Montenegro is on the brink of European integration. For people across the Balkans, EU membership is a symbol of the peoples’ hopes of enjoying the same democratic and economic benefits that our neighbors do. But why do different Balkan nations have such different levels of progress toward this common goal? One former Yugoslav country is already a member, Macedonia and Croatia are formal candidates, and Montenegro and Serbia have applied for membership. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo remain far behind.
What makes one country a candidate and the other a slow starter?
In my view, the European Union considers just three factors when deciding on a country’s readiness for membership. Of course, this may be misleading, since each factor is a composite of dozens if not hundreds of separate considerations.
First and foremost, Brussels wants you to respect its values. Human rights, democracy and fundamental liberties, as laid out in the Copenhagen criteria, are not matters for debate. Humanistic considerations are accompanied by economic ones (e.g. a functioning market economy), as well as “state-of-the-art” standards such as environmental protection. These requirements do not just represent moral imperatives; they are tokens of political stability – something that European states hold in very high regard.
Second, a country’s foreign policy must be consistent with the fundamentals of European foreign policy, or more precisely, foreign policies – no matter how inconsistent they might be with each other. Brussels needs to know that your government will not cut deals with the bad guys.
The third part of this political trinity is economic policy, the core of the entire integration process. This has two aspects: The first is openness, with a particular emphasis on openness to innovation. The other aspect is being reasonable and disciplined in the long run. It’s the trustworthiness issue again – they don’t want any house in the European neighborhood to blow up.
So where does Montenegro stand with respect to these three coordinates? What remains to be done?
One of the core elements of human rights is tolerance for others (people of different ethnic origin, mother tongue, religion etc.). A few days ago the US Congressman William Delahunt, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, described Montenegrin policy towards people with different backgrounds as “a marvel to emulate, obviously not just in this region, but elsewhere in Europe and elsewhere in the globe”. The Freedom House NGO says democratic development in Croatia and Montenegro is well ahead of the regional curve, even if significant challenges remain. In Montenegro, top concern is clearly organized crime and corruption. The causes of this are mainly structural: We are a small country and criminals established their relationships well before the borders were drawn in their current forms. Overcoming corruption requires laws and institutions that are currently being built up, brick by brick. But better legislation cannot be effective without stronger public awareness. Once we have achieved stronger laws and a public that is less tolerant of corruption, then it is only a matter of time. Habits don’t change overnight.
Let’s go on. The EU cannot take issue with Montenegro’s political stability or foreign policy, which is not the case with some of its own members. According to Foreign Policy, a leading US journal, some EU members Bulgaria and Romania are in greater danger of becoming “failed states” than Montenegro and other aspiring candidates. What’s more, Montenegro has recognized Kosovo, putting it in greater harmony with EU foreign policy than the member states that have not recognized Europe’s newest nation.
Many people in Brussels view the Balkans as the continent’s powder keg because of the region’s shaky economies. But, this time, the focal point of their concern is not a former Yugoslav republic, it is longtime member state Greece. The smoke is not coming from Montenegro’s house — but even so, we need to get our fire extinguishers ready. Fiscal discipline is vital, as are long-term structural reforms that will render public finances sustainable. If we achieve fiscal stability, which we clearly will, the remaining factors – openness and innovation – will pose no obstacle to Montenegro’s accession. Why? Because they have already ceased to be obstacles.
So what is missing? What still prevents us from becoming a full-fledged EU member? Let’s be honest. An average 30 year old citizen of Hamburg (biggest city of the former West Germany) experienced the following enlargements in his lifetime: Greece ’81, Spain and Portugal ’86, East Germany ’90, Austria, Finland, Sweden ’95, and 12 more countries in the 2000s. That is a lot of change in one’s life, and change can easily be viewed as threat — especially when the poorer EU countries, plus some irresponsible rich ones, are putting a serious strain on wealthier, responsible countries’ finances. Popular economics convince our 30-year-old German that if more people are slicing into the pie, he himself is going to get less. So why should he want to hurry to accept new states? Moreover, why should he do it anyway? This phenomenon is called “enlargement fatigue”.
What popular economics misses is that the pie is actually getting bigger with every enlargement, as does Europe’s potential for growth. Since European citizens’ wealth is increasing, this argument is not just correct, it’s convincing too. Clearly, enlargement became less attractive when the economic crisis struck and took a bite out of Europeans’ personal incomes. The end of the global downturn will hopefully end these setbacks, as well as certain member states’ spendthrift ways.
So what is still missing for Montenegro to gain candidate status? From our part, nothing is missing in general, but a lot of things are missing in particular. A structural overhaul is underway, but social systems remain delicate and their behavior still cannot be fully predicted. If you want to affect that behavior in some way, you set forth small and controlled impulses — in our case, reforms. You then watch these impulses accumulate and finally take on an inertia of their own. Time is surely a key factor. We also need constant supervision and corrections as change gathers steam. That is the playbook for the rest of the race, as the home stretch approaches.