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23rd Mar 2019

EU wins Montenegro's support for its referendum formula

  • "Nobody doubts it is the Montenegro's right to decide which way to go from now on" (Photo: Slovak representation to the EU)

The EU will accept any result in the Montenegro referendum - be it independence or federation with Serbia - but the vote must be legitimate, the bloc's envoy to the region Miroslav Lajcak told EUobserver on Monday (27 February).

"I don't believe that the Montenegro government would choose to step into contradiction with the EU over this issue," Mr Lajcak said of his proposal to require a 50 percent threshold for participation and 55 percent for approval for any result to be deemed valid.

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During the interview, Mr Lajcak was informed by telephone from Podgorica of Montenegro's approval of the model, which was also given unanimous support by EU foreign ministers on Monday.

Montenegro's parliament is set to vote on the plan on Wednesday and if it is given the go-ahead, the referendum campaign can start preparations for the vote in mid-April immediately.

While the Montenegro majority is expected to support independence - possibly acquiring just around 50 percent of the vote - the Serbian minority opposes the idea and prefers the federation with Belgrade to continue.

No common rules on direct democracy

The EU referendum blueprint has sparked some controversy in recent days.

Montenegro's prime minister Milo Djukanovic, an advocate of the country's independence, indicated the thresholds were "undemocratic," while some European NGOs argued the same popular vote rules would have prevented some member states from joining the EU.

Mr Lajcak argues he was appointed to come up with rules acceptable for both the government and the opposition, as well as responding to the specific needs of the Balkan state.

"We don't have clearly defined EU rules on this issue, while both parties in Montenegro did find enough practical examples from different European countries to support their case - but this is not the right way to solve this problem," he explained.

"But what we do have is a generally accepted model that the qualified majority is needed for key state decisions, and this condition is provided for in our proposal," Mr Lajcak added.

Different routes to EU

Mr Lajcak argues that although there are different approaches towards the possible separation of Serbia and Montenegro across EU member states, the union will accept any referendum result so long as it is achieved democraticaly.

He admitted that at times his role as an envoy on behalf of the foreign policy chief Javier Solana was difficult, as it is commonly assumed in the region that the EU does not favour the break-up of the ex-Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro.

"But we made clear that after 4 February 2006, the issue of Montenegro's independence has become legitimate and the EU admits that," he noted, referring to the end of the three-year moratorium on the issue, as adopted in the federation's constitutional charter.

"Nobody doubts it is the Montenegro's right to decide which way to go from now on," he said.

He points out that if the Montenegro people eventually decide to break away and set up their independent state, the union will have to adapt its stabilisation and association agreements for both Belgrade and Podgorica.

"Both countries would then be in slightly different position in terms of closer links with the EU, as they have quite different economies."

"While the Serbian economy is based on production, industry, agriculture and its internal market needs some protection, Montenegro's economy is quite open and based mainly on services," explained Mr Lajcak.

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