The unity of the Western Balkan countries around the idea of a common European future is the key to lasting stability and prosperity, reconciliation and good neighbourly relations in our region.
One of the key postulates of our foreign policy is to promote regional cooperation and nurture good neighbourly relations. We are ready to build constructive relations with our closest neighbours, especially bearing in mind the fact that we belong to a common socio-historical milieu. EU membership is the main priority of this Government because Montenegrin society shares European values.
What are the priorities on your Ministry’s agenda and the Government of Montenegro’s agenda this year?
In addition to dedicated and continuous work on the implementation of foreign policy priorities, we plan to expand the diplomatic and consular network, primarily by opening embassies in The Hague and Copenhagen, considering that the Netherlands is one of the most demanding EU members in terms of the enlargement policy. A lot of our people live in Scandinavia, so having a resident office in Denmark would be important for covering that region. We also plan to open an embassy in Israel, an opportunity that would strengthen the ties between two countries, attract investments and initiate important projects.
One of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ priorities is the professionalization and education of diplomatic staff, through cooperation with diplomatic academies and referential institutions in the international relations segment, all to improve the base of career diplomats, who would represent their country at the expert level.
The new government is ready to intensify contacts with the EU and make concrete progress in Chapters 23 and 24 so that we can start closing the remaining chapters. Although we have been negotiating in the old way for eight years, Montenegro accepted the new methodology, to show that it belongs to the West politically and value-wise, and to show that EU membership is our ultimate foreign policy goal. I am confident that the Union will know how to value our efforts, bearing in mind that its top officials have repeatedly highlighted that they view the Western Balkans as an integral part of the EU, as evidenced by the fact that 9 billion euro have been allocated for infrastructure projects through the Economic and Investment Plan to the region. Also, when it comes to the COVID-19-induced crisis, EU assistance is much greater than any other partner has provided and offered to the region.
At the multilateral level, Montenegro chaired the Central European Initiative (CEI) for the second consecutive time, which was an additional opportunity for the international promotion of the country by initiating regional activities aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and promoting development, which showed that we are a credible actor in the region.
The invitation we sent to Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Minister Selaković to visit Montenegro is still on the table
Montenegro is the only country among the EU candidates that has already opened all negotiating chapters. When do you expect to join the EU?
“Quality before speed” is our motto, and it is very difficult to bid with deadlines. Our task is to continuously adopt European standards and resolutely pursue reforms. As I have already stated, Montenegro has accepted the new methodology of negotiations, because it wants to enter the EU as an equal and ready partner, putting the quality of the reforms it is implementing in the foreground. We consider it extremely important that the document on the new methodology recognizes the strongly political character of the negotiation process and the importance of stronger political and leadership orientation, through dynamizing dialogue at the highest levels, more frequent and regular EU-Western Balkan Summits, intergovernmental conferences and contacts.
We also welcome the approach in which the rule of law retains a central role in the process of approaching the Union, aware that building a modern and economically prosperous society goes hand in hand with democratic development. In the forthcoming period, the absolute priority will be to build a stable system of the rule of law, in which citizens will have a sense of full legal security and be able to enjoy human rights and freedoms without hindrance.
We are aware of the many challenges that lie ahead and we will strive to address them in cooperation and a constructive relationship with all actors in society and of course, with our European partners. At the same time, we must keep in mind that EU accession is a two-way process, and we will try to do our best to complete the accession negotiations as soon as possible, confident that our results will be verified by the dynamics we achieve.
You recently went to Greece and on that occasion underlined the importance of NATO membership. What does this mean for Montenegro, and what for stability in the region?
Immediately after the restoration of independence in 2006, Montenegro clearly committed itself to NATO and EU integration and defined it as its strategic commitment. This remains the main guideline when it comes to foreign policy. Montenegro recently marked four years of its NATO membership. We are proud to be part of the Alliance of the Most Advanced Democracies and to be in a position to participate on an equal footing with it in decision-making important to our collective security.
When it comes to the region, I would first like to underline my satisfaction that North Macedonia joined the Alliance last year. This means that now, we have a “club” of five surrounding NATO member states, which is undoubtedly a great advantage for the stability of the entire region. That is why I am convinced that it is necessary and mutually beneficial, both for the region and for Europe, for NATO and the EU to be joint, actively engaged in strengthening democratic, reform processes to finally and fully realize its European perspective.
A recent public opinion poll showed that almost 80% of citizens support Montenegro’s membership in the EU
What other reforms need to be implemented to improve the business environment in the country and make it more attractive to investors?
The key areas in which we need to implement reforms recognized by both the Government of Montenegro and the community of foreign investors in Montenegro are human capital, shadow market, rule of law and digitalization of public services. Through the work of a working group coordinated by the Secretariat of the Competitiveness Council, a fee register has been created which will contribute to legal certainty. Investors have recommended that it should be prescribed that no levy not mentioned in the register can be collected in Montenegro. The adoption and implementation of the Law on Fiscalization in Trading in Goods and Services, to introduce an electronic fiscalization system for real-time data transfer from the company’s terminal to the tax administration, is one of the key steps in combating unfair competition in the economy.
In terms of the digitalization of public administration, we need to fully establish and integrate the systems that are a prerequisite for the development of e-services. The main purpose of e-government development is to eliminate administrative barriers, save citizens time and make the whole process of providing services simple and efficient. Education reforms are also needed, especially at the level of secondary and higher education, but also the implementation of retraining measures in order to acquire competencies in deficit occupations.
Key reforms must be implemented in the area of rule of law, through the eradication of corruption, having greater efficiency of public administration, improving the public procurement system, encouraging greater public participation in the fight against corruption, boosting transparency, ensuring indiscriminate treatment and judicial efficiency.
Montenegro is celebrating 15 years of independence this year. Where do you see Montenegro in the future?
In 15 years, I see Montenegro and the entire region as part of the European family, because the European Union is not complete without the Western Balkans. We know that numerous challenges await us along the way, like the implementation of radical reforms in certain areas, but without that, we cannot build a functional state with strong institutions.
We all must be aware of the importance of peace and stability in the WB so that we can dedicate ourselves to the economic recovery and progress of the region and to reach the European standard of living step by step.
A recent public opinion poll showed that almost 80% of citizens support Montenegro’s membership in the EU. The record-breaking level of public support for Montenegro’s integration into the EU clearly shows that citizens see themselves in the Union and recognize and appreciate the support provided by the EU to the countries of the Western Balkans during the pandemic.
Montenegro accepted the new methodology, to show that it belongs to the West politically and value-wise
Is an official visit to Serbia planned for the next period?
Regional cooperation is our government’s priority and we want the best possible relations with all neighbours, especially with Serbia, with which we are historically connected. Serbia and Montenegro were and remain the closest neighbours and friends. I am sure that this is something that both countries are ready to prove, as a rule in difficult times, and this is evidenced by Belgrade’s help in the vaccination process, for which we are very grateful.
Numerous working visits of our officials in the past period also speak of good intentions, during which the modalities of improving inter-ministerial cooperation between the two countries were discussed. Also, we believe that it is time to raise cooperation to a higher (political) level and I expect that this will happen very soon in the coming period. In that regard, we recognize the importance of restarting relations with the Republic of Serbia, in a way that we will look to the future instead of the past, which is what I told my colleague Nikola Selaković at the very beginning of his term.
The invitation we sent to Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Minister Selaković to visit Montenegro is still on the table. I expect that as two equal, independent and sovereign states, which resolve their differences in the spirit of friendship and good will, we will finally realize that.
The importance of regional cooperation
What does further regionalization of the WB bring, as well as the initiatives like Mini Schengen?
Regional cooperation remains high on the list of our foreign policy priorities, and at the moment, our country participates in the work of more than 30 regional initiatives. It is important not to duplicate the processes, and this is very important to clarify when we talk about Mini Schengen. Regarding the aforementioned duplication, it would happen because of the Berlin Process, an initiative that was launched in 2014 with the idea of infrastructural integration of the region. Today, thanks to the Berlin Process, we have achieved numerous results in various segments. An Action Plan for the Common Regional Market was prepared last autumn, which includes several activities to boost economic ties and cooperation. Mini Schengen provides a lower level of cooperation and integration, which is why we estimated that Montenegro simply does not need it at this stage.