EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi has told Montenegro's leadership that the country needs to speed up the pace of reforms, especially in the area of rule of law and media freedom.
Varhelyi met in Podgorica with President Milo Djukanovic and Prime Minister Dusko Markovic on February 7 to discuss a new proposed methodology aimed at making the EU membership process more credible, predictable, and politically inclusive.
"The work needs to accelerate, the reforms have to accelerate, especially in the area of rule of law and media freedom where we have outstanding issues to address," he said.
Varhelyi's visit has come amid a political crisis sparked by the adoption in December of a new law on the freedom of religion.
The passage of the law last month has led to frequent protests organized by Montenegro's Serbian Orthodox Church across the country as well as in neighboring Kosovo and Serbia.
It also triggered the cancellation of a planned visit to Montenegro by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Montenegro's Serbian Orthodox Church, its supporters, and pro-Serbian opposition parties fear the law will enable the Montenegrin government to impound church property, though officials deny they intend to.
Varhelyi called on all sides to resort to dialogue in order to find a solution acceptable for everybody in Montenegro.
"We are interested in dialogue," he said. "If we could be of any help with that -- I don’t think we can -- we would be happy to help."
The EU official arrived in Montenegro from Serbia, where he held talks on February 6 in Belgrade with Vucic, who voiced support for the new methodology.
If approved by EU member states, the new methodology would automatically apply to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia.
Serbia and Montenegro, which have already started accession talks with Brussels, would be able to choose between the current approach and the new one.
"My sympathies are with the new methodology," Vucic said on February 6 after talks with Varhelyi.
He said Serbia could benefit from the proposed plan, which would give member states a stronger role in accession talks and calls for more incentives for well-performing aspirant states.
However, backsliding or delays on required reforms could lead to a pause or reversal of the accession process, or even force EU hopefuls to restart entry talks in some policy areas.
Serbia would review the proposed reforms carefully before making a final decision, Vucic told a joint news conference with Varhelyi.
Varhelyi, who took office in December, said that EU enlargement in the Balkans was his "greatest priority."
"At the end of my term, I would like at least one country from the region ready for accession," the Hungarian diplomat said.