EU leaders agreed on Friday to make the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro a formal candidate for membership of the bloc. The leaders approved a pre-drafted statement without setting a date for the start of talks.
Montenegro took a positive step towards EU membership
European Union leaders announced Friday that the Balkan state of Montenegro was now officially a candidate for membership in the bloc.
The tiny country of 650,000 inhabitants only broke away from Serbia in 2006, but EU officials say it's already made enough reforms to count as a future member. Montenegro's Minister for European Integration Gordana Durovic says her country is elated that the EU has acknowledged its progress.
"For us this is very good news, and we are very happy today. Symbolically, it means a lot for us, not only for government, because the government is not the only one trying to join the EU, but the whole society," she told Deutsche Welle.
EU leaders also pointed out, however, that they want more progress before membership talks actually start. Durovic says Montenegro must now focus its energy on meeting the EU's seven key priority areas.
"So, first, strengthening the capacities of our parliament, then the rule of law and independent judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime, media freedom, and improvement of dialogue between government and civil society, and of course, to further strengthen anti-discrimination policy," she said.
Montenegrins achieved independence in a 2006 referendum
Balkans expert Piotr Kaczynski from the Center for European Policy Studies says Montenegro has a good chance of joining the European Union within the coming five years, maybe even before 2014, when the next European parliamentary and Commission elections are due to be held.
"The reason is that Montenegro is a small country without any major political problems with its neighbors, unlike, for example, Serbia, Macedonia or Bosnia," he told Deutsche Welle. "Also, it's a pretty stable democracy. There was no war in Montenegro in the 1990s, so there is no problem with war criminals, as was the case with Croatia or with Serbia."
Possible new neighbor
So who is the European Union's newest potential member?
The country borders Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, and has a small stretch of coastal land on the Adriatic Sea. Montenegro is considered ethnically diverse, with large populations of Montenegrins, Serbs, Bosniaks and Albanians.
Kaczynski points out that Montenegro faces similar hurdles as other EU candidate countries, such as concerns over judicial independence and, importantly, corruption.
"This is a big issue, and Montenegrins will have to address this issue, as everybody else," he said. "This [regards] independence of judiciary, which is clearly linked with the enforcement forces, with anti-corruption, with the corruption status there."
Montenegro shares borders with five other states
Kaczynski adds that the EU's confirmation that Montenegro was on course for EU membership would benefit the region as a whole.
"It would have a large, stabilizing effect on the western Balkans, because this region needs to regain faith in its future, of peaceful coexistence of all the countries in the region, and, hopefully, within the European Union," he said. "It would send a very, very major message that the future of the western Balkans is in the European Union."
This echoed comments by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who told a news conference in Brussels shortly after the candidacy announcement on Friday that the decision "underlines the conviction that countries in the western Balkans have a European vocation."
Nation must 'seize the opportunity'
It perhaps bodes well for Montenegro then that the problem of corruption is not seen as too endemic to be overcome. Friday's candidacy announcement is a signal that Brussels believes in Montenegro's ability and willingness to transform itself.
A spokesman for Montenegro's opposition Socialist People's Party, Aleksandar Damjanovic, explains what is now expected of the country's government.
"We need to seize this opportunity, now that we've reached candidate status. We should not rely on others to push us in the direction of the EU, we should do this ourselves," he told Deutsche Welle. "This should be displayed in every gesture and in a responsible engagement in meeting the obligations we have agreed to on our way to EU membership."
Montenegro now joins Macedonia, Croatia, Turkey and Iceland on the formal waiting list of EU candidates.
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Rob Turner