The Right to be Heard-The EU Enlargement Policy and Civil Society in the Western Balkans Workshop

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The aim of the workshop was to discuss the current challenges faced by the countries in the Western Balkans and solutions to which local CSOs can contribute in finding. Specifically, the agenda focused on the IPA Civil Society Facility, which is the main EC funding mechanism in support of civil society development in potential and candidate countries and the IPA Partnership principle, which lays the legal basis for involvement of civil society actors in the IPA programming, implementation and evaluation. On this occasion, a draft policy paper “ The Successes and Failures of the EU-Pre-accession Policy in the Balkans: Support to Civil Society ” was presented and discussed.

On 9th September, an informal meeting between representatives of local CSOs from the Balkans and EU platforms was organized in order to share experiences regarding the work of CSOs and networks in the EU pre-accession and accession context. The first panel “Civil Society a Partner in Policy- and Decision-Making: Lessons-learned on National and EU level” and the second panel focused on “The Role of Civil Society in the Pre-Accession Period: Lessons-learned from the 5th, 6th and Future Enlargements”.

The main conclusion and recommendations from the informal gathering were:

  • the development of civil dialogue mechanisms is not only an issue faced by countries in the pre-accession context, but quite similar challenges are faced by the sectors in the established democracies and traditions in Europe;
  • while the EU is a framework for cooperation, this can be limiting in the sense of joint activities (if funded by the EU) and in influencing policy and EU institutions (accession vs. pre-accession countries). However, for the civil society sector the EU context is not limiting as cooperation exists in the wider European context, bridging the EU divide. Such an example is the cooperation in the context of the Council and Europe but also the ENNA network;
  • when dialogue is non-existent or is not developed, the Slovenian case shows that new models (such as through IT technology) can provide for positive developments (although not a framework or a system) regarding cooperation and mutual benefits, thereof. But still, the Serbia case shows that even though positive cases of cooperation and engagement might exist, political will is crucial if the process of engagement is to come full circle;
  • the EU integration process can be instrumental, but has not proved to be crucial or to have an irreversible effect (such as in the case of Romania) on the improvement of both civil dialogue mechanisms and their functioning.

The formal part of the workshop, which took place on 10th September, was divided into three panels. The first panel “EU Enlargement Policy – Between External Dependency and Regional Ownership” identified the current challenges in the region and discussed how these could be address by the civil society sector. Venera Hajrullahu from the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF) and Member of the BCSDN Board the panellists on the fact that the EU Enlargement policy is being challenged and thus, from the regional perspective seems quite unstable and unpredictable.

Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, Member of the European Parliament (ALDE) stressed that the progress in the region can only be based on a sustainable democratic process, which in turn is based on sustainable political parties as the keystone of institutions. In this, civil society can play a crucial role so that the inclusion of civil society in the decision-making should not be only an “after thought”.

Jelica Minic, Deputy Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, stressed that the progress in the region will be based on the development of a new socio-economic model. The region has inherent discrepancies such as between sectoral vs. bilateral cooperation and existence of frozen conflicts vs. good regional networking. Three scenarios for further regional development can be put forward, but most participants agreed that only two are possible, i.e. fast EU integration and development vs. functional integration with belated formal accession. Civil society with its ideas, project experience and transnational cooperation can demonstrate and help in re-branding the region which is stereotyped as negative, conflict-ridden and backwards.

Aleksandra Tomanic representing the Enlargement strategy Unit in the DG Enlargement announced the Commission will be launching the Progress Reports on 14th October. Their main function is not to criticize, but for the Commission to give push for further reforms in each country. This year, the consultation process on the Reports with civil society has been improved on the local level by publishing a call for input by local civil society actors on the EC Delegation websites. The Commission also has a regular two-weekly session will CSOs in Brussels on specific issues and topics addressed in the Reports.

The second panel was moderated by Miljenko Dereta, Civic initiatives, Serbia and was devoted to the topic “IPA Civil Society Facility – The Washing Powder or Effective Support to Civil Society Sector in the Pre- accession Period”.

Tanja Hafner Ademi, Executive Director, BCSDN presented the main features of the IPA Civil Society Facility , its main findings and a 10-point recommendation for the improvement of its design and implementation from the policy paper.

Yngve Engstroem, Head of Unit of Regional Programmes, DG Enlargement in charge of Civil Society Facility responded to the findings of the paper by outlining that for the Commission, the Facility presents a paradigm shift from supporting only project activities to also supporting the building of CSOs capacities in order to address accession challenges. The Facility will try to avoid developing a civil society market, where CSOs create projects as a response to call for proposals to a target support which is based on local CSO demands and needs. Contrary to the findings of the policy paper, he was of the opinion that the Facility is mainly demand-driven, i.e. supports project which are also not pre-accession driven. The main focus of the implementation is currently on the Technical Assistance arm of the Facility, which is to have a help desk office in each country (in Croatia and Turkey, these will be attached to the existing CSO platforms or offices, while in other countries these will be separate, new offices). In the future, though, the idea is to move towards a funding facility in support of demand-driven needs. It is not clear whether this will also include strategic institutional support to existing local civil society development organizations, which was an expectation shared by the participating local CSOs.

Irma Meznaric representative of the NGO Office in the Ministry for Public Administration, Slovenia presented the lessons-learned by the Slovenian institutions in dealing with civil society development in the context of its country’s accession to the EU. Civil society development was not a priority for the Government in the accession process, but the accession process had a positive effect in moving relations forward between the sector and the Government. The Government initiated the involvement of civil society in the negotiation process, but save for the environmental sector, the experience was mutually disappointing. The lost opportunity to build relations and address the needs of civil society development, esp. NGOs, was used in preparation of the planning for the use of Structural Funds. CSOs were involved in the earliest stage, i.e. before development of the first draft proposal. Slovenia is probably the only EU country that has identified and is thus using Structural Funds to support the strengthening of civil society and civil dialogue. Based on these, the absorption capacity for the 1st year has been 98% of allocated funds. The Structural Funds have the possibility to bring about a change of values in the sense that adoption of the Acquis and changes to policies in the accession process are rested on values of a society and with the legal and policy changes a value change is inherent.

The third panel “IPA Partnership Principle: A Possibility for Effective Partnership with Civil Society – Reality or Science Fiction” was moderated by Tina Michieli, CNVOS, Slovenia.

Wenceslas de Lobkowitz, Adviser Inter-cultural Dialogue and Cultural Heritage and former Adviser for Civil Dialogue, DG Enlargement gave an overview on how CSOs can be involved beyond the consultation process. The role of CSOs in the EU enlargement process can lay in raising-awareness and stimulating public debate, supporting cooperation, as well serving as a watchdog for the EU integration process of a country. What has been the experience with the New EU Member States thus far is that especially this third function is forgotten after accession.

Tony Venables from European Citizens’ Action Service (ECAS), Brussels presented the EU level experience and the involvement of CSOs in the EU programmes and institutions. The EC has had a good practice of involving local actors in the programming through the Structural Funds, but also through specific programmes, s.c. Community Initiatives such as EQUAL, LEADER, URBAN in the previous financial period 2000-2006. While the EU has developed some standards regarding the inclusion of civil society, the “jury is still out”, especially considering how the practice of including CSOs has progressed thus far (e.g. ECAS has submitted complaints regarding the lack of consultation in at least one case). The problem with standards is that they can also become a routine for both the CSOs and institutions, and at least at the EU level, the CSOs need to have political engagement.

Simon Stocker representing CONCORD and EU Civil Society Contact Group (CSCG) which brings together the eight large rights and value based EU sectoral platforms also shared his experience on the inclusion of CSOs at the EU level. Not just consultations, but a meaningful dialogue with the institutions is also depending on the particular individuals in the institutions. While the EU can certainly force the Governments to build relations with civil society, the practice, both in the developing regions and pre-accession context, shows that forced relations might bring about formal dialogue, but this might not be productive and effective for a meaningful dialogue for the local CSOs. What is also important is that the sector has its own agenda, which can appear complicated because it is not solely driven by the relations it has with the EC and Government, but also due to the fact that no one model is applicable to every country. In this, keeping a balance is of great importance.

Concluding remarks and recommendations were first made by Yngve Engstroem who reported feedback for the DG Enlargement on the overall workshop, but with specific focus on the 10-point recommendation in the policy paper:

  1. While emphasising the points made in his presentation in the 2nd panel, Mr. Engstroem confirmed that civil society development will again find itself prioritized in the up-coming Enlargement package to be launched on 14th October, but that messages to different potential and candidate countries will be different. The points made through the workshop will be brought up with the Working Group within the DG;
  2. When it comes to consultation, these need to be “reasonable”. From the point of view of the Commission, the Technical Assistance project should help provide forums for better inclusion of civil society in the IPA programming process. A new system of consultation will also apply to regional IPA project when it comes to involvement of Government representatives and private foundations and there the inclusion of civil society would be on sectoral basis;
  3. On the design and implementation of the Facility, the Commission felt that the design is and will continue to be demand-driven. The future focus will be on networking rather on sectors. With regards to mode of implementation, service vs. grant system is less “cumbersome” and therefore easier to manage from the point of view of the Commission. While the service approach might not change, the Commission views implementation by the CSOs crucial, as the idea is to phase out as soon as local actors can continue the effort in a sustainable manner.

For reflection on the workshop discussion, Saso Klekovski, First Executive Director, MCIC, Macedonia concluded that the focus should be on integration and not enlargement. Mutual respect in this process is crucial in order to have a real and meaningful partnership. The experience of EU platforms and networks presented in the informal gathering should demonstrate and motivate local CSOs to work together and improve cooperation at the EU and European level. In strengthening democratic institutions in the Balkans, CSOs should engage with political parties and the national Parliaments, and shy away from the current method of focusing on the executive branch of government as a way to push further reforms and the EU integration process further.

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