The Challenges of Institutional Reform in the Context of Accession: The Case of Montenegro

EU Accession Process

Since the introduction of the new Approach towards the EU Accession Process for the Western Balkans in 2020, the European Union (EU) has shifted its attention to the ‘Fundamentals’ cluster of negotiating chapters that cover the area of the rule of law, fighting corruption, proper functioning of the democratic institutions and public administration reform. The new policy is an important step, as the extensive process of alignment with the EU acquis requires a strong commitment from both the EU and the applicant country. Montenegro is an avid example of an aspiring EU member country. Although it has been assessed by the EU as the most advanced accession candidate, it is noteworthy that out of 35 negotiation chapters, three chapters have been closed since 2012.

Lack of political will in the candidate country due to the costly reforms and the limited capacity of the EU to integrate new members while also preserving its functions and cohesion have been the main causes for the slow-down of the EU Accession process. In this post, we argue that the EU needs to remain flexible in its new Approach towards the Western Balkans, take into consideration the country context, and be active in identifying the causes of the slow-down of the reforms and provide solutions to it. By studying the political landscape and shortcomings in the Parliament of Montenegro, we illustrate the challenges in its democratic reforms and suggest actions that may facilitate the EU Accession Process.

Political Polarisation and Slowdown of Reforms

The proper functioning of the parliament and political polarisation have been identified as major issues in the recent European Commission Staff Working Document on Montenegro. The daily work, law-making in the Parliament and the EU reform agenda have been affected by strong political divisions and a lack of constructive engagement. While the level of transparency of the Parliament and communication with the public has improved (e.g. sessions are broadcast live, and citizens can initiate legislation), the parliamentary oversight remains weak, partly due to political boycotts leading to the inability of the parliamentary committees to operate in full capacity.

Some positive developments in the political system in Montenegro can be observed. With the parliamentary elections of August 2020, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) saw a marginal defeat, and its dominant rule of over 30 years came to an end. Securing 40 seats out of 81, the party went into opposition. The DPS did not manage to secure a majority in the Parliamentary elections of June 2023 either. However, the positive power change in the Government of Montenegro is accompanied by political instability. The country faces difficulties in forming a stable government due to (1) the struggle by the political forces to prevent the former DPS from returning to power and (2) the inability to agree on a common political programme.  

After the elections of August 2020, ideologically contradictory political forces, the pro-Serbian and pro-Russian, conservative alliance “For the future of Montenegro” (27 seats), pro-European “Peace is our nation” (10 seats) and progressive and civic “Black on white” (4 seats) allied together to form a government, securing 41 of the 81 seats in the parliament. However, the new Government did not last long as the coalition lost a vote of no confidence initiated by the deputy prime minister Dritan Abazović (the leader of United Reform Action from the Black on White platform). Abazović formed a minority government composed of a broad coalition of pro-European and pro-Serb parties that set the goal of democratic reforms. 

After the snap parliamentary elections in June 2023, this time, the pro-European Europe Now Movement received the highest votes, securing 24 seats in the Parliament. However, the country faces the same challenge of forming a stable government, as the Europe Now Movement is reluctant to form a coalition with the ‘Together!’ bloc formed around the DPS that secured 21 seats or with the pro-Serbian coalition for the Future of Montenegro that secured 13 seats.

Ideology has remained a poor predictor for the behaviour of the parties, and for years, coalitions in Montenegro have not been formed from an ideological standpoint: opposition parties often freeze their ideological differences in an attempt to defeat the rule of DPS. The coalition formation of the diverse parties in 2020 is an example of a power struggle to prevent the return of the former ruling elites. Additionally, although the DPS did not manage to secure a majority for the second time in the elections of June 2023, throughout its long rule, the party secured strong control over the state institutions. The newly elected parties may find themselves in a constant struggle to control state institutions to the detriment of the rule of law and democracy.

The political system of Montenegro needs support to be able to overcome the deep political polarisation, assistance to shift to substantive programmatic debates and to implement consistent democratic reforms following the accession requirements. The EU can play an important role in the development of the capacity of the political parties and the Parliament.  

Need for Active Engagement in Country-Specific Challenges

The EU needs to gain a deeper understanding of the political context in Montenegro and empower various actors that may play an important role in the design and implementation of democratic reforms. The political polarisation in Montenegro tensions within the majority supporting government has weakened the powers of the Parliament and has put the government formation into a deadlock. Political disagreements have also slowed down the implementation of the reforms required as part of the EU Accession process.

The EU reforms related to legal harmonisation and institutional capacity building should be accompanied by direct work with the personnel in the institutions under the reform. The reform agenda related to the elections and Parliament of Montenegro should involve not only the increase of human resources and technical capacities of the institution itself but also stronger attention to the political parties and provision of support to decrease the existing political polarisation. The EU needs to provide support to the newly elected political parties in the parliament of Montenegro. The following areas can be covered:

  • Capacity building around political topics such as coalition formation and a culture of political dialogue;
  • Development of policy ideologies and programmes and its implementation;
  • Training programmes on political debates;
  • Knowledge sharing of best practices in the inclusion of parties in the process of policy-making;
  • Establishment of efficient ties between the political parties and citizens;
  • Increase dialogue between political parties and civil society organisations.

This strategy will increase the capacity of the political parties and may make the legislation initiatives and decision-making in the Parliament more effective.  

EU’s new Accession methodology is a new tool designed to facilitate the accession process and includes novelties such as the commitment to a merit-based process: once the countries meet the objective criteria, the EU Member States shall agree to move forward to the next stage of the process. At the same time, it is important to put a strong differentiation between the EU’s ‘merit-based approach’ and the ‘more for more’ principle that was formerly applied to the Neighbourhood countries. The new methodology embeds a stronger political steer. The Member States will be invited to contribute to the accession process through monitoring on the ground, contributions to the annual reports, the Commission will propose its annual enlargement package of reports, and country-specific Inter-governmental conferences will take place[1]. To assist in the completion of democratic reforms, the new EU Approach should be tailored around the political context of the candidate countries and around the causes that affect the slow-down in the reforms.