With the aim to contribute to the discussion for making the EU enlargement process more to the benefit of the Western Balkans citizens, BCSDN together with NALAS organized a workshop on the 5th of March 2020. The workshop titled “A new bottom-up approach to bring the EU closer to its future citizens: Rethinking the EU Support to Local Authorities and Civil Society in the Western Balkans” gathered over 30 representatives from relevant EU institutions and from CSOs and Local Authority Associations from the Western Balkans to discuss. The workshop was divided in two-panel session. The first one was devoted to the broader discussion about the need for a more bottom-up approach in the EU accession with more meaningful involvement of the LAs and CSOs. The second panel discussed the planning of the new IPA III highlighting the need for more meaningful financial support to Local Authorities, and more effective support to civil society. The workshop was opened with welcome remarks by NALAS Executive Director – Kelmend Zajazi and BCSDN’s Policy Advocacy Officer – Biljana Spasovska who also opened the first-panel discussion, and keynote addresses by Ms. Alessandra Viezzer, Deputy Head of Unit in the DG NEAR and by Mr. Frédéric Vallier, Secretary-General of the Council of European municipalities and regions. Ms. Viezzer noted that the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans is a top priority for the Commission. She noted that with the new methodology, the Commission is committed to strengthening and improving the accession process in which they see a stronger role for civil society. The key message in the first panel was that now, with the reinvigorated commitment of the European Commission, the new methodology and at the start of the planning of the new IPA, is the right time the EU accession process to be re-directed towards and for the benefit of the citizens. NALAS pointed out the need for the EU to make the accession process more than an administrative checklist but to provide tangible improvements for the everyday lives of citizens. BCSDN called on the Commission for stronger involvement of non-state actors in the process and for re-affirmed commitment and political support for empowering civil society. Two key aspects were emphasized: a) the need EU to adopt an official policy and performance framework for civil society development; and b) regular and structured policy dialogue with the EU through which CSOs can have an influence on governments regarding the accession process.
The second panel of the workshop was devoted to a discussion about the new Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance which is currently under development by the Commission. Key messages on the panel were delivered from BCSDN by Ms. Juliana Hoxha, Director at Partners Albania, and Mr. Darko Mrvaljevic, NALAS Council member from Montenegro. BCSDN urged the Commission for more systematic, and political support for the strengthening of civil society enabling environment and provided concrete recommendations for improving the modalities of assistance, outlined in detail in BCSDN Opinion The Future of EU Support to Civil Society.
NALAS called the European Commission to finally establish a separate facility for Local Authorities with the new IPA providing a concrete proposal for the need and the purpose of such a facility which should support the local authorities to be drivers for change and development. From the DG NEAR Mr. Massimo Mina, The Team Leader for Programming of IPA III had also intervention providing insight into the current stages of the planning of the IPA III. Mr. Mina highlighted the European Commission will continue its support to civil society via one of the five windows for support through the programme – Window 1: Rule of Law, Fundamental Rights and Democracy, and is one of the 5 cross-cutting themes which will be mainstreamed through the whole programme. The EC now is also exploring ways how to address certain challenges, such as the current financial dependence of the Western Balkans CSOs on EU assistance, and the possibility national governments to be responsible for managing and distributing of funds for civil society actions, in addition to the direct support which will be managed by the EU.
To these points, BCSDN urged the Commission to take a more careful approach considerate of the challenges for civil society operating environment in the region, as well as the growing trends of government trying to limit the space for civil society operations in the region, and beyond.
Finally, the workshop concluded with recommendations for all stakeholders to support cooperation between civil society and local authorities being the ones closest to the citizens on the ground.