The full integration of the Western Balkans continues to be the goal of NATO and the European Union (EU). The countries of the region are currently at a turning point, and the role of the Atlantic Treaty Association and of the national Atlantic Councils becomes all the more relevant in promoting the advance of the Euro-Atlantic perspective and of the relations with the Alliance in a cooperative security framework.

The visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Montenegro on October 15 had a strong political meaning. The visit involved not only the Secretary General, but the entire North Atlantic Council, which had the chance to acknowledge the reforms that Montenegro has implemented over the past decade for the full integration into NATO. Therefore, the country’s political leadership hopes to receive the membership status soon.

The Alliance will probably decide to officially invite Montenegro to join the Alliance during the Summit of the Heads of State and Government in Warsaw on July 8-9, 2016. The Foreign Ministerial Meeting scheduled for the upcoming December in Brussels will be the next key step. The recognition of the results achieved by Podgorica’s reforms pertains to the Council, which is entitled to recommend the extension of an official invitation in Warsaw. This process will still take several months and so a cautious approach is required, although Montenegro’s significant and steady progress allows us to look with optimism to the NATO summit in July.

During the North Atlantic Council’s visit, the Serbian minority in Montenegro reiterated its opposition toward NATO membership and its political party decided not to attend Secretary General Stoltenberg’s meeting with the other Montenegrin parties. Nevertheless, the support of the public opinion to NATO membership has significantly increased in recent times. In fact, more than by the opposition of the Serbian side, the Montenegrin public opinion has been influenced by the current international scenario.

The very strong economic interests of the Russian Federation in Montenegro had a rather aggressive impact, consistent with the kind of policy Moscow has been pursuing toward the Alliance in the past few years. However, the Russian policy has raised concern among large sections of the population and favored the increase of the support for NATO membership in the public opinion. This growth has been made possible also by the effective action of information and awareness-raising of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, whose yearly conference on security has become a major reference point for all relevant actors in the Balkans.

In Serbia, the level of political dialogue and cooperation with the Alliance is positive and constantly growing. Belgrade has been an integrated component of the Partnership for Peace since 2006 and, at the beginning of 2015, has signed the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). This Plan embodies the highest level of relations with NATO for a non-member country, and envisages a very close cooperation on specific areas.

Serbia has outlined the objectives of the IPAP based on its own needs, such as those related to the security sector reform. A working group on NATO-Serbia relations (Defense Reform Group-DRG) has been established with the task of drafting the reforms that should be implemented by the Ministry of Defense and its structure. Cooperation is very strong also in sensitive areas such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear armaments. Moreover, cooperation on civil emergency plans is ongoing. For instance, Belgrade has requested to share NATO experience in facing the consequences of natural disasters on the occasion of the floods that affected Serbia in 2014.

The central issue in the discussions on security between NATO and Serbia is still Kosovo. In this respect, Belgrade regards NATO with a particular attention, mainly for the safeguard of the interests of the Serbian people and a gradual transformation of Kosovo’s Security Forces in a regular army. NATO is a guarantee of impartiality and steadfastness for Serbia, and Italy has offered a significant contribution to strengthen this role while leading the KFOR mission.

Therefore, the status of military neutrality declared by Serbia is not an obstacle holding back the strengthening of the relations with NATO. There are other countries, such as Finland and Sweden, which have been cooperating with the Alliance as strategic partners for decades while remaining neutral. This is because NATO partnerships do not envisage close formats such as those of the EU, but they are designed according to the needs of the partner country itself. Such flexibility has allowed for a dramatic qualitative leap in the cooperation between Serbia and NATO, with a considerable improvement in respecting the deadlines as well as the demands and proposals coming from both sides. On this basis, the partnership is expected to grow further and a visit of NATO Secretary General in Belgrade could enhance its strategic profile.

The situation is different for the other two countries aiming to join the Alliance: the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In FYROM, the situation has been stalling for a long time. But to stay still for long equals to moving backwards and losing position as others advance. FYROM integration process remains frozen on the dispute over its constitutional name. Greece has raised a security issue at the North Atlantic Council and the situation looks far from being resolved. On top of that, it occurs in a delicate geo-strategic context characterized by growing instabilities also at the domestic level. However, recent statements released by both sides suggest a relaunch of the negotiation for a solution that would open NATO doors to FYROM. This is a path with many obstacles, and the Atlantic Councils in Skopje and Athens can play a crucial role in supporting dialogue and cooperation between the two countries through effective initiatives.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s dossier has different features. While the case of FYROM is a bilateral issue that requires a bilateral solution, the problem in Bosnia-Herzegovina appears to be an internal one and it is mainly caused by the tripartition of institutions and public opinion. This tripartition affects the political participation and the government structures, determining the emergence of concrete hurdles preventing the development and the implementation of reforms in the security sector. Among them, the issue concerning the real estate registry and the inability of the Ministry of Defense to certify some buildings as public properties. As a result, these buildings are still owned by other entities or local authorities.

Paradoxically, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been the first country in the region to be interested in cooperating with NATO. The Alliance entered Bosnia-Herzegovina under the mandate of the international community in 1992 to put an end to bloody conflicts, supporting the country with two missions (IFOR and SFOR) until 2004, when the European Union took over. Today, NATO is present in Sarajevo with a headquarters engaged in cooperation activities related to the security and defense sector reform. Therefore, the EU now holds the major responsibilities for the promotion of stability and socio-economic development in the country. NATO is ready to support the membership process of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but to this purpose it is necessary to accelerate and strengthen the political growth of the country to which the Atlantic Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina can provide an extraordinary contribution.

The full Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans is a possible goal. To this end, it is necessary to have and pursue a regional strategic vision within a cooperative security framework. In this perspective, the EU role will be crucial. NATO is a collective defense organization that provides a broad menu of possible areas of cooperation through its partnership programs. In turn, the security cooperation allows the raise of the political dialogue level. At this point in time, the responsibility to promote a full integration of all the countries in the region into the Euro-Atlantic framework mainly lies with the EU. A successful conclusion of the negotiations to join the EU and NATO will bring more security, stability, investments and growth in the Western Balkans, completing the integration process started in the ’90s that the Atlantic Treaty Association has actively supported since the very beginning.