PODGORICA, Montenegro -- Senior European Union officials on Thursday praised Montenegro for siding with the bloc's policies against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine and urged the small Balkan nation to press on with reforms needed to advance toward EU membership.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi attended a joint Montenegro-EU Stabilization and Association Council that was held for the first time in a Balkan candidate country, an apparent expression of the EU's commitment to the integration of the volatile region.
Montenegro is widely seen as next in line for EU membership, but the nation's advance has been stalled because of internal political tensions between the pro-Western camp and those favoring closer ties with neighboring Serbia and Russia.
With Russia vying to maintain its historic influence in the Balkans, the EU has sought to keep alive countries' bid to join the bloc despite slow progress. Apart from Montenegro, EU hopefuls in the region include Serbia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
Prime Minister Dritan Abazović, whose minority government enjoys a slim parliamentary majority, insisted that membership in the EU remains the only option for Montenegro. He promised to seek broader support for further reform.
“We need to do our homework,” Abazović said.
Borrell said he thanked Montenegro for its “steady 100% alignment with EU foreign policy decisions.” Montenegro has joined EU sanctions against Russia and defied Moscow, a traditional Slavic ally, back in 2017 to join NATO.
“Montenegro needs to keep the focus on the EU path,” Borrell added. “There is nothing more important. The window of opportunity is now.”
Borrell also urged Montenegro to abolish its program of granting citizenship to rich foreign investors. Analysts have said the EU apparently fears that some Russian or Belarusian individuals could benefit while facing Western sanctions.
Montenegro must implement judicial and rule of law reform, improve media freedom and boost the fight against crime and corruption, officials said. Várhelyi is set to visit Albania later Thursday.