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Albania’s European Path

  • June 2019
  • Flamur Gruda

Albania’s European Path

Progress being made in strengthening the rule of law, yet the EU is seeking more

 

Source: Pixabay

 

 

Would you rather have a constitutional court that is filled with corrupt judges, or a court that is composed of vetted and trusted officials?  This is the dilemma that Albania faces, on top of the prospect of starting membership talks for EU accession.

 

Albania is a young democracy: its transition from a communist state occurred during the early 90s. The transition to a free market economy and a fully-fledged democracy has been difficult yet promising for the Albanians. The European Union (EU) officially recognized Albania as a potential candidate country to the Union in 2000. In 2009, the Council of the EU asked the European Commission to start an assessment on possible membership. On June 23, 2014, Albania was granted candidate status. In 2018, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission gave a positive assessment for Albania to start full membership negotiations.

 

The Council of the EU, however, did not want to proceed with the negotiations. Notably, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands preferred to wait until June 2019. They hoped to see Tirana implement further reforms – including judicial reform, and especially the fight against organised crime and corruption.

 

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the European Parliament held a conference hosted by MEP Knut Fleckenstein, the EP’s standing rapporteur on Albania.

This conference reminded the relevant stakeholders that Albania had made progress towards integration in justice reform, combatting organised crime, and overall, had seen improvement on the rule of law.

 

Albanian Interior Minister of Albania Sander Lleshaj, Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Artemis Malo, and the Minister of Justice, Etilda Gjonaj, were invited to demonstrate the progress and improvements that the Albanian government had undertaken in order to allow for accession talks to begin.

 

 

What does Tirana have to say about its progress?

Some important steps have been taken by Albania in order to strengthen justice reforms and to consolidate an independent and impartial system.

 

Albania was a known cannabis producer and exporter. In 2016 alone, according to Minister Malo, more than 500,000 plants were seized by Albanian authorities. Albanian special forces, with Italian assistance, have been able to reduce those figures drastically. By 2018, Albanian and Italian surveillance found evidence of only 750 remaining plants to be seized. This represents a dramatic improvement and the success of the observation missions.

FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has launched its first ever deployment outside of an EU member state in Albania. This also represents a strengthening cooperation between Albanian and EU authorities.  Minister Lleshaj highlighted that Albanian authorities stopped more than 20,000 people from crossing the border illegally last year, and this is seen as positive not only for Albania but also for the EU, as migration flows are being halted.

Albanian citizens show very high approval rates in social surveys regarding perception of the EU and willingness to integrate. According to Minister Malo, almost 93% of Albanian citizens support further integration and membership into the EU. This is particularly striking compared to other countries in the region, such as Bosnia and Serbia.

With regard to foreign policy alignment with the EU acquis, Albania has been 100% aligned with EU foreign policy positions. This is staggering when compared to current candidate member Serbia, which is only 51.8% aligned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minister of Justice Etilda Gjonaj; Photo: PS Alb 2019 

 

CFEP: What are the main conditions to ensure accountability and transparency when it comes to the vetting process in the judicial system?

Minister Gjonaj: There are two main levels of transparency, firstly the vetting process has the same jurisdiction as the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court of Albania. If an appeal is needed, then it can go to the ECHR, the European Court of Human Rights for validation. The second mechanism is entrenched in the Albanian Constitution through the IMO (International Monitoring Operation). It is responsible to verify the candidates to make sure they meet all of the requirements. The Ombudsperson is also responsible to verify the criteria.

Albania is also the only country that has been required to have a judicial monitoring program like the IMO from the European Commission.

 The main aim of the vetting process is to guarantee the functioning of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Albania

The vetting process Albania is currently undertaking involves three criteria:

  • Inspection of Assets: all judges and prosecutors in duty are obliged to fill out and deliver an official declaration of assets and all relevant documents justifying their authenticity and lawfulness
  • Background Information: to verify whether the person in question has (or has had) inappropriate contacts with persons involved in organised crime. Intelligence agencies will be responsible for helping the vetting bodies undertake this assessment
  • Proficiency Assessment: to evaluate if the vetting subjects have performed their ethical and professional activities in compliance with the legislation in force. Starting from January 1st, 2006 for subjects who have had more than 3 years of professional experience or, for those with less than 3 years of experience, from the moment in which they started their mandate.

 

 

Albania has undertaken comprehensive justice reforms, such as the vetting process mentioned above, which initially benefited from assistance by the US State Department, the FBI, and the European Commission. The vetting process has been put in place in order to ensure transparency and build trust in the judicial system. Out of a potential 800 candidates, judges and prosecutors, around 148 have gone through the vetting process. To date 118 public officials have been dismissed and another 36 cases are under investigation. This proves that the vetting process is actually working, although slowly. The Albanian government has also doubled the salaries of judges and prosecutors in the justice system to incentivise justice officials to carry out honest and sincere work. Nowadays, justice officials are paid some of the highest salaries in the country. Minister Gjonaj stated that Albania does have the political will to implement justice reforms, as demonstrated through the vetting process.

 

“The implementation of the justice reforms is about sustainability in the long run, and also for the greater benefit of the Albanian citizens, regardless of whether Albania receives an opening date for accession talks this June, or at a later time”, said Minister Gjonaj.

 

One of the main sticking points for Albania has been the nomination of Constitutional Court Judges. Currently there is only one sitting judge that has been able to pass the vetting procedures. All eight other remaining seats are vacant, and this has created a constitutional crisis. Minister Gjonaj said that the vetting procedure would take some time and they are hopeful that the vacancies will be filled by July of this year. Albania is currently moving towards a more transparent judicial system and a high degree of accountability. However, they remain in the transition phase, which is inherently time consuming.

 

 

Has enough progress been made for the Council to give Albania the green light?

 

Both the European Parliament and the European Commission expressed a positive opinion towards Albania’s accession talks in both 2018, and the new report in 2019.

 

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has urged EU members to start the negotiation process with Albania and North Macedonia without further delay. President Juncker of the European Commission has stated: “Albania made considerable progress on this road towards the EU. This is a testament of a determination and strength of the Albanian people”. Juncker also added that “any decision on the opening of the negotiation is based on merit and tangible results in the necessary areas, adding that for the European Commission based on an objective assessment Albania is ready for the next step.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edi Rama & Jean-Claude Juncker; Photo: European Union 2019

 

 

The decision now rests with Member States in the Council. The Dutch Parliament voted 105 out of 150 against the opening of accession talks with Albania. The Dutch Parliament has voted to deploy the ‘ Emergency Brake Mechanism‘ because of concerns about rising criminal activity by Albanian nationals in the country. They passed a motion asking the Dutch government to request that the Commission launches the visa waiver suspension mechanism. This could potentially lead to a suspension of Albanians’ Schengen travel rights.

 

The Albanian government has been working to alleviate the concerns of the Netherlands and the other member states, with respect to combatting organized crime. The progress against organized crime is highlighted throughout High Representative Federica Mogherini’s Report for the Council, and so this is clearly a top priority for the EU.

Inviting Albania into the negotiating process may create an impetus for reforms, which could in turn increase the level of accountability for the state structures.

 

Many challenges still remain for Albania and more needs to be done in order for Albania to join the European Union. The fight against corruption, organized crime, and creating a completely independent judicial system are the main priorities for Albania. Albania has taken heed of the advice given by the Council last year. The Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, during his meeting with President Juncker, noted “the EU should act geo-strategically, geopolitically, and based on the merit of the countries. If the countries deserve it, the EU should not deny it”.

 

 

 

 

Published by: Flamur Gruda at the Centre for European Progression in Brussels

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EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

Unlike for the cast of HBO’s Chernobyl, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet.

Ukrainian flag

Source: Pixabay

 

 

 

HBO’s bleak, bureaucratic miniseries Chernobyl has put Ukraine at the top of the cultural agenda. As Ukraine and the EU move into a new stage of their relationship, policymakers on both sides may well empathise with the series’ characters who cooperate to overcome inertia.

 

Indeed, EU-Ukrainian cooperation has been marked by division in recent times. In the economic sphere, European farmers have turned their ire on a Ukrainian chicken breast exporter exploiting a loophole in the EU-Ukraine trade deal. Out of the EU’s desire to preserve a key tool of Ukraine’s European alignment, the resulting agreement largely benefited Ukraine. Members of the European Parliament may provide serious resistance in passing the deal.

Recent elections both in Ukraine and in the EU have given both sides an impetus to reboot their efforts. Although concerns have been raised about newly elected President Zelensky’s populism, it is not the same kind of populism we see in the European Union. Zelensky, for one, is not a pro-Kremlin figure. Putin’s understanding of that fact underlined his offer of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region. A pro-EU and pro-NATO Russophone politician undermines Russia’s narrative that Ukrainian Russophones are loyal to Russia.

 

Zelensky’s political party is ahead in the polls by a substantial margin, before the Parliamentary election in Ukraine scheduled for 21 July. He can expect to have a strong parliamentary majority for reform ahead of the new European Commission coming into office. On the EU’s part, the feared populist revolution failed to materialise. Russia would have enjoyed the emergence of a populist bloc in the European Parliament, large enough to hamstring the EU’s action. In its absence, Ukraine and the EU are free to continue deepening their relationship.

 

This will not be an easy journey. The EU last assessed the implementation of the Association Agreement in November 2018. It noted that progress was being made, particularly in public services – pensions, healthcare and education. Energy is a key area of focus for both sides. Indeed, the Ukrainian Parliament recently ratified amendments to the Association Agreement, laying the groundwork for Ukraine’s integration into the European energy market. The spectre of Nord Stream 2 hangs over these discussions. It has been referred to as ‘Ukraine’s worst nightmare’, and sends conflicting messages about European commitment to energy security and Ukrainian economic development.

 

In addition, reform itself is a difficult path to tread. Challenges persist in anti-corruption measures, economic stabilisation, and the continued conflict and destabilisation efforts by Russia.

 

The Ukrainian public (excluding the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), according to February 2019 polling from the Razumkov Centre, has a negative attitude to the ongoing series of reforms: land, healthcare, pensions, education, judicial reforms, as well as the mass privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The poll also highlighted brain drain from Ukraine as a threat, calling for discussions on partial reimbursement for education spending on emigrants.

 

However, unlike for Chernobyl‘s cast, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet. Global Skills Partnerships are gaining traction in European policy circles to share the benefits of migration between destination and origin countries. For example: two Ukrainians would train at home. One would choose to stay and the other to migrate to the EU. An EU organisation in need of their skills would pay for the migrating student’s training in full, and also pay for half of the remaining student’s. The migrant worker would then commit to work for that organisation for a period of time and pay off the training costs with a fraction of their salary. Both countries gain highly-skilled employees, while their governments do not bear any of the cost – helping to tackle the ‘brain drain’ problem.

Although Ukrainians may have a negative perception of Association Agreement reforms, they remain positive about the European path as a whole. Data from the International Republican Institute, Sociological Group Rating and GfK demonstrate this. When Ukrainians[1] were asked to choose between joining the EU or a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, support for the EU fluctuated between 30 and 40% from November 2011 to February 2014. In March 2014, support for joining the EU shot up to 52% and has had majority backing ever since. Support for the Customs Union has become a minority opinion. The presidential elections have not changed this – support for joining the EU was 57% in May 2019. NATO accession has also gained some popularity after Russian military action on Ukrainian territory began. In May 2019, 49% of Ukrainians stated they would support joining NATO in a referendum.

Support for joining the EU finds majority backing among supporters of all Ukrainian political parties with the potential to win parliamentary seats, bar the pro-Russia Opposition Platform. The picture is similar for NATO. It wins majority support across most party supporters, a plurality among Zelensky’s party supporters, and strong opposition from the Opposition Platform. Although it will not be a straightforward journey, it is one that voters in Ukraine across the political spectrum remain committed to.

 

Overall, the convergence of Ukrainian and EU electoral cycles provides a window of opportunity for both sides to recommit to their cooperation. On the Ukrainian side, the government must use this impetus to continue with structural reform and anti-corruption measures while working with the EU to alleviate citizen concerns. The EU should remain a strong backer of Ukraine’s European pathway and resist the temptation of rapprochement with Russia.

[1] Figures from after April 2014 exclude Crimea. Figures from after September 2014 exclude occupied Donbas.

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Thinking Big: Universal Basic Income

  • May 2019
  • Daniela Floris

Thinking Big: Universal Basic Income

Utopia or Revolution? A conversation with François Denuit, PhD.

François Denuit.  Photo: Joseph Cochran

 

Economic inequality. Unemployment. Automation. The Universal Basic Income (UBI) promises to tackle some of the industrialized world’s most compelling issues in a unique way: guaranteeing every citizen a basic living stipend, with no upfront evaluation of their current employment status or willingness to find a future job. Regarded as a radical policy proposal, UBI has divided the public for decades. Its critics see it as a utopia that will rise inflation and deter individuals from seeking an occupation. Its supporters, on the other hand, see it as a revolutionary scheme that would redistribute wealth, leading towards a fairer labour market and simplified welfare state.

Until today, no country has ever fully implemented UBI, except for a two years pilot project in Finland:  2000 randomly selected applicants, aged 25 to 58, received a monthly allowance of 560 Euros, from January 2017 to December 2018. The experiment’s results, published by the Finnish Social Security Authority showed that the measure did not directly increase the participants’ employment level. However, it succeeded in improving their well-being, with the beneficiaries claiming lower degrees of stress and anxiety.

The 2018 World Wealth Report issued by Credit Suisse shows not only that the assets of the richest 1% account for 47% of the global wealth, but also that the financial share of the wealthiest, which has fallen during 2000-08, rose again to pre-financial crisis levels in 2016, allowing the rich to become even richer. In contrast, medium and low-income workers’ conditions have progressively become more precarious due to the spread of gig work and contingent employment contracts. Furthermore, some analysts estimate that 40% of blue collar jobs could soon disappear to be replaced by A.I.

In this scenario, is the Universal Basic Income a feasible option to relieve wealth inequality? We posed this question to François Denuit, PhD in Political and Social Sciences (University of Warwick and Université Libre de Bruxelles-ULB), who earned his Doctorate with a thesis titled “Fighting Poverty in the European Union. An assessment of the prospects for a European basic income (EUBI)”. Denuit was one of one the speakers at the “Universal Basic Income – Dream or Nightmare?” debate at the Pint of Science Festival:  an international initiative that brings scientists and researchers to local pubs to deliver talks on a broad range of topics, from robotics to the human brain, the universe, society and much more.

 

Centre for European Progression: The UBI is not a new idea. Over the years,  several countries have been experimenting with similar ideas for decades, either through redistributive programs or subsidized welfare. However, none of them fully adheres to the principles of UBI. Although it was never implemented, in 1969 Richard Nixon proposed an annual income of 1600$ for families below the poverty line. Also, we have witnessed recent attempts to rebrand UBI: Italy has just approved a scheme of subsidies and job placement to address unemployment, whereas Kenya‘s basic income project is actually promoted by an NGO on a very small scale. It seems there is a resurgence of interest in UBI, but also a lot of confusion. In a few, simple words, what is the Universal Basic Income?

 François Denuit:  The UBI is an income that is distributed in cash on a regular basis to all members of a political community, on an individual basis regardless of household composition. It is universal as it is granted to all, no matter the level of financial resources and is unconditional because it is distributed regardless of people’s willingness to work. The cases you mentioned use the label of Basic Income but only in part relate to it, or not at all like in the case of Italy: it approved something closer to a conditional minimum income scheme. Nixon’s proposal is a case of (household-based rather than individual-centered)  Negative Income Tax (NIT) that could be seen as a way to deliver a basic income but it is operationalized in a very different way.  At the end of a fiscal period, if a household’s revenues are below a certain threshold, it will receive a cash transfer; it will not receive any, if the household’s resources reach the break-even point and it will have to contribute itself to the welfare system, if it actually generates income higher than the break-even threshold. The main difference is that NIT is not an upfront payment like UBI which is given on a regular basis (generally every month) and thus provides a sense of security, but is a tax transfer calibrated on the household’s revenue for each fiscal period.

 

CfEP: Recently, a similar NIT experiment was made in Ontario, Canada, but it was shut down after only one year of trial when the new governor took office. Why is there still so much resistance? After all, the Finnish UBI trial showed significant improvements in terms of mental health and quality of life. Isn’t it what Welfare should ultimately be about?

FD: Yes, a major argument in favor of UBI is about having the certainty and the security of a fixed monthly income. A way to frame this, revolves around reducing the tax imposed on the mental bandwidth one faces when living with few financial resources; some studies in behavioral economics show that when people struggle financially they have less chances to take good long term decisions, not because they are less intelligent but because they live in a “survival mode”. UBI would grant individuals a sense of security, allowing them to project themselves on a long term perspective.

Another negative income tax (NIT) experiment, the Manitoba Basic Annual Income Experiment (Mincome) in Dauphin, Manitoba (Canada) realized in the 1970’s, also provides interesting insights since it involved an entire area, and not just randomly selected samples. The outcome showed important health effects: overall hospitalization rates fell by 8,5% with an important decrease in hospital check-ins for to accidents, injuries and mental health diagnoses. It also showed positive effects on the social fabric as a whole since its effects were much larger than expected, considering the number of families eligible for income support (a third of the families in Dauphin were below the break-even point). With everyone involved in the experiment, social interaction seems to have influenced social attitudes and individual behavior even among those who did not qualify, thereby reinforcing the direct effects of the guaranteed annual income. In fact, these UBI-related experiments that involve the whole population of a certain area – what we call a “saturation site” – provide greater insight on the potential benefits of a full implementation of the UBI. In short, an individual-centered device like the UBI may have strong community effects, proving that the overall benefit is larger than the sum of its parts.

 

CfEP: In the U.S, Andrew Yang, tech entrepreneur and Democrat candidate for the 2020 presidential elections is a staunch advocate for Universal Basic Income.  Some critics have pointed out how the UBI has attracted support from Silicon Valley tycoons, whose alleged real goal is to boost consumer capitalism rather than addressing inequality. What’s your opinion on that?

FD: There are different views on UBI. Criticism towards Big Tech’s endorsement of UBI is based on the fact that these large corporations’ main interest is to maintain the capitalist status quo; they fear a decrease in consumers’ purchasing power or the disappearance of employment opportunities for everyone, a basic income may guarantee sufficient means to live a decent life and maintain consumption levels. I am not sure whether everyone in the Silicon Valley is pushing for this specific agenda, but there are other ways to look at the idea. One can endorse UBI as an instrument that provides an allowance for a basic living, perpetrating the consumeristic model or we can see it as a concrete instrument to fight inequality and provide more emancipatory power to all. My opinion is that we can see UBI as an emancipatory policy only within the context of tackling inequality rather than just poverty. It thus needs to go hand in hand with fiscal reforms that address the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and together with further developing universal public services. In short, the UBI is not a panacea, it needs to be an integral part of the welfare state, and not a substitution for it. If well calibrated, the UBI is a form of social dividend that may then have positive effects in many different areas, from our reconsideration of the place of work in our daily lives to fighting inequalities.

 

CfEP: On a European level, what’s the state of art of the discussion on measures to tackle poverty and inequality? Let’s take the EU unemployment rate, for instance: it was at 6.4% in March 2019, the lowest on record since 2000. Yet, the North-South gap is remains wide, especially in terms of youth unemployment in Mediterranean Europe (namely, Greece, Spain and Italy).

FD: We are facing different realities in terms of welfare systems’ performances throughout the whole monetary union and these socio-economic imbalances between Member States are widening.  Currently, the ongoing debate concerns the establishment of a European unemployment benefit scheme (EUBS), in the form of an inter-state reinsurance mechanism to support national stabilization capacities in times of crisis and avoid the risk of contagion to other member states. The idea is that if a certain member state reaches a given unemployment threshold, the EU would kick-in and support the unemployment benefit system of the specific country. This means, in essence, that we would create some form of solidarity fund at EU level.

In my doctoral thesis, I worked on the idea of a European universal basic income (EUBI): a modest basic income (about 200-300 euros in average and varying according to the national cost of living) given to all residents of the EU as a top up to other sources of revenues, whether coming from work or national social benefits, and funded at EU level. I showed that it may have positive effects at individual level as a measure to fight poverty and social exclusion, at member state level as a instrument of macroeconomic stabilization, and at EU level as a way to support the legitimacy of the European project.

The difference between the EUBS and the EUBI, is that the former kicks in only in times of economic crisis and involves redistribution between states, whereas the latter aims to be a permanent policy organizing solidarity between individuals throughout the EU. The EUBI might have a lower stabilizing power in terms of counteracting an economic downturn but would still have a greater social impact in fighting poverty on a long term prospective. In fact, the two measures need not be mutually exclusive and it is true that the EUBS (or another similar mechanism of fiscal transfers) is urgently needed. Overall, the basic income is starting to get more traction at EU level as political parties like the European Greens and pan-European movements such as Volt and DiEM25 have enclosed UBI proposals in their electoral programs.

 

CfEP: We are in front of times of big change: how can we achieve a better and more equal Europe?

FD: We need to make social rights such as the right to a decent level of resources binding in order to re-equilibrate the economic and social dimensions of European integration. The tools are available as these rights are already proclaimed by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and reasserted by the European pillar of social rights. Then, it is about redistribution: enabling a redistributive mechanism within the EU will benefit all Members States, including those who are net contributors, as it would provide greater macroeconomic stability. We need to think about a systemic model, whether we look at a pan-European UBI or unemployment insurance scheme.

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Montenegro Calling

  • May 2019
  • Daniela Floris

Montenegro Calling

The Balkan country’s ambitious road towards the EU

Ana Đurnić

 

Montenegro is a country of  wild beauty:  crystalline shores, majestic mountains and flourishing valleys. It is no surprise that tourism is Montenegro’s leading industry, directly accounting for more than 23% of its GDP. After a referendum declaring independence from Serbia in 2006, the Western Balkan country, home of roughly 700.000 people,  joined the WTO in 2012 and NATO in 2017.  Montenegro’s ambition to join the European Union, however, faces serious hurdles.  Since the launch of the accession process in 2012, 32 negotiating chapters out of 33 have remained open, questioning the feasibility of a full integration by 2025, as the European Commission initially indicated.

 

Montenegro has been shaken by corruption  scandals, cases of bribery in public procurement and (alleged) electoral frauds. Ongoing protests highlight the country’s political gridlock, centered around the figure of  President Milo Đukanović , who has de facto ruled for over 27 years, leading Montenegro’s transition from a  former Yugoslav republic  to independence. Đukanović’s party, the DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists) is omnipresent in society. Party members have better chances for securing a job in the public sector, which is by far the largest employer in the country. Despite the establishment of agencies against corruption and organized crime, NGO activists, civil society organizations , grassroots movements and opposition parties denounce the ‘captured state’ of Montenegro, in which the rule of law is subjugated to major political interference.

 

The Centre for European Progression has met with Ana Đurnić, Public Policy researcher at the Institut Alternativa, an independent think-tank based in the capital Podgorica, to discuss about the state of play of Montenegro’s prospected membership to the EU. The setting was the panel discussion “Frontrunner in a slow race? Montenegro’s EU integration path” organized by the European Policy Centre (EPC) and the Center for monitoring and research (CeMI) in Brussels. Along with Đurnić, the speakers’ list included Thomas Hagleitner, the European Commission’s Head of Montenegro Unit, Nikoleta Đukanović, CeMI’s Executive Director, Bojan Šarkić, Ambassador of the Republic of Montenegro to the EU and Corina Stratulat, Senior Policy Analyst at EPC.

 

CfEP: What is your take on Montenegro’s position as frontrunner for EU membership in the Western-Balkans? Can Montenegro still be considered as such, taking into account the 32 open chapters?

Ana Đurnić: To use a metaphor, Montenegro is the best in a classroom of bad students. The government has partially fulfilled some of the EU conditions but the implementation of the Action Plans concerning the several remaining chapters require constant monitoring. Montenegro’s government has a longstanding record of concealing data and information from the public, keeping citizens uniformed about the current status of the integration process. Chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) are definitely the most difficult to ‘close’. These chapters are crucial as they oversee the work of the anti-corruption agency, the special prosecutor’s office, public procurement and civil rights. Right now, we can only see a backslide in all of these areas, particularly in public procurement, media freedom and access to information.

 

CfEP: Montenegro ranks 104th in the RSF- 2019 World Press Freedom Index. In 2018, Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist  was shot and wounded outside her apartment. This and several other accounts depict a grim picture of intimidation and indirect censorship of independent media outlets. What’s the current climate for journalists and reporters in the country?

D: Although the government does not own any news organization, political pressure on independent media  is tangible. Public procurement tenders are advertised only on pro-government media, while critical reporters are systematically smeared, name-called and publicly discredited. Investigations of physical threats and attacks against journalists are often obstructed. In Montenegro the space for dissent is shrinking: in theory, the Freedom of Information (FOI) law  allows every citizen to access public information; in practice,  greater political interference  is very often exercised towards newsrooms’ editorial choices, preventing the publication of a broad range of “sensitive information”. There is, in fact, an attempt to censor and silence non-aligned voices.

 

CfEP: Public protests are ongoing since the last general elections in 2016. What is your outlook on the opposition movement’s media coverage ?

D: Independent media are keeping an  eye on the protests, whereas the public media, funded with taxpayers’ money, is reluctant to report on dissident movements in order not to lose governmental support. Several movements took the streets over the past three years: the most recent is the “resist” movement, supported by several NGOs and grassroots groups. Protests are also endorsed by the  opposition parties that have been boycotting the parliamentary activities since the 2016 elections.

 

CfEP: Russia has traditionally retained major influence in the Balkans, but now China is the “new kid on the block” . The most ambitious project since Montenegro’s independence, the Bar-Bojare highway, is the result of a controversial partnership between Chinese investors and Montenegro’s government. The project costs 890 million Euros and, according to various sources, tax-free construction materials and two thirds of the workers come from China. Is the infrastructure a debt trap or a real chance for development? 

 D: Analyzing the statements of Montenegro’s high officials, our key allies change from time to time. For a while, Brussels has been our privileged partner for economic development.  But whenever the EU assumes a slightly critical position towards Montenegro’s executive, the tone shifts in favor of alternative partners, namely Russia and China. It is true that a part of the population still holds an emotional connection with Russia, although Beijing has been investing heavily in our economy. However, Chinese investments do not come as a present but as a loan that we will have to pay back. The new highway could be an opportunity, but the key issue is the project’s overall lack of transparency: most of the documents and reports concerning the infrastructure are kept away from the public eye.

 

CfEP: Thank you,  we would like to get a closing statement from you. In a few words, what’s the greatest contribution Montenegro could give to the EU in the future? 

 D: Montenegro is naturally a part of Europe. Thereby, it can definitely be part of the EU too. The biggest contribution would be our human capital: lots of young and creative people that could help not only Montenegro, but the whole Union to improve.

 

 

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