The pandemic's impact on tourism highlighted in meeting that also brings to the fore concerns about a loss of EU expertise and continued rule-of-law failings.
Montenegro must overcome a period of political tension and administrative disruption and "do its homework" on issues related to the rule of law if it is to maintain the pace of its bid to join the European Union, local and regional leaders from Montenegro were told at a meeting and the European Committee of the Regions on 10 June.
The meeting of the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) of the European Committee of the Regions and Montenegro, which was created to support local authorities in Montenegro in their preparations for membership of the European Union, was held against a backdrop of significant political change and economic problems linked to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Montenegro's tourism-based economy.
Aleksandar Kašćelan, Co-Chair of the JCC Montenegro and mayor of Cetinje, said that the "most recent enlargement package showed that the EU's door is still open to Western Balkans countries", but – he continued – "the question remains how much of a priority the Western Balkans still is". He urged the EU "to directly support local and regional authorities in Montenegro, with thematic programmes focused on the needs of our communities".
Vanja Starovlah of the Union of Municipalities of Montenegro said that "it is clear that local self-governments are in the shadow of other stakeholders" in the EU accession process, and urged the EU to support them "through special instruments" and to make "decentralisation [a] permanent dimension of EU support to the Western Balkans".
Bojan Vujovićć, Montenegro's Deputy Chief Negotiator with the EU, underlined the country's commitment to EU membership, while Barbara Jesús-Gimeno of the European Commission noted that the "unprecedented change of the ruling majority" had been followed by a period of "political tension" that had led to boycotts of the Parliament. "It is now essential that all political forces, both at national and local levels, find a way to put differences aside and look for solutions to take Montenegro forward on its EU path," she said. She also stated that Montenegro's collaboration with the EU is currently being hampered by the loss of "a lot of EU expertise…through resignations and dismissals".
Looking ahead, Ms Jesús-Gimeno said that the EU was "ready to expand" its cooperation with local authorities. Overall, Montenegro now needed to produce "concrete results in line with goal of EU membership", emphasising that progress on rule-of-law issues – such as media freedom, judicial reform, and the fight against corruption and organised crime – would "determine the pace" of Montenegro's accession. "The best way to convince EU member states" to advance membership talks is for countries in the Western Balkans "to do their homework".
In a debate focused on coronavirus pandemic and its impact, Roberto Ciambetti (IT/ECR), President of the Veneto Regional Council and Co-Chair of the JCC Montenegro, said that the pandemic crisis had shown that economies heavily dependent on tourism – such as his region and Montenegro – would need to be "more creative". The pandemic had delayed plans to launch city partnerships and region-to-region collaboration between Montenegro and EU; the first practical steps are expected to be taken this year. Veneto remains interested in sharing its experience, he said, a point emphasised in a presentation made by the Veneto region's director of tourism, Mauro Giovanni Viti. Peer-to-peer cooperation between the local and regional authorities from the EU and those from Montenegro remains one of the most promising paths.
Montenegrin local politicians underscored the dramatic impact of the pandemic on the economy as a whole and, in particular, on the mainstay of the economy, tourism. Mr Kašćelan said that tourism slumped by 55% in 2020, and said that tourism is not expected to return to 2019's record levels until 2026 at the earliest.
Montenegrin delegates – including the deputy mayor of Podgorica, Slađana Vujačić, Petar Smolović, Mayor of Bijelo Polje, and Ranko Mišnić, Mayor of Mojkovac – said that they believe that Montenegro's tourism industry will need to change. They outlined a vision of a tourism sector that would draw on the country's full potential and seek to extend the tourism season. Such changes would expand tourism from the beaches to mountain regions and national parks, and develop rural tourism to complement the urban attractions of the country. Mr Smolović noted that even in June one of Montenegrin's peaks – Bobotov Kuk – has snow on it, underlining the potential for year-round tourism.
Ms Jesús-Gimeno described Montenegro as the Western Balkan country worst affected by the pandemic. She said that, to support Montenegro in its response, the EU – "Montenegro's biggest donor, investor and trading partner" – had provided €53 million under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance, as well as €60m in macro-financial assistance. Montenegro has also received support from the EU Solidarity Fund and the European Emergency Crisis Response Mechanism.
In October 2020, the European Commission unveiled an Economic Investment Plan for the Western Balkans that it hopes will lead to €9 billion in investment. The Economic Investment Plan forms part of a €14.2 bn package of funding for the region that the EU's member states and European Parliament approved on 2 June.