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Montenegro: Brussels U-turn on New State

In a significant policy switch, Europe is demanding a federation between Montenegro and Serbia as a precondition for possible EU membership
By Ines Sabalic

The European Union has ditched its plan for a loose union between Serbia and Montenegro in favour of a federal state with strong economic links.


The policy switch, confirmed earlier this month, came as a blow to Montenegro which had long campaigned for its own outright independence but grudgingly settled in March for the loose union with Serbia as prescribed by Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security.


Since then the European Commission has changed its view and decided that the March agreement did not match the already established model for EU aspiring Balkan countries. This model requires a single market, unified tariffs and joint customs systems as pre-requisites.


The standard was laid down two years ago by the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA - an accord, experts believe, which will serve as a test of the EU's success in the Balkans.


The policy change, which has long been suspected, was outlined by the European Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, when he met behind closed doors with Serbian and Montenegrin representatives in Belgrade on July 3, according to officials attending the meeting. Before this visit, the Podgorica leadership had been informed of the shift in strategy, but didn't take it seriously.


Source at the Belgrade meeting said Montenegro's president Milo Djukanovic flew into a rage when Patten confirmed the U-turn. But it seems there's nothing he can do as the EU Council of Ministers, meeting on June 17 in Luxembourg, agreed that if Serbia and Montenegro want to join Europe - one of Djukanovic's main ambitions - they must become a federal state with harmonised customs and tariffs.


It was a bitter pill for Djukanovic. The West had championed his push for independence during the rule of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. After his fall, the international community set its face against an independent Montenegro.


In March, Djukanovic was able to tell disgruntled supporters at home that Montenegro would become part of a confederation, which allowed for the possibility of independence after three years.


At the Belgrade meeting earlier this month, Serbia and Montenegro were told they must hurry to complete a federation charter embracing harmonised customs and tariffs and a single market.


Europe's policy began to change when the European Commission took over from Solana's team. The former ruled that the framework for the March accord did not conform to the SAA - in reality a contract between the EU and the aspirant state promising that after undertaking necessary reforms it would be a potential candidate for union membership. But there are other, more subtle reasons for the strategy switch.


As things stand, the EU cannot point to any major successes in recent years. The issues of enlargement and the project for joint defence remain undecided. Nobody knows what will become of internal reform within the union. Therefore powerful institutional pressure exists within the EU to deliver on at least one successful project - the Balkans.


For such success to be attained, it is not enough for the rump Yugoslavia to be some kind of vague union, but a solid and real one. Reinhard Priebe, who is responsible for the European Commission's Balkans office, said, "In Yugoslavia constitutional uncertainty and unclear institutional arrangements exist, both of which are the greatest obstacles to European integration. Economic integration is a question of common sense, and the principle on which the EU itself is based."


The U-turn will certainly suit Serbia, which is pushing for a strong federation. The Montenegrin leadership, pro-European for a number of years, cannot reject the new strategy, as it offers the only available way to reach Europe, even though it will have a tough job selling it to an independence-minded domestic public.


Europe itself cannot allow for the SAA to fail. Viewed from this standpoint, discarding Montenegrin independence would be regarded as no more than collateral damage.


Ines Sabalic is Brussels correspondent for the Sense News Agency