The Slovenian presidency of the EU starting on 1 July has placed the state of the enlargement process for the Western Balkans high on its list of priorities. But the process is dangerously in a state of impasse, leaving the states of the Western Balkans and EU alike disappointed and dissatisfied. Fresh ideas are needed. Therefore the Think for Europe Network (TEN) network of leading think tanks of the Western Balkans joins with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Brussels, to advocate a new dynamic of phased membership in the EU, with ideas for progressive functional and institutional integration based on an objective and quantified monitoring methodology.
The EU perspective toward the Western Balkans has remained undisputed, but especially since it endorsed accession for the region at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Besides Serbia, where Euroscepticism is not a new phenomenon, the rest of the countries from the region have been gazing toward EU accession with strong backing from local populations.
Acknowledging such a fragile situation on the ground, this input paper explores pertinent questions regarding the future of the EU in the Western Balkans and vice versa. After providing a brief overview and analysis of the current state of the enlargement process, the paper will explore how the impact of the recently revised enlargement methodology can be maximised. Moreover, it will discuss opportunities for deepening the ties between the EU and the region, going beyond the formal accession process and procedures. By engaging in out-of-the-box thinking and searching for solutions outside the mainstream bubble, the paper will offer directions for changing the dysfunctional status quo. It should be noted, however, that the purpose of this paper is not to provide final and detailed solutions to the identified problems.
Rather, its purpose is to instigate debate and formulate issues to be subsequently addressed with policy recommendations by Think for Europe – TEN experts participating at the Civil Society & Think Tank Forum organised by the German Aspen Institute in cooperation with Southeast Europe Association.
25th – 26th of February 2021 – Second Regional Conference Citizens First was held on the 25th and 26th of February. The conference was held in a hybrid format, with speakers from Serbia attending live, while speakers from the region and Europe joined online. The conference was physically attended by a limited number of people from Belgrade, in line with current epidemiological measures.
You can watch the recording of the first day of the conference here, and the recording of the second day can be found here.
Over two days, five panels and six parallel sessions were held, where participants from Serbia, Europe and the region had the opportunity to discuss the progress and challenges facing civil society in monitoring the public administration reform process, the efforts it is making would be more involved in creating a citizen-oriented administration.
The event was organized by European Policy Centre (CEP), in co-operation with five other regional organizations from the Western Balkans within the Think for Europe Network. The conference is part of WeBER2.0, a regional initiative dedicated to empowering civil society and citizens to be more willing to monitor and control the public administration reform process.
Highlights from the conference:
Tamara Srzentic, Minister of Public Administration of Montenegro, said in her introductory address that “when the community comes together to solve problems, anything is possible.” She added that it sometimes happens that policy planning and implementation are not well “connected”. “Implemented policies can be compared to a car that is loosely connected to the wheels – you will not get where you wanted and you will hurt many people on your way,” said Srzentic.
Srzentic said that policies should be made “starting with users”, that is, to have them in the foreground. “The government cannot do it alone – if you are part of the community, which we all are, we can help governments create a society that benefits us all,” Srzentic said.
“A well-functioning administration is one in which processes and institutions are created to meet the needs of society using the resources at their disposal”, said Myriam Ferran, Director for Strategy and Turkey at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR).
“We want to create a system based on a partnership that works in both directions – for both civil society and the administration. This relationship is sensitive because sometimes there are obstacles and sometimes misconceptions. Therefore, it is important to build trust between civil society and the administration,” she added, emphasizing that it is not easy to build. “Issues of working with the government, administration and improving the functioning of public administration, as well as the very importance of transparency and inclusiveness, is something that EU countries are constantly working on because it should never stop,” Ferran said.
Hata Kujrakovic, a student from Sarajevo, who spoke as a youth representative, said that young people from the entire region were very disappointed with the situation. “Let’s look around – what do we see? We see young, educated people leaving their countries en masse. This is a consequence of the problems we face. Research shows that corruption, unemployment, poor living standards and the lack of any prospects that this will change are the main reasons for moving abroad.” Young people are especially frustrated and discouraged when they see how the public sector is employed through connections. “It is very demoralizing when we see that all the money, effort, the time we have invested in education and personal development, the sacrifices we have made – are simply not enough because we do not have a “connection”. Because of this feeling of despair, it seems that we have only one thing left – to leave,” she said.
In the first panel, called, “A meeting point between bottom-up and top-down reform impetuses”, discussants were Milena Lazarevic, Programme Director at CEP and WeBER Team Leader, and Gregor Virant, Head of SIGMA (a joint initiative of the OECD and the European Union aimed at supporting the administration reform of countries in the process of joining the EU) and a former Minister of Public Administration of Slovenia. The panel was moderated by Radio Television Serbia (RTS) journalist, Vesna Damjanic.
Milena Lazarevic drew attention to the fact that it seems that the governments in the region are carrying out reforms only “because of Brussels”, and not because of their citizens. “Through many cases, it can be seen that when laws are passed and policies are considered, drafts are sent to Brussels and international actors, but public consultations, which should be at the heart of the process, are often not held,” Lazarevic said.
Lazarevic pointed out that one of the ideas of the WeBER2.0 initiative is to promote “champions from the region”, administrations that work best in the service of citizens, as examples of good practice for others. She added that only when we come out of the crisis period brought by the pandemic, we will see whether the governments have progressed, or retreated, especially when it comes to transparency in decision-making and spending budget funds”, said Lazarevic. Gregor Virant stressed that “expectations of the speed of progress on the road to the EU in the region are high”.
“We must understand that things will not happen overnight: reforms are a long process. We should not overestimate what can be done in two years, but we should not underestimate what can be done in 10 years “, concluded Virant.
Milos Djindjic, the Lead Researcher on the WeBER2.0 project and Programme Manager at the European Policy Centre (CEP) and Julijana Karai, a Researcher at the European Policy Institute (EPI) in Skopje, presented the findings of the research team observing the public administration reform process during the previous year.
“Our findings show that more than 50% of the surveyed citizens believe that solving problems related to public administration has become easier in the past year,” said Djindjic. The results also show that service providers still rarely publish information on their sites. The findings will soon be published online.
After the presentation of the project results, six parallel sessions followed, one for each area of public administration reform, where representatives of civil society and public administration discussed more detailed findings in each area.
On the second day of the conference, moderated by journalist Nenad Sebek, two panels were held: In the first, civil society representatives presented their examples and ideas for improving public administration, and in the second, Western Balkan citizens discussed their expectations from public administration.
The conference also presented a new WeBER2.0 platform where citizens of the Western Balkans can express their experiences with public administration, find advices and experiences of other citizens and express their opinions on various issues related to public administration. You can access the platform here.
In the final panel titled “Do citizens want good administration?”, moderated by Milos Djindjic, participants were Florian Hauser, Team Leader at the Center for Thematic Expertise of Public Administration Reform in DG NEAR, in the European Commission, Annika Uudelepp, Country Manager for Serbia and Regional Manager for EU Enlargement within SIGMA – OECD, and Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling, Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) and WeBER Advisory Council member.
“Citizens are quite comfortable with the ‘status quo’ because they enjoy the so-called ‘clientelism’ and passive attitude: they, therefore, overlook their need for better public policies, even though it is detrimental to them in the long run, but it serves them in the short term,” said Professor Meyer Sahling.
“We need to build a civic culture – learn to be critical thinkers, and assess our environment and our public administration”, agreed Florian Hauser.
Annika Uudelepp said that this is where civil society organisations should enter the scene, as they would serve as a “translator” of the citizens’ needs.
“Institutions and bureaucracies have their jargon, which is often not understandable to citizens, and citizens often do not know how to explain their demands. That is where civil society should enter the scene”, said Uudelepp.
The conference was held with the support of the European Union, and within the project “Protection of Civil Space – Regional Center for Civil Society Development” funded by SIDA and implemented by BCSDN.
For the past 14 years, “Global Go To Think Tank Index” published by the University of Pennsylvania, USA, has been ranking world’s think tanks based on various criteria. Think for Europe Network (TEN) a regional network which consists of six research organisations from the Western Balkans reached the list of the world’s best networks of research organisations for the third year in a row!
This year, we are ranked as the 34th best think tank in the world among prestigious networks of think tanks from the United States, Italy, Belgium, Brazil and others. This report demonstrates a recognition of the hard work this network has put in over the past years in the areas of good governance and ensuring the rule of law.
Since its establishment in 2013, TEN has focused their work on improving fundamental drivers of the development of our societies – good governance and the rule of law. It has brought together six organisations which cooperate in EU-related policy research and ensuring that the reforms brought into the societies are sustainable and substantial for successful EU integration of the region.
We are proud to announce that the Second Regional “Citizens First“ Conference will be held on February 25-26, 2021!
Given the current restrictions caused by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conference will take the form of a two-day hybrid event, applying the multi-stage concept and including both in-person and virtual elements and attendees. International participants and speakers will be attending the event online, while the speakers from Serbia will be offered a possibility to attend in person, in full accordance with the health and safety measures in place at the time.
Just like two years ago, the cornerstone product of our project presented in the Conference will be the Regional and National PAR Monitors 2019/2020, which will indicate the results of the comparative research on monitoring PAR in all Western Balkan countries. Ultimately, the Conference aims to enhance and broaden the dialogue on creating and implementing inclusive and transparent policies, as well as contribute to the sustainability of administrative reforms to the benefit of the Region’s citizens.
The Conference will gather various civil society organisations, governments’ representatives, international and regional organisations, as well as distinguished independent experts on the matter.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak on citizens’ usage of electronic access to administrative services has been limited in the Western Balkans. The Brief analyzes potential reasons for this and reflects on cross-national variations.
If the EU does not count the Balkan countries among the stakeholders who should participate, in some form, in the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), then one has to wonder whether the Union is still serious about the European perspective of the region.
The EU should allow political leaders and citizens from the Balkan countries to join the activities and discussions held in the context of the CoFoE on a consultative basis, along the representative and citizens’ dimensions of the process, respectively. In doing so, the EU would build on the precedent of the European Convention of the early 2000s.
The EU has nothing to lose and everything to win by deepening and refining its relationship with the Balkan countries, by allowing the region to feel included in its plans for the future of the EU. The Union would use the interdependence with the Balkans to good advantage, strengthening natural alliances with its neighbours and consolidating its political vicinity. Deliberating over joint responses to specific common challenges addressed by the Conference would help the Balkan countries continue to build experience and know-how in preparation for their eventual EU membership. Allowing the Balkans to witness and contribute to this initiative would also foster a sense of togetherness and partnership that has been lacking from the long, drawn-out formal accession process. More, rather than less, EU-Balkans cooperation and coordination will build trust and loyalty.
In the end, even without a formal invitation to accompany the CoFoE process, the Balkan countries should organise themselves at the political and societal levels to follow the Conference and mirror its activities with similar initiatives. The Regional Cooperation Council could help organise and coordinate a network of Balkan politicians tasked by their governments to follow and participate in the Conference. In parallel, civil society networks in the region should build on their already existing cooperation and look for funds to organise ‘Balkan Citizens’ Consultations’, which can accompany the CoFoE process as it unfolds. Such a broad mobilisation would prove the Balkan countries’ strong will to approach the EU and a certain dose of political maturity.
But the Union should know better than to just wait to be impressed by the Balkans. The EU is one CoFoE invitation away from leaping forward into the future, together with its strong partners and closest neighbours, as Commission President von der Leyen referred to the Balkans in her State of the Union address.
This discussion paper is developed in cooperation with the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre (EPC), and is thus also published at epc.eu.
Public perceptions from four out of six countries in the Western Balkans suggest that state administration has become more citizen oriented in the past two years. Citizens throughout the region are increasingly aware of electronic access to administrative services, even though the COVID-19 pandemic has had a limited impact on using this type of access. Interesting country-level variations are noted in different aspects of the survey.
14 December 2020. – Freedom of expression online should have some limitations and regulations; this was the main takeaway from the today’s public debate: Freedom of expression in the internet: a common challenge for the EU and Kosovo. Organized by Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS).
The panel consisted of Eraldin Fazliu, Editor in chief, Prishtina Insight, Erblin Hoxha, civil society activist and Executive Director at Debate Center, Njomza Arifi – Programme Manager at Group for Legal and Political Studies as well as Ema Pula, project coordinator at GLPS, and facilitator of the first local citizen consultation online with the youth, organized under Europe for Citizens project.
Ema Pula presented the conclusions and recommendations from the consultations with youth that GLPS held two weeks ago, and where 17 young people of age 18-24 from all across Kosovo participated in the event.
She presented the main findings of the consultations where her peers defined some of the most positive and negative aspects of the internet. Among positive aspects were the use of the internet as an interactive/communicative space, the internet as a source of information, and lastly the use of the internet for financial benefits. On the other hand, few negative aspects were: the presence of fake news, online bullying, and the violation of privacy. Ema stated that in order to protect the positives and fight against the negatives, enforcement of applicable laws and sanctions should be stricter. Lastly, awareness raising campaigns should be continuous and would boost the level of media literacy.
Furthermore, Eraldin Fazliu, editor in chief in Prishtina Insight appreciated and agreed with the conclusions of the youth. He said that the fake news, misinformation and the lack of regulations of the freedom of expression is contributing to the rise of the hate-speech and polarized, not only among citizens, but also among journalists. Fazliu, posited the risk of hyper use of social media and how that is affecting the society as a whole.
With almost 90% of all people generations gravitate on the internet, and the information they gather, the virtual groups they belong, often it gives the impression that these people are being served by their simple truths – and that is a big problem.
Another problem according to Fazliu is the selective justice when dealing with the cases of misinformation, fake news, or online threats towards people. While the response was more accurate when politicians were threatened on the internet, the same it cannot be said for regular citizens or journalist. However, standards and regulations to regulate the freedom of speech on the internet and not limit it is the solution that Fazliu sees as feasible.
Erblin Hoxha, who has worked with the youth for many years now, stated that “Research shows that the youth used to take 10-15 seconds to look at a news article, but now they spend 2-3 seconds to read the news, therefore headlines are what attracts them.” This demonstrates that the youth is living in different realities, and being served by the internet algorithms, arguably the perspectives offered in the virtual space it hinders the critical thinking and decent information. Therefore, Hoxha posed a serious question – “What do we do with the media that purposefully creates fake news?” He proposed that the online sphere should be regulated in the same way in which other media spheres are regulated.
Njomza Arifi, from GLPS depicted both sides of the internet and its impact in society.
“Many social media users have recently spread false news, propaganda and to some extent hatred on social media, knowing that there is little or no control over social media in Kosovo. Fake news in Kosovo has often harmed public figures but has also wrongly shaped public opinion. However, hate speech, xenophobia and others have been fueled by the misuse of freedom of expression on the Internet. However, in Kosovo, freedom of expression on the Internet has had a positive impact on civic mobilizations, online petitions, and the organization of protests and increased civic advocacy. There are many cases when online socio-political activism has been translated with result in practice.”
This event is part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, implemented by a network of think tanks from 6 countries in the region (Think for Europe Network – TEN) together with International Affairs Institute in Rome, Bronislaw Geremek Foundation in Warsaw and European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels. The project is funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) through the Europe for Citizens program.
11th December 2020 – CEP’s programme director, Milena Lazarevic, participated in the online discussion; “What Future for EU Enlargement in Pandemic Times”? organised by the Aspen Institute. The online discussion was also participated by Florian Bieber, a professor for Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Majlinda Bregu, the Secretary-General, Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), Ambassador Susanne Schutz, the Director for South-Eastern Europe and the discussion was moderated by Adelheid Wolfl, South Eastern Europe correspondent for Der Standard, based in Sarajevo.
Excluding the devastating consequences brought on by the pandemic, there are vital political divisions in many countries in Europe and within the European Union (EU). Additionally, we have seen an ambitious German Presidency that was met with a special set of economic, political and social challenges set forth this year.
Assessing the German Presidency thus far, Ambassador Susanne Schutz, emphasised that since the presidency started on the 1st of July, Western Balkans (WB) was high on its agenda, particularly looking at the Council decision for Albania and North Macedonia to commence the negotiations for the EU membership. Thus, there have been positive measures takes regarding the EU Enlargement process in the Western Balkans, even during the pandemic.
Confronted with the possibility of a second wave, the countries in the Western Balkans have suffered a serious economic impact as can be seen by the substantial drop in GDP for many Western Balkan countries. Looking at the economic and political consequences, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera expressed that it has allowed the region and the EU to work together in an unprecedented manner. The EU has introduced the first package of €3.3 billion in April accompanied by the weekly deliveries of health protection equipment and joint procurement initiatives. Calavera also emphasized that due to there being a high possibility of a third wave, the EU has set forth a package on the 6th October, the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP), which is comprised of €9 billion donor grants funding.
Referring to and evaluating the EIP, Milena Lazarevic indicated thatthe plan is unique as it is a single portfolio that is meant for an economic long-term recovery of the region. However, Lazarevic specified that the EIP is part of the the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). Nonetheless, considering that the EIP excludes Turkey, means that the countries in the region will get a much more sizeable monetary support. Furthermore, Lazarevic expressed her doubts on whether the EIP will be enough to close the development gap in the region and the danger it might pose in attracting actors that offer loans at a much more politically convenient rate, which lures the political establishments away from the EU.
Additionally, she drew attention to the necessity of holding political leaders in the region accountable and for it to be done publicly and “not behind closed doors”. Especially this year, the annual EC report mentioned that the government is “[…] breaching its legislation”, which is a serious statement to make. Lastly, in answering the question on the issue of alignment, Lazarevic pointed out that the concern here is not only the influence of Russia, but China as well, which is why Serbia did not follow up on the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) statements.
With the endorsement of the Common Regional Market (CRM) at the Sofia Summit, Majlinda Bregu stated that the region needs to take concrete steps and move forward as one common single market, otherwise it will be impossible to have big investors approaching the region. The market reflects the post-pandemic recovery in the Balkans, that will be economically, highly beneficial. The way to succeed in the establishment of the market is on the politicians and the local stakeholders. When it comes to the short-term assistance to the region the attention will be focused on financing the public health services and ensuring the countries in the region can buy the vaccine for COVID-19. Nonetheless, according to Bregu, all the help from the EU will not be enough to close the financing gap left by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until recently, North Macedonia’s path to EU membership seemed optimistic, until Bulgaria’s VETO, which was attributed to the unresolved historical issues between the two countries. Florian Bieber said that Bulgaria’s VETO is evidence of how fragile the accession process, as it gives an example to other member states to abuse their power. If there is no change in the way the accession process is managed from the EU side delivering membership and not being blocked on multiple points, but also changing the whole perception of the EU region, which is no longer seen as merit-based. This also deflects the transformative power of the EU enlargement process. Can the creation of a WB regional market be an alternative to the EU membership? According to Bieber: “Regional cooperation is great, but it is by no means an alternative to the EU membership because all the indications are that it would economically have a nice but not a dramatic impact.”
Furthermore, he highlighted that the enlargement process is a way to fix the issues within the rule of law and democracy and if it becomes a game of waiting for 20 years in the eyes of the citizens, then it will discourage the leaders in the region to engage in serious reforms in rule of law. The issue of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue is that any permanent settlement between the two countries requires a strong incentive, which is the EU membership. However, even if the two countries agree to full normalisation of relations, it might not stop an EU member state to intervene and halt the accession process.
In conclusion, for the enlargement process to be successful, it is expected of the WB countries to exhibit cooperation, specifically in creating the regional common market- which would make the region more susceptible to much larger EU investments. Arguably, the credibility of the EU enlargement process has suffered, when looking at the case of Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The danger is that even if the membership criteria are met, the possibility of a countries’ accession being blocked is real. Moreover, the politicization between the EU and WB relations can be seen through the EU’s hesitation to publicly rebuke the countries’ democracy and rule of law problems. How will the EU move forward in returning the faith of the accession process to the citizens of the WB countries? Will the creation of the common regional market be successful? These are the questions the EU and WB countries will have to answer in the coming years.
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