Montenegro's challenge to Europe

The emergence of a new nation in old Europe is a bit like the sudden surfacing of a volcanic island. Life around it adjusts. A new ecology springs up. With the mountain realm of Montenegro voting for independence, Europe's evolution, too, must now shift.

Montenegro, tiny though it is with 612,000 people, and located in the continental backwater of the Balkans, declared separation from Serbia in a May 21 referendum. This has revealed an unresolved tension in Europe between toleration for the kind of old-style nationalism that sparked many wars and promotion of the half-century experiment to unify Europeans around the political and economic ideals of Western civilization.

That tension was clear in the European Union's ambivalence toward Montenegro's drive to be free.

Just three years ago, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana pushed Montenegro to remain in a "joint state" with Serbia. Europe was already dealing with further possible breakups of the former parts of the old, multiethnic Yugoslavia. The Balkans was re-balkanizing, reviving fears of old rivalries reigniting.

Even though Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia have been independent since 1991-92, and suffered through that decade's Balkans wars, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still in jeopardy of flying apart. And a 1999 NATO war with Serbia led to the Albanian-dominated Kosovo being put in legal limbo.

The EU itself was dealt a setback in 2005 when France and the Netherlands rejected a proposed constitution to help unify and streamline a union taking on new members. The vote signified an anti-EU, pro-nationalism trend and a slowdown toward creating a "United States of Europe."

Now Montenegro ("black mountain"), with a 55.4 percent vote for independence, has stirred the European pot again. Mr. Solana tried to downplay the implications: "This is not a precedent for anyone. It's just the situation in the Balkans."

That wasn't the sentiment in 1993, when the EU went along with the division of Czechoslovakia. Other parts of Europe, from Spain's Catalonia and Basque regions to Scotland, are now watching to see how each new Balkan state might fare alone under an EU or NATO umbrella. Kosovo especially can't be denied independence, a step that would end a long era of Serb imperialism and help Serbia finally make the reforms needed to join the EU.

Despite its current euphoria, Montenegro itself has much work ahead of it to join the EU. It must finalize its divorce from Serbia, and also implement basic EU reforms. Its president, Milo Djukanovic, seems to understand the delicate balance between nationalism and being European. "We will remember the 20th century as ... a nonstop struggle for preservation of our identity," he said at a campaign rally. "After all the experiences of living together in three Yugoslavias, contemporary Montenegro has matured democratically and is ready to take its destiny in its own hands and, in the spirit of integration, take a dignified place in the family of European states."

As the world's latest nation (193rd), Montenegro represents both a cry for identity and a desire to better connect with humanity. Juggling the two isn't always easy.

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