I have just come back from a parliamentary delegation to Montenegro, where, together with European Parliament colleagues, I met with Montenegrin MPs, Ministers and law enforcement officials. It left me convinced that the EU's influence in the Western Balkans makes a huge difference to a region which not so very long ago was torn apart by conflict and war.
This mirrors my conversations with civil society activists from the region. They often highlight the transformative power the EU has had on their societies. In particular, they tell me how the EU supports the fight for cleaner, more inclusive democracy, against corruption and for human rights.
Montenegro, a country of 700 000 inhabitants, celebrated its 10th independence day last Saturday. Back in 2006, its independence referendum led to the dissolution of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. For only the second time in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, a new state was created without war. The EU's soft-power intervention during that time contributed massively to this peaceful and democratic transition.
We had yet another transition just last week. The night before my parliamentary delegation started its session in Montenegro, the existing government was dissolved and a new one created in its place- again, through democratic mechanisms and with no bloodshed.
Another example of progress comes from the field of LGBTI rights. When Montenegro held its first Pride in 2013, the relatively small number of participants - 150 people - had to be guarded by 2000 police officers whilst homophobic extremists threw stones at them. Life is still difficult for many LGBTI people in Montenegro, but since the start of the accession negotiations things really are improving. The last 'Montenegro Pride’ was held successfully and without violent attacks- something which was unthinkable even three years ago.
My delegation has also pushed for more respect for the rights of disabled people. It was really satisfying to see this bear fruit last week, when we visited new facilities to enable wheelchair users to access the Montenegrin parliament. Until now, they have been effectively denied access to the seat of power in their country.
We also learned last week from Montenegro's Special Prosecutor how support from the EU is helping in the fight to root out corruption. More progress needs to be made to end impunity for the most powerful, but again, the wind of change is blowing here too. There has been a whole raft of recent prosecutions for misuse of public funds, not least that of the mayor of Budva, the ninth largest municipality.
There are still many challenges to tackle in Montenegro. Nonetheless, it is now firmly anchored on a route leading to stronger democracy and better protection of human rights- a route strongly promoted by the EU. Thinking of the horrible wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia, these positive developments must not be taken for granted.