This week, I came to Brussels with a simple purpose: to present the credentials of my country, Montenegro, to become the next member state of the European Union.
Some may say that is too bold an ambition when the Union is today dealing with the multiple challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, global financial and migration crises, and Brexit. It is understandable that some in Europe believe the time to decide when to accept new member states should be pushed into the future.
Yet, perhaps because of these challenges, we can forget that the European Union was not founded solely to address crises that confront its members, or to simply act as a collective, protective shield for them. Rather, it is the embodiment of a dream: that more can be achieved together than apart, that nations which, for a millennium, were at war can come together in peace and progress, and that the Union’s very existence is an act of inspiration both for those who share its borders and beyond, and an example to which the whole world can aspire.
In Montenegro, we are united in our aspiration to become the 28th member of the European family – an intent made clear earlier this year when power changed hands at the ballot box for the very first time in our recent history.
Though our democratic journey began in the early 1990s, the opposition had never taken office before. For some in the international community, this change has been a cause for concern. Some who nudged our predecessor governments in a European direction believed our election would mean a cooling of support for EU membership.
But for Montenegrin voters, the very opposite was true. They cast their ballots for eradicating corruption, for more transparency in government, more democratic decision-making, and more equality in law and justice. In other words, they backed EU values – and those who would deliver them.
Now, implementation is key. Montenegrins have heard previous administrations pay lip service to these values. They have even watched them pass laws inspired by them in parliament and then commend themselves for doing so on social media. Yet, too often there has been a disconnect between discourse and delivery. That is what my government – which took office only last week - is determined will change. We will fight corruption relentlessly and unconditionally, reinstate the rule of law to our institutions and bring back the vision of European future to our citizens.
Still, we understand that having a new democratic government that shares the Union’s ideals – and even a commitment to deliver them - alone is not enough for membership. But we believe Montenegro holds both unique opportunities for the EU and our citizens that should not be overlooked.
To put it in a language of mechanical engineering, for the EU, Montenegro is “an easy fit”. We already use the euro as our currency, and each year, hundreds of thousands of Europeans flock to our pristine beaches and mountains. Many already invest in properties along our Adriatic coast. We are integrated into European defence and security as full members of NATO. Yet, with our population of just over 600,000 – not even 0.2 per cent of that of the Union - the concerns over free movement of people that may be an understandable consideration for larger EU applicants simply do not apply.
For Montenegro, the Union offers - because of our size – what we cannot seek to achieve alone: everything from higher standards in food and medicines, educational attainment, health and safety, innovations and economic opportunities, which simply cannot be delivered in insolation from our larger and free-thinking EU neighbours. Put simply, improvements to the quality of life for all our citizens can only be guaranteed in future years by membership of that same Union.
Moreover, for the entire Balkans region, the EU welcoming Montenegro as its next member would act as a spur to other aspirants to re-double their efforts to reform today. Some believe such change has stalled precisely because their path to Europe appears less clear. Democratic reforms, responsible government, judicial independence and anti-corruption measures are enhanced - and moreover, worth striving for across the Balkans - and can more easily be so when EU membership is in sight. When that future membership becomes less certain, this driving force is diminished.
It is crucial that this changes.
Our new, democratic government is ready to complete the tasks before us and to take the final road to EU membership. To do so is the fulfilment of the wishes of a generation of Montenegrins. And my message to the members of the Union on behalf of the citizens of Montenegro is simple: Our dream of Europe is the same as yours. With Montenegro at its heart, we can demonstrate to the Balkans and beyond that that European dream is as strong as ever.
- Zdravko Krivokapić is prime minister of Montenegro
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