PODGORICA, Montenegro: Montenegro and a European Commission team have finished negotiations on a pre-membership deal meant to prepare the country for eventual bloc membership, EU and Montenegrin officials said Friday.
With "technical negotiations finished," the so-called Stabilization and Association Agreement could be signed within weeks, said Montenegro's minister for European integration, Gordana Djurovic.
The agreement, also known as SAA, is designed to prepare EU hopefuls for possible membership. The EU has encouraged newly independent Montenegro to work toward joining the bloc.
After gaining independence from Serbia in June, Montenegro said it hopes to sign the agreement by the end of the year.
Teresa Sobietski, the chief of the European negotiating team and acting director for enlargement with the European Commission, said that although "negotiations with Montenegro were finished" Friday, the process still has a stretch left.
Sobietski said the commission will report back to the EU's 25 member states, which must approve the deal before it can be signed.
Once signed, each EU country has to ratify the agreement — a process that could take months, even years.
Sobietski also urged Montenegro to do everything it can to "enhance administrative capacities," especially in the area of customs regulations, to align with EU norms. Djurovic pledged this would happen.
EU officials have also urged Montenegro to push through more reforms in such areas as the rule of law, human rights and fighting organized crime to make its case for EU membership crystal clear.
Since Montenegro became independent, the EU has handled talks on the pre-membership deal separately with the tiny Adriatic country while its discussions with Serbia have remained frozen because of Belgrade's failure to arrest top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.