Naslovnica Info Intervjui Chief Negotiator Predrag Zenović for Pobjeda: Montenegro is still for Brussels and...

Chief Negotiator Predrag Zenović for Pobjeda: Montenegro is still for Brussels and a leader in integration

European integration is a process in which two parties participate, both Montenegro and the European Union, and its will depends both on the mood that dominates in Brussels and among the member states. This was said by the Chief Negotiator with the European Union, Predrag Zenović, in an interview with Pobjeda.

Zenović was officially appointed Chief Negotiator last week, and in his first interview since taking office, Zenović says that for Brussels, Montenegro is still the leader in integration.

He also says that the announced Intergovernmental Conference with our country will be an excellent opportunity for Montenegro to confirm its intention and determination to be the next member of the European Union.

POBJEDA: You assumed the position of negotiator in challenging times for Montenegrin negotiations with the EU – negotiations have been going on for more than 10 years, and in the last few, according to the assessment of relevant reports and institutions, there has been no progress on that path. In order to change the current situation and move the negotiations from a dead point – what will be your first duties?

ZENOVIĆ: I assume the function of the Chief Negotiator with great responsibility, but also with sincere enthusiasm and optimism, convinced that we will make progress in the negotiations with the European Union at the very beginning of 2024. Unfreezing the process and, as you stated, moving from the “dead point” began at the end of last year, with the formation of the Government and important appointments in the Parliament, and will continue energetically and ambitiously in the period ahead.

When we look back at the previous decade, we clearly see that Montenegro does not have any structural problems in integration, nor an insurmountable obstacle in the form of open issues and disputes with its neighbors, yet its European path takes a very long time. The accession process has its own expert-technical and political dimension. Unfortunately, even when the negotiation process in the last 11 years went well thanks to the work of civil servants, experts, the academic community, and the civil sector with visible results, there was often a lack of honest and clear political will to end the negotiations.

Now we are changing that and putting things in the right place. The strong political will is evident and confirmed by the fulfillment of long-awaited obligations in the field of justice, which was welcomed by the European partners. This political will exists at all levels of executive and legislative power, and it is the source of energy in all other segments of the integration process. The establishment of a strong and functional negotiation structure is ongoing. Already in the first quarter of 2024, we will complete the negotiation structure, form 33 negotiation groups as soon as possible, and appoint heads of working groups and negotiators for clusters. We will get a functional negotiation structure, aligned with the new methodology and we will be ready to continue achieving the results and reform processes that are expected of us.

We are additionally encouraged and motivated by the fact that the European Union and its institutions have a very positive climate for enlargement and, despite everything, Montenegro is still a leader in European integration for them.

POBJEDA: What have you noticed as the main weak points in the current negotiation structure?

ZENOVIĆ: In a formal sense, the previous negotiation structure was not fully rounded so that it corresponds to the new methodology of negotiations with the European Union, which implies the formation of the so-called thematic clusters that unite several negotiation chapters. Also, in the past few years, the negotiation structure, without European integration at the top of the agenda, has lost its form and dynamics, and therefore productivity and efficiency.

The role of the Ministry of European Affairs and the Chief Negotiator, who is again part of the negotiation structure, is to lead and coordinate the negotiation process both at the political and expert-technical level, but also to work on animating political will, motivating the negotiation actors and opening a broader social dialogue. The Chief Negotiator is a member of all bodies of the negotiation structure, which gives him the role of mediator and „connective tissue“ in a very complex system.

When we establish and strengthen the new structure for negotiations, we will also devote ourselves to building mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the performance of the negotiating actors, but also to better coordination between the bodies of the negotiating structure, especially between its expert-technical and political segments.

POBJEDA: The government recently adopted the Decision on the establishment of a structure for negotiations on the accession of Montenegro to the European Union. What will that structure look like?

ZENOVIĆ: The negotiating structure consists of: the Collegium for Negotiations on Montenegro’s Accession to the European Union, as the governmental and politically most significant body in the negotiation structure, the Chief Negotiator for negotiations on Montenegro’s accession to the European Union, the Rule of Law Council, which is particularly important for Chapters 23 and 24, Negotiating team for managing negotiations on the accession of Montenegro to the European Union, which will include negotiators by clusters, as well as negotiating working groups for the preparation and directing of negotiations on the accession of Montenegro to the EU by individual chapters of the negotiations.

Some of these bodies are composed of representatives of government bodies, so they have a political character, some are expert-type, they are composed of representatives of the state administration, the academic community and the civil sector, and some are mixed.

We need to preserve the institutional memory, civil servants, and experts who have been part of the negotiation process from the beginning, with great knowledge and experience, and yet give the opportunity to new faces to bring a new perspective, and new energy to negotiations with the European Union.

I am aware that the negotiation structure can seem complicated to people outside it, and that is why the Ministry of European Affairs will devote itself to communicating this very complex structure to citizens, to make the whole process clearer, more inclusive, and more transparent.

POBJEDA: According to claims from Brussels, there is currently great enthusiasm for EU enlargement within the bloc itself. How much will Montenegro manage to use that chance?

ZENOVIĆ: European integration is a process in which two parties participate, Montenegro and the European Union, but its will depends both on the prevailing mood in Brussels and the political will of the member states. That is why diplomatic activity to achieve the political will of important European addresses for our cause is extremely important.

The accession process is essentially a meritorious process, based on clearly defined political, legal, and economic criteria, but certain political moments can bring a greater or reduced mood of the member states for the enlargement of the European Union. By emerging from the institutional crisis and likely completing the judicial and prosecutorial system as a prerequisite for all other areas of integration, along with the revitalization of the negotiation structure, Montenegro is on an excellent path to justifying that enthusiasm.

The intergovernmental conference with Montenegro will be an excellent opportunity for Montenegro to confirm its intention and determination to be the first next member of the European Union.

POBJEDA: When do you expect the next chapter in negotiations with the EU to be closed, bearing in mind that the last one was during the government led by Duško Marković?

ZENOVIĆ: The new methodology has clear guidelines, which is that no chapter can be closed until the closing benchmarks in chapters 23 and 24 are obtained. Progress in all other chapters is conditioned by progress in the area of the rule of law, and that is why we must initially focus on those chapters. The “fundamentals first” principle, that is, prioritizing the rule of law and the functioning of democratic institutions as something on which the entire European project is based.

Nevertheless, in parallel with the work on chapters 23 and 24, we will work diligently to implement the obligations in the other post-negotiation chapters. If we were to talk about the chapters that are currently ready for closure, that is, they have an internal level of readiness, they are chapter five – Public Procurement, six – Company Law, seven – Intellectual Property Law, and twenty – Enterprise and Industrial Policy.

POBJEDA:  The intergovernmental conference with Montenegro, which was supposed to take place in December, did not take place. Will something change in this regard at the beginning of the year?

ZENOVIĆ: Intergovernmental conferences are the highest level of meetings between Montenegro and the member states, a kind of summit form of negotiations, and the fact that they will be held after two years speaks of a positive signal from Brussels towards institutional developments in Montenegro.

The European partners have announced the possibility that the Intergovernmental Conference will be held in the first quarter of this year, and I expect it to be the beginning of a new, effective phase in the negotiations and a sign of support for the Government for the enormous work ahead of us.

POBJEDA: The public perception is that when Chapters 23 and 24 are closed, the negotiations are over. But the latest EC report showed that there is still a lot of work to be done in other, important chapters before closing. In which, apart from the mentioned chapters, do you see the biggest difficulties and challenges?

ZENOVIĆ: The process of European integration implies a comprehensive reform of all spheres of society. Although we most often talk about the rule of law, other areas are no less important for our lives and our community. Among them are often areas in which, due to structural preconditions, the integration process will be more demanding, in which the reforms are very extensive and require large financial resources.

In this sense, demanding chapters stand out as 27 – Environment and Climate Change, 11 – Agriculture and Rural Development, and 12 – Food Safety, Veterinary and Phytosanitary Policy. In the area of the environment, it will be necessary to provide funds for the construction of public infrastructure, while within the framework of Chapter 12, it is necessary to create a financial framework for meeting the strict requirements and standards of the EU related to food production and processing.

Reform processes should be essential.

POBJEDA: The President claims that by 2028, Montenegro can finalize the negotiations and then become a full member. Are you that optimistic?

ZENOVIĆ: I believe that it is crucial that the reform processes are fundamental and that they proceed with the greatest possible dynamics, and then optimistic scenarios are also possible. The aim of the reform processes is primarily to improve the quality of life of our citizens, but also to speed up the path to full membership in the EU.

After the end of the negotiations and reform processes, the ratification of the accession agreement will follow, along with referendums in the states where they are mandatory, so the negotiations must be completed as soon as possible so that 2028 or 2030, as the set deadlines, would be possible.

Long negotiations lead to fatigue of citizens with integration, and then the basic motive and energy for new steps on the European path is hard to find. Citizens of Montenegro significantly support the process of European integration. That is why I believe that due to missed opportunities and lost time, we who are actors in the negotiation process, should end the negotiation process as soon as possible.



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