On 2 March 2023, BCSDN organized a hybrid and open advocacy event with the Greens in the European Parliament under the title “Empowering civil society in the EU, Western Balkans & Türkiye.” The event, co-hosted by MEP Ms. Gwendoline Delbos- Corfield, brought together MEPs and leading CSOs from the Western Balkans, Turkey, and the EU to explore the state of civil society in the region and the recent push for protecting the EU civic space.
MEP Ms. Delbos- Corfield opened the event in a powerful call of support for civil society, pledging her attentive ear to those present and undimmed optimism that EU accession remains firmly on the agenda—emphasizing too, that European ideals reach far abroad from its borders.
“The exchanges during the roundtable discussion, hosted together with the Balkan Civil Society Development Network, highlighted the vitality of civil society across Europe. Civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Balkans are our partners in protecting core EU values and democracy in the region. I firmly believe in the importance of involving CSOs throughout the Enlargement process. At the same time, we must keep fighting to prevent civil society from being criminalised by institutions – a trend which is becoming worryingly more commonplace.
I look forward to continued exchanges and cooperation with CSOs across Europe, including BSCDN, as we work to protect our shared values – including the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.” – stated Ms. Delbos – Corfield.
This strong stance was echoed by BCSDN Executive Director, Ms. Biljana Spasovska’s introductory speech which gave way for BCSDN members representatives to share a glimpse into their scope of work, and state of civil society in the countries of the region, truly highlighting how CSOs across the region are jointly contributing towards more enabling environment for civil society development, strengthened rule of law, and enhanced level of democracy in Europe.
In her speech, Ms. Carlotta Bessozzi, the Coordinator of Civil Society Europe stressed that in the light of recent legislative backsliding concerning freedom of association, funding and other issues related to civil society in some European Union member states, the existence of civil society strategy for establishing a resilient civil society is essential. She stressed that EU institutions need stronger recommendations that take into consideration how civil society can ensure greater involvement from CS representatives through discussions with different stakeholders. She further pointed that It’s key that ways are identified whereby members have an opportunity to comment on reports provided by the union itself.
During the event, BCSDN’s Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Ms. Anja Bosilkova- Antovska presented the findings from network’s flagship product, the Monitoring Matrix for enabling environment, which evaluates the state of CSOs in the Western Balkans and Turkey, as well as CSOs joint positions on the overall state of democracies. By recalling on country specific examples, at the event, BCSDN members provided a unified voice of support for democracy in their countries of operation and the region while advocating policy changes to empower civil society through accession processes. Some of the countries’ issues discussed were: the limitation of basic freedoms (freedom of assembly, association and expression), the lack of CSOs-government dialogue, and CSOs involvement in public consultations, problematic AML/CFT regulations, SLAPP cases, lack of operational grants from EU, lack of transparent and effective public funding, etc.
The attendees explored how to collaborate in creating a unified strategy for working with CSOs. They agreed that involving CSOs is vital and should be done proactively; additionally, it was discussed that CS offers potential solutions rather than obstacles which can arise due to interference from abroad. Participants explored ways to defy prevailing obstacles for CSOs in the region, namely restrictions on foreign funding and hefty fines. They discussed approaches to partner more effectively with member states as well as shared experiences regarding European Union Delegation’s (EUDs) countries’ operations.
During the discussion, Ms. Hanna Surmatz emphasized that restrictions on foreign funding can severely limit local organizations’ ability to carry out their activities successfully in certain countries. On the flip side, Ms. Bessozzi drew attention to how collaborative work between EP and CSOs could help create a unified approach with tangible results beyond providing feedback alone. The representatives present were unanimous in recognizing the importance of involving CSOs at all stages of decision-making processes for optimal outcomes moving forward.
In conclusion, the event provided a platform for civil society actors to discuss the state of civil society in the Western Balkans and Turkey and advocate for concrete policy measures to support civil society in the accession process.