Members of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and representatives of the Montenegrin organised civil society held on the 1st March the 14th meeting of the EU-Montenegro Joint Consultative Committee (JCC), which took place online. Members of the JCC adopted a joint declaration urging the EU to assist Montenegro to face the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Montenegro has been hit hard by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and is facing a difficult situation, with one of the highest rates of active cases per 100 000 people in Europe. This is producing devastating economic consequences in the country, as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Montenegro is predicted to shrink in 2020 by as much as 14%, largely driven by losses in the tourism sector. The public debt, already high, will rise even more with a high deficit of up to 10% of GDP. Private companies are also paying the price, as 90% of them predict losses of profit in 2020 with respect to 2019 that could reach more than 60% for a third of them.
In view of this situation, the members of the JCC invited the EU and its Member States to assist the country to face the consequences of the pandemic "as its privileged partner". The most urgent issue is to accelerate the vaccination campaign "so that the critical staff and most vulnerable groups of the population could get vaccinated urgently".
Taking these priorities into account, JCC members welcomed the adoption by the European Commission of a package of EUR 70 million as part of the COVAX initiative to help the access of Western Balkans countries to COVID-19 vaccines procured by EU Member States and enable Montenegro to carry out vaccinations.
The JCC also welcomed the way in which Montenegrin authorities responded to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and the measures taken to support citizens and the economy for the first quarter of 202, including EUR 163 million allocated to vulnerable groups of the population, employment, tourism, and the agricultural sector.
Andrej Zorko, the co-chair of the EU-Montenegro JCC from the EESC side, highlighted the added value of the work of the JCC:
Our role is very important, as we represent the voice of organised civil society; even if we are not very visible, the declarations adopted and sent to EU and national authorities are very useful and taken into account.
The co-chair from the Montenegrin side, Pavle Radovanović, also reminded that
JCC members are people who work on the field, in touch with reality: employers, workers, businesses and NGOs. We can realistically talk about what's going on in Montenegro at this very moment.
The accession path to the EU
The members of the JCC also discussed the current state of play of Montenegro's accession path to the EU. They welcomed the increasing support of Montenegrin citizens for the country's membership to the EU (74.8% according to a recent public opinion poll, compared to 66% one year earlier). In this regard, the JCC declaration welcomed the fact that "the newly formed government has committed to preserving the foreign policy commitments of Montenegro as a member of NATO and as an EU candidate country".
The JCC also welcomed the opening of negotiations on chapter 8 (competition police) and called on European institutions and Member States "to continue to be supportive of the EU enlargement policy" and invited the current Portuguese Presidency and the upcoming Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU "to continue to inject stronger impetus into the enlargement process and to host dialogue meetings with Montenegro as soon as possible".
The JCC also praised in its declaration some initiatives aimed at regional cooperation and the creation of a regional economic area in the Western Balkans, such as the Common Regional Market Action Plan, as well as the Green Lanes during the COVID-19 pandemic as a successful example of cooperation.
However, the members of the JCC insisted on the need for Montenegrin authorities to step up their work in certain fields, as the fight against corruption and organised crime. On the same note, JCC members stressed that the emergency measures taken by governments against COVID-19 must be "temporary and time-bound and in line with democracy and rule of law principles".
The JCC also reiterated its concerns relating to freedom of expression in Montenegro and the environment in which media operate. According to the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Montenegro press freedom is in decline and is the worst-rated country in the Western Balkans, so the JCC calls the government to take decisive action for building and maintaining a free and pluralistic media landscape.
The declaration adopted by the JCC will be forwarded to the EU-Montenegro Stabilisation and Accession Council, the EU-Montenegro Stabilisation and Accession Parliamentary Committee, the European External Action Service, the European Commission, and the Government of Montenegro.
The EU-Montenegro Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) is one of the bodies set up under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Montenegro. It enables civil society organisations from both sides to monitor Montenegro's progress towards joining the European Union and to adopt recommendations for the attention of the Montenegrin government and the EU institutions.
The JCC is made up of twelve members, six from each side, representing the EESC and Montenegrin civil society. It is co-chaired during its current term (2020–2023) by Andrej Zorko, member of the EESC and Executive Secretary to the Governing Board of the Slovenian Association of Free Trade Unions, and Pavle D. Radovanović, Vice-President Secretary-General of the Chamber of Economy of Montenegro.