressed on several occasions his view that the reform of the Union is necessary after Brexit, which needs to be a priority before the enlargement policy. Therefore, his message is not just of tactical nature, rather it illustrates particular wider beliefs. It is known that French position has to be taken with due attention. Besides that, few more EU countries are not far away from these deliberations.

As a consequence of this approach or due to other different reasons, one has to state that so far – in 2019 – there were no significant results in the enlargement policy. Decision to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is postponed with uncertain outcome; Montenegro did not get a green light for opening the last negotiating chapter; Serbia managed to open only one chapter; candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina still remains a topic of discussion; there is no visa liberalization for Kosovo, and so forth. However, we have encouraging results of the European elections. Approximately two-thirds of the European Parliament consists of clear pro-European attitude, while idea of united Europe implies the Union’s enlargement to the Western Balkans. We believe that this will be the new European Commission’s approach as well. However, beliefs are not enough. Just as in practice we, candidate countries, have to be able to reform societies in accordance with the European standards, the EU has to know what it wants and to demonstrate that with a clear policy in the Western Balkans. If other approach from the one defined since Thessaloniki and 2018 Strategy would prevail in the EU vis-à-vis enlargement policy, Western Balkans’ countries would have to know that and to respond to that adequately. 

Things, however, have to be observed in somewhat wider context. This is not the first time that the Union is facing the dilemma of internal reforms or enlargement. The recent history has shown that, despite debates on this topic, both of these processes have been going in parallel. The Union’s reforms was continuous, just like the enlargement policy was constant. These processes have not been mutual confronting or conditioning, therefore the biggest enlargement in 2004 occurred in the peak of debate on the EU’s reform. We believe, and that is the stance of overwhelming majority of the EU member states, that the process of Union’s consolidation this time also has to go in parallel with the enlargement process. The fact that the enlargement remains within priorities in the current 12-month program of following two EU presidencies (Finland and Croatia) is, certainly, encouraging.

When it comes to Montenegro, we, as a NATO member, do not have the alternate agenda. We believe that the perspective of EU membership is a key driver of reforms, guarantor of stability, democracy, further economic development and competitiveness of our region. That is why accession to the European Union represents principal foreign policy and strategic objective that has no alternative. Our citizens share this commitment as well, which is confirmed by many conducted public opinion polls.

However, this is not an issue that concerns only us. Prospective inability or lack of will to effectively implement the enlargement to the Western Balkans, an area with approximately only 18 million inhabitants, could undoubtedly have consequences for the EU itself. I do not believe that such thing will happen, because it is hard for me to imagine that EU will give up its most successful policy – the enlargement policy.

MVP Pobjeda: The fact that the regular meeting of the Interstate commission in Brussels was not held and that last remaining negotiating chapter was not open illustrates that there is no enthusiasm in terms of the enlargement. How do you comment on that?

Minister Darmanović: Chapter 8 – Competition, the last remaining unopened chapter, is one of the most complex, since it covers very substantive area. We do not have problem if some member countries need more time to precisely consider this issue. In the past period Montenegro has fulfilled all opening benchmarks and achieved the internal readiness for opening of the Chapter 8, therefore we are convinced that the process of opening of the chapters will be completed in the near future. After all, we got so called 22 green lights in the preliminary process and we believe that remaining six will not be left out during the current semester.

Pobjeda: How does evident standstill in the enlargement process and recent statements of European officials, such as Macron’s, can impact authorities and citizens of the Western Balkans’ countries? Is that an indicator that accession to the EU does not depend solely on them and conducted reforms?

Minister Darmanović: In technical sense, standstill in the reform process does not exist. Countries that are negotiating for membership still do that, while conducting reforms and aligning with the European legal order. It was always clear that the reform processes in candidate countries represent the mere essence of the European integration, since the final objective is achieving European standards in all segments important for one society aiming at membership in the eminent club such the EU is. However, European integration does not concern only the fulfillment of criteria. At the end, there are political decisions. Decision about the enlargement of the EU is not being adopted by the commission of experts on the basis of firm scientific standards, but rather by politicians – ministers of foreign affairs, prime ministers and presidents. And at the point where leaders of countries are deciding, political assessments and motives are taking charge, and there is nothing controversial about that. 

I was saying on many occasions that the accession process to the EU is two-sided, meaning that candidate countries have to consistently fulfill requirements and achieve high European standards, while it is also important to have clearly defined perspective of the enlargement policy. Hence, the enlargement policy has to observed from the perspective of geopolitics, particularly having in mind evident interest for our region from other global actors, from which some do not share values of contemporary liberal democracies. There is no vacuum in geopolitics, rather global actors are taking free and undefended area, in accordance with their national interests. Therefore, we believe that our European friends and partners should also perceive the enlargement policy from that perspective as well.

For instance, eventual real standstill in the enlargement policy would directly undermine pro-European governments in our region. That would probably induce strengthening of Eurosceptic, ethno-nationalistic and populist forces, which, certainly, would not contribute to the stability and further democratization of Western Balkans’ societies. There is no doubt our geopolitical competitors would know how to take advantage from such developments.

Pobjeda: The recent European Commissions’ Report states that, among others, our state has achieved a “certain progress”, but that better results in the rule of law, fight against organized crime and high-level corruption are lacking. How do you comment on that?

Minister Darmanović: We have carefully analyzed the recent Report of the European Commission, just as any beforehand, and we are using in as the guidelines for further improvement of the reform process.

In the area of rule of law, Montenegro has made a tangible progress, created the legislative and institutional framework and started to achieve concrete results. Number of indictments in the fight against organized crime and corruption have been increased, along with number of orders for investigations. In previous year, multimillion property acquired by criminal activities was seized. However, these are very complex phenomena, particularly taking into consideration their regional, European and wider connectivity. Despite that, certain progress in terms of cooperation of judicial authorities was stated, while improvement of police cooperation on the international level was particularly underlined. In that context, we are continuously implementing necessary activities aiming at consistent and timely presentation of achieved results in the area of rule of law to the European Commission and member states.

Pobjeda: Is the election of German von der Leyen an indicator that forces that advocate “larger Europe” will prevail in the European Commission and in Brussels bureaucracy in general?

Minister Darmanović: The election of Ursula von der Leyen that, if confirmed by the European Parliament, will be the first women at the head of European Commission, is interesting from many aspects. For instance, Germany will have the position of Commission’s President first time after 60 years and election of Walter Hallstein. Her appointment was also strongly backed by the French President Emmanuel Macron. She is a close associate of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is one of the key advocates of the enlargement policy to the Western Balkans. Let me remind you that Merkel initiated the Berlin Process with an aim to support peaceful and democratic future of the Western Balkans through improvement of regional cooperation, connectivity and providing incentives on the EU path. 

Ms. von der Leyen is very agile and energetic person with a firm European and Euro-Atlantic orientation that we believe has the courage and determination to cope with numerous challenges facing today’s Union.

I expect that the new composition of the European Commission will continue to advocate, as you told, “larger Europe”, as well as remaining in line with the enlargement policy as a reliable guarantor of stability in the Western Balkans. If elected, we look forward to cooperation with Ursula von der Leyen. As a leader of the European integration process in the region, Montenegro will most certainly closely cooperate with her and her team.

Pobjeda: How do you see EU’s future, is there statesmen with a vision of European perspective in Europe, such as Angela Merkel?

Minister Darmanović: Every period brings its own leaders. Their strength, vision and capability to cope with challenges of their time are not always the same or of the same quality. In today’s digital era, it looks like the time of great leaders is vanishing, but it could also be a sense of nostalgia for “better times”, which does not have to be always realistic.

Referring to the EU, the results of recently held elections for the European Parliament, won by traditionally pro-European parties, represent clear indicator that the vision of united Europe, based on traditional values, still has the firm support of the EU’s citizens. This is particularly important having in mind challenges – Brexit and migrant crisis – that propelled Eurosceptic and populist parties and temporarily strengthened their positions.

I do hope that there will be no lack of leadership within European members of Parliament, heads of European institutions and member states concerning the enlargement policy to the Western Balkans, as well as in terms of significant global issues where today’s Europe has to find its place and position among giants of world politics and economy.

Pobjeda: How much the political situation in Montenegro – boycotting of dialogue and postponing of adoption of OSCE’s recommendations and changes of electoral law – impacts the perception of Montenegro in Brussels and in the international community in general? What if the agreement among ruling parties and opposition could not be achieved and in following electoral year we enter without changes of the electoral law?

Minister Darmanović: Perception of Montenegro in Brussels and among our partners and allies is very positive. Certainly, neither they, nor we are happy with the fact that political divisions and confrontations are creating mutual distrust among principal political forces in the country, which are inducing blockade of work on election reforms. Despite that, our partners are aware that ruling coalition is investing significant efforts to come up with a joint solution for implementation of OSCE’s recommendations in the area of electoral law’s reforms. This was also clearly stated by the OSCE Secretary-General Thomas Greminger during his visit to Montenegro in April this year.

What I absolutely know from contacts and intensive communication with international partners is that the idea of deciding upon governing the country outside of elections, rather than in some other way, is completely unacceptable and boycott of elections is very unpopular in Brussels and member states.

At this moment, it is hard to anticipate the outcome of dialogue between ruling coalition and opposition, however there are some advancements in its establishing. One part of opposition parties and independent MP’s have shown readiness to work with ruling coalition on improvement of electoral law ahead of 2020 elections. It is in common interest to resolve this situation as soon as possible and to create a ground for holding upcoming elections.

From the point of the Constitution, situation is clear. There cannot be postponing of elections, or extension of Parliament’s and Government’s mandate after October 2020. Extension of ruling after that period would be illegal and elections have to be organized by that date, whoever takes part in it. On the other hand, boycott of the elections from the opposition side could open the question of legitimacy of elections and, probably, snap elections would follow. This vicious circle is not in anyone’s interest, or at least not in the interest of responsible political actors, thus sooner or later citizens recognize who opts for solutions and who is undermining normal political process and, according to that, award or punish their representatives.

Pobjeda: What are the relations between Montenegro and Serbia after harsh and inappropriate statements of Serbian officials towards Montenegrin statesmen on adoption of draft Law on Freedom of Religion? What can we expect after adopting the Law, taking into consideration messages from Serbian Orthodox Church that they will “defend even more determinedly sanctities” and representatives of ruling side in Belgrade who say that “they will not tolerate that”?

Minister Darmanović: Regional cooperation and good neighborly relations, strengthening of trust and enhancing the connectivity process in the region are one of priorities of our foreign policy, in addition to NATO and EU membership. In that vein, we are firmly determined to the quality of overall bilateral relations with the Republic of Serbia, as well as to the process of European integration. Certainly, both countries have their own interests.

Montenegro is an open, free and secular state, where multi-ethnic and multi-confessional character is richness and not burden. These relations demand their own legal expression. One of these laws is the one on Freedom of Religion and Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities. Its adoption is in exclusive competence of Montenegro. The Government has prepared the draft Law in consultation with representatives of all religious communities in Montenegro. The text of the Law was given to the reliable and competent partner of Montenegro – Venice Commission that has given a great assistance to our country in adopting almost all key systemic laws from the Constitution in 2007 and onwards. The Venice Commission adopted very positive opinion on draft Law on Freedom of Religion, while stating that the submitted text is in accordance with the highest international standards from this area and that it brings “significant positive changes of the existing obsolete legislative.”

The Venice Commission also supported the Government’s key determination to guarantee every citizen of Montenegro freedom to be part of any religion or not to be at all, according to its conscious, while affirming the state’s right to protect property and cultural heritage that belongs to all people, as well as to secure that laws of Montenegro are equal for all and on the whole territory.

It is clear that the Law is not against any religious community, notwithstanding is their residence in Montenegro or abroad, rather it aims to normatively and legally regulate the question of religion in our country. It seems that, after the first dramatic reactions, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro slowly gets to understand that there will be no lawlessness and seizing of property, rather all issues should be discussed with arguments. After all, the Venice Commission would never give the positive opinion on some law which is against European standards.

Statements of some ministers in the Government of the Republic of Serbia are scandalous and not in line with good neighborly relations and overall cooperation of our two countries. The similar assessment could be attached to inappropriate, intensive and negative campaign that is being conducted in Serbia unduly and without arguments in terms of mentioned draft Law. Reactions of Montenegro concerning these messages were moderate and in accordance with our commitment to the good neighborly relations and regional stability. We are trying to solve all open issues with our neighbors with open and continuous political dialogue.

Pobjeda: How do you asses now relations between Podgorica and Moscow, having in mind that there were no stronger reactions of official Russia after the judgment in the case of attempted terrorism in 2016? Could we say there are indications of better relations or…

Minister Darmanović: We can say that the trend of deterioration of our relations, culminated in the time of attempted coup in 2016 and during 2017 in the period of our formal accession to NATO, has stopped. There were also symbolic signs of their improvement during previous years. A positive signal in our relations represents good cooperation in the area of tourism, air traffic, students’ exchange, as well as in terms of some other forms of cooperation in the domain of education and culture.

Certainly, Montenegro follows NATO and EU policy in relations with official Moscow, particularly when it comes to global security issues, but that is also the practice of other member or candidate countries from the Euro-Atlantic community, hence we do not see that this should represent the obstacle for improvement of relations.