Throughout the past decade, the online sphere has been turning into an essential part of people’s daily lives. Having been strongly affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic, much of our lives have transitioned into the online sphere. From education, business, to social life and networking – people have become overly reliant on various social media platforms to socialise and normalise their day-to-day lives.
The overreliance on the Internet has become particularly the case among the youth. In that regard, the pandemic has only exacerbated the previously existing challenges, while opening the door to the new ones whose consequences are yet to materialise. While being the most media literate generation yet, the youth (aged between 15 and 30), is confronted with several issues that have impacted their wellbeing and livelihood. With screen time increasing, many questions have opened – how will this affect the mental health of youth, to what extent will the increasing amount of dis- and misinformation on the Internet affect ways of thinking and decision-making, how will this transition impact the education process, social life, privacy, and security? As we are still found amid unprecedented times, these questions have no definite answer. Yet, it is highly important that conversations commence.
Behind extensive consultations in all capitals of the region, the joint conclusion of the Western Balkan youth, together with their counterparts across Europe, is that there is a dire need for the adoption of a regulation to better protect their right to free and safe digital space. Hence the Manifesto, whose intention is to stand as a call for action for European opinion- and decision-makers at the supranational, national, regional, and local level in the areas related to digital freedoms and Internet use.
Moreover, they call for:
consequential fight against the spread of disinformation and the rise in hate speech;
addressing the detrimental impact of the internet on mental health;
ensuring accountability of the social media platforms.
The Manifesto development was also supported by an online petition, signed by over 400 signatories in just two weeks. Considering the backing of the region’s youth and strong demand for action, this Manifesto lays out key demands that ought to be addressed. As the countries of the region have been excluded from directly partaking in the Conference on the Future of Europe, the voice of the Western Balkan youth becomes all the more important. “Shaping Europe’s digital future” is one of the thematic areas of the Conference, thus the Manifesto aspires to usher the path for further discussions in this area.
The call for a Manifesto was first publicly announced on 5 May 2021, just four days before the monumental day for all Europeans – the Europe day that celebrates unity in diversity. More so, this day marked the start of the long-awaited Conference on the Future of Europe, hoping to create a prospective future for all Europeans. In such a context, the aim of the Manifesto is to generate debate and policy action from relevant stakeholders in Europe.
Starting from August 2021, the Think for Europe Network (TEN) commenced its work on the research project “the EU as a promoter of democracy or ‘stabilitocracy’ in the Western Balkans?”. This project is implemented in partnership with the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’.
Through its enlargement policies the EU tries to foster democratisation in the Western Balkan region. Now that further reforms in a number of countries only progress slowly or seem even deadlocked, more and more attention is being paid to the negative side-effects of EU policies. The literature on EU enlargement notes that, in spite of their democratic objectives, EU strategies and policies unintentionally contribute to the formation of so-called stabilitocracies in the region: countries with obvious democratic shortcomings that at the same time claim to provide pro-EU stability.
The research project focuses on the six countries of the Western Balkans. For each country, it assesses how flaws in the EU’s enlargement policies as identified in the literature play out in practice by offering a reflection on the applicability of the theoretical framework for the specific country, underpinned by an assessment of a number of case studies.
The project will be carried out throughout 2021 and will culminate in a Clingendael report in English with six contributions from TEN partners, one for each country of the Western Balkan Six.
This project is financed by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence.
Period: August 2021 – October 2021 Donator: Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence Project Coordinator: European Policy Centre – CEP, Belgrade Contact persons:Strahinja Subotić, Programme Manager and Senior Researcher (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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