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'The Western Balkans on the integration path – experience of Montenegro’ public lecture by H.E. Mr. Milo Đukanović

The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade organized its first public event on 25th January where the former prime minister and president of Montenegro, H.E. Mr. Milo Đukanović held a public lecture entitled ‘The Western Balkans on the integration path – experience of Montenegro’.

The event was opened by the director of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Ambassador Márton Schőberl reminded the audience that the Western Balkans is still an important priority of the Hungarian foreign policy and that 2018 might be a turning point in the relations of the Western Balkans and the European Union. He underlined that the new strategy of the European Commission might finally bring a positive change in the attitude of the European Union while the Western Balkans Summit of the Bulgarian EU Presidency would provide an opportunity to reaffirm engagement of the EU and the Western Balkans towards each other.

Mr. Đukanović who is currently the president of the governing Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro started his speech by reminding on the good relations between Montenegro and Hungary. He insisted that Hungary has been always ready to share its experience on EU integration and supported the Euro-Atlantic integration process of Montenegro.

Afterwards, he turned to the core topic of his lecture. He highlighted that the Western Balkan region have been always between East and West and accordingly, it is characterized by diversity in culture, ethnicity and religion and political systems and throughout its history it was a scene of power rivalry.

Despite this, - he noted - all countries in the region chose the Euro-Atlantic integration process as strategic direction and some of them have already joined either the NATO and/or the EU. In the 1990s the countries of the region missed the first opportunity to get closer to the EU and NATO. The former Yugoslavia – instead of joining the EU – fell apart and the countries had to face the challenges of post-conflict situation and state-building. Such historical background underlines the importance of the European integration which started as a peace project after the World War II.

The beginning of the 2000s brought new euphoria and optimism but lost momentum later as a consequence of several crises (for example financial and migration crisis) that hit the European Union. The internal problems of the community led to the marginalization of the EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans on the EU’s agenda.

Meanwhile the international context changed. The worsening relations of the EU and NATO with Russia had serious impacts on that how Russia handles its relations with other countries, including those in the Western Balkans. While the EU withdrew from the region, Russia started to send the message that there is an Eastern alternative of European integration.

History has already proven that when Balkan region is neglected by Europe, third parties can intervene and destabilize the region that affects the security and stability of whole Europe. For this reason, the EU should apply more preventive approach towards the region which also enables better use of its resources dedicated to this purpose. The instruments like the European perspective lose from its effectiveness as the time is passing. The same applies for the Berlin Process that has not brought many results though the development of the infrastructural network would play an important role in strengthening natural belonging of the Western Balkans to the EU and Europe. Mr. Đukanović hoped that the next Western Balkans Summit in London will have better results.

He insisted that the Western Balkan countries had to go through a long process but the society is getting divided and it is not always easy to remain supporter of the EU integration process. From economic and infrastructural point of view, the region is significantly lagging behind and under the current economic circumstances, the region could catch up with the EU until 2060. That’s why the region needs the support of EU institutions. The Macedonian case has already showed that how negatively the lack of real perspective can affect a country’s domestic situation. Unfortunately, it is easy to make the region concentrate on the past rather than on the future.

He underlined that Montenegro had managed to become one of the region’s most economically developed country that can attract foreign direct investments though it was one of the poorest Yugoslav states. Montenegro invested a lot to become a tourist destination, and take serious steps towards democratization which is very demanding.

Mr. Đukanović noted that Montenegro has already opened 30 negotiation chapters with the EU and hoped that the rest would be opened this year. He believed that the process could be faster if there is a will from the side of the EU. He also reminded that the negotiation process changed a lot and the candidates shall meet many provisional benchmarks as well. He agreed with that the quality of the reform process shall be a priority against determining deadlines and that each side should do their homework. He admitted that the final decision on accession would largely depend on the EU’s absorption capacity but it is of utmost importance to preserve the belief in unification of Europe that would also enhance its competitiveness.

After his speech, Mr. Đukanović answered the questions of the moderator and the audience regarding the European Commission’s upcoming strategy, the possibility of another Russian intervention in presidential elections and on illegal construction in Montenegro. He noted that Montenegro was doing infrastructural projects with China because it is lagging behind with the EU. He also emphasized the supremacy of European values but added that EU’s bureaucratic approach won’t be able to have a message that is strong enough. He also expressed his hope that if Montenegro will be ready before 2025, it will be given EU membership. Concerning intervention into presidential elections, he thought that it would not depend on Montenegro but how the relation of global players will change.

The public lecture of Mr. Đukanović provided a critical view on the EU integration process of the Western Balkans which highlighted many points for debate that are likely to appear on many fora dealing with the Western Balkans in the coming months.