Small Balkan Triumph
It is indeed a small triumph for the diplomacy of the European Union that there is now agreement on the conditions for a referendum on independence in Montenegro.
It remains to be formally confirmed at the session of the Montenegrian parliament today, but following the firm stance by the European Union at its foreign ministers meeting on Monday it seems clear that both the government and the opposition parties will fall in line with the recommendation by the EU negotiator Miroslav Lajcak.
This paves the way for a referendum on May 21 that is likely to be very hotly contested, but the result of which should then be recognized by each and everyone. Most notably of course by the European Union.
The result? I think it's too early to say. Opinion polls have consistently given a marginally higher support for independence than for some sort of continued link with Serbia, but whether support will be sufficient in order to meet the criteria now agreed upon is far from certain.
What happens after the referendum will also be of importance - and by no means easy.
A divorce will have to be agreed in all its details. The rights of all those Montenegrians in Serbia and Serbs in Montenegro suddenly turned into foreign citizens must of course be regulated. A border regime as open as possible must be agreed. A division of some remaining assets must also be sorted out.
And from the Belgrade point of view this will have to happen at the same time as the Kosovo issue heats up towards some sort of resolution.
Add to that the fact that Serbia will be left hanging without a functioning constitution. In Belgrade there is now both a President of Serbia and Montenegro and a President of Serbia. How do you handle this mess without going into an immediate constitutional review process?
A defeat for the independence option will certainly not be easier.
The present federation is clearly not working, and the task then would be to negotiate and agree on structures that really could work. It is difficult to see that this could be done without new elections in Montenegro bringing a government committed to constructive negotiations to power.
It will take its time, and it will not be easy.
And then comes all the issues associated with the process of European integration. Both Serbia and Montenegro are n ow negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, and separate such would not be much of a problem.
Membership might well be a more difficult issue further down the road.
Can one see a referendum in France on whether small Montenegro will be allowed the same role in the European Council as France and the same role in agreeing on future treaty changes?
In some way, it doesn't really sound very likely.
A small triumph of European Union diplomacy is thus behind ud. But there will be the need for more of those as we continue.