Just over 100 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, increased East-West bifurcation plays out in the Western Balkans in ways which aggravate fractures in this part of Europe. Countries such as Montenegro, which are close to the West in many ways but also have important economic, historic, religious, and cultural ties to Russia, are under significant pressure as the U.S. and most of its European allies seek to tighten the unity of Western institutions against Moscow.
Within this context, the question of Montenegro joining the European Union (EU) is worth examining. This is especially so at a time in which the new government in Podgorica, which the parliament approved in April, has signaled its determination to speed up its entry process.
Two decades ago, Montenegro adopted the Euro. Six years later the Adriatic country first applied for EU membership. In 2010, Montenegro became a candidate and its negotiations with Brussels opened in 2012. Today the country stands as the frontrunner candidate for membership.
But mostly due Montenegro’s internal dynamics related to the rule-of-law, autocracy, and corruption, as well as enlargement fatigue among existing EU members, Montenegro remains outside the political and economic bloc. As it stands today, the Western Balkan country will probably not be entering the union anytime soon.
Marred by corruption and organized crime, Montenegro’s judiciary and other state institutions lack independence. Despite government-led efforts over the years to address these structural issues, reforms necessary for EU membership have stalled.
At the same time, a host of EU members have expressed dissatisfaction with the entry of poorer Central and Eastern Europe countries into their union. A common view in Paris and other European capitals is that the EU’s most recent additions were unprepared for membership mostly due to corruption and rule of law issues. France and other EU states believe that Montenegro is currently not suited for membership, perceiving the country as under “state capture” by shady politicians tied to organized crime.
“Montenegro’s prospects for rapid EU membership remain poor due to existing EU members’ own enlargement fatigue,” Marko Attila Hoare, a historian and associate professor at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, said in an interview with the American Security Project (ASP). “When the mood in the EU was different, other applicants, such as Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU despite it being questionable whether they fulfilled the EU’s membership criteria in terms of economic reform and/or human rights. But now that enlargement has slowed to a virtual halt. Real or imagined failings on Montenegro’s part may be used as excuses to keep it out.”
The Ukraine Shock
Although Western powers are determined to strengthen their relationship with Montenegro via the NATO alliance, which it joined in 2017, the war in Ukraine appears to have dimmed Montenegro’s prospects for EU membership.
“Ever before the war, the chances [of] Western Balkans…becoming part of the EU were slim. It is even less likely now as the EU will not be enlarging when it is faced with a transformative geopolitical crisis of this magnitude,” Vuk Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told ASP. “The EU will not be enlarging, but as it is fearful of the security fallout of Ukraine in the Balkans, it will probably, for security reasons, tie Montenegro and the rest of the region more closely to itself in commercial and political terms.”
Dusica Tomovic, the managing editor at Balkan Insight, explained that for roughly one month following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine there was “enthusiasm or optimism [among Montenegrins] that this war…would speed up the joining of Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania into the EU.” Yet French President Emmanuel Macron’s May 9 speech, in which he proposed a “European Political Community” to offer Ukraine and EU candidates in the Western Balkans an alternative type of integration short of EU membership, signaled to Montenegrins that “nothing has changed spectacularly” regarding enlargement fatigue. “That proposal from Macron to create some club B, or one with cheaper ticket seats, is just another carrot for Western Balkan countries to keep us close but not in,” added Tomovic.
Widespread doubt among Montenegrins that their country can realistically join the union anytime soon factors into the picture, too. Given the extent to which Montenegro would need to move ahead with certain reforms to obtain EU membership, and the costs that would be associated with making them, it could be a tough sell for officials in Podgorica under current circumstances.
“It’s [also] about what is happening internally in Montenegro in reforms, in adopting some rule-of-law regulations, fighting organized and corruption,” Tomovic told ASP. “Previously we had this clear EU agenda and all the musts—must do this, must do that—if we want to join the EU. But now even for this government [led by Prime Minister Dritan Abazović] it will really be hard to justify something saying we must do something when it’s like almost obvious that that membership will not arrive soon.”
However, over the past 15 years Montenegrins have been largely supportive of their country joining the EU. According to polls cited last year by Euronews, roughly 80 percent of the public has been in favor of EU membership—higher than in Serbia where that figure stood at 63 percent.
Arguments in Favor of Bringing in Montenegro
Although Montenegro’s prospects for EU membership appear bleak, the country joining the bloc could be mutually beneficial to Montenegro and the EU if it meets the EU’s standards. Despite not being an EU member, the U.S. is also a stakeholder.
First, EU membership as a realistic prospect could help the country move ahead with badly needed reforms to curb corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and better protect freedom of expression. The general view of officials in Washington as well as their EU counterparts is that the process of Western Balkan countries accessioning to the EU is “a tool to spur economic, legal, and political reforms and help stabilize the region.” The logic is that having a shot at joining the EU can incentivize Western Balkan states to enact further reforms to make their countries more transparent and democratic. Nonetheless, there is a balance that must be struck. The EU should be careful not to excessively relax its standards, as doing so could set a precedent which gives other candidates reason to conclude that they can outlast Europe’s patience when it comes to making democratic reforms.
Second, Russian influence in Montenegro has been a source of concern for EU members. As EU membership helps instill and idolize common ideas about governance and values, Moscow would be better positioned to gain greater clout in the NATO member if it remains outside the EU. For obvious reasons Russia’s interests are in blocking Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries’ accession to the 27-member bloc.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently announced his plans to visit the Western Balkans this month. While mindful of Europe’s new environment amid the Ukrainian conflict, he is to send the message to Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries that they belong in the EU. “Honoring our commitments to them is not just a question of our credibility. Today more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interests,” said Scholz, who pointed to “external powers” (i.e. Russia) exerting their influence in the Western Balkans.
In southeastern Europe the Russians try to push Euroscepticism, viewing not only NATO’s expansion but also EU enlargement as a threat to Moscow. Naturally, if the U.S. and EU members do not give Montenegro higher levels of support, other powers such as Russia will do so through Moscow- and Belgrade-oriented politicians and parties in the Adriatic country which are mostly supported by Montenegro’s Serb minority.
Throughout the Western Balkans—most notably in Serbia—Russia has been able to leverage its soft-power influence, energy resources, and the lack of any resolution to the dispute in Kosovo to its advantage. Corruption in this part of Europe has also helped Russian efforts to gain greater influence in Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries. The U.S. and its EU allies would unquestionably gain greater leverage in Montenegro should the country join the EU. This would serve to greatly counter not only Russia’s agenda in Europe’s “inner courtyard”, but also the influence of China, which holds 25 percent of Montenegro’s public debt.
What remains to be seen is whether France and other EU members with enlargement fatigue come around to viewing Scholz’s argument as cogent, and if they can convince Montenegrins that they have a realistic shot of entering the union before too much more time passes.
With the Montenegrin parliament approving the new government led by Abazovic in April, the current leadership in Podgorica has emphasized that unblocking the process of the Balkan country’s European integration is a priority. Therefore, if the EU can act strategically, there could be an opportunity to move past the issues that have thus far prevented Montenegro from becoming the bloc’s newest member.
For the Biden administration, it is critical to consider the importance of the Western Balkans as the conflict in Ukraine rages on. Mindful of the ways in which Russian influence in this part of Europe can have a divisive and destabilizing impact, it would behoove U.S. officials to not ignore Montenegro and the question about its accession to the EU.