The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Western Balkans: Effects on Democracy, Rule of Law, and Civil Society

9 June 2020 – Today, TEN members took part in the “COVID-19 Pandemic in the Western Balkans: Effects on Democracy, Rule of Law, and Civil Society” closed-door workshop organised by the Aspen Institute Germany. This workshop gathered members of the expert community from the EU and the region along with officials from the EU and its member states. As a basis for discussion, six TEN representatives presented a working paper which addressed some possible long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on critical democratic principles and rule of law in the Western Balkans. The participants also discussed the way forward in the coming period, stressing the importance of empowering civil society, the media, and national parliaments in their watchdog functions and not neglecting women and vulnerable groups as those most affected by the ongoing pandemic. Insights from this discussion will contribute to the forthcoming TEN policy brief, which tackles the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the functioning of rule of law and democracy in the Western Balkans.

CSOs from Montenegro and Serbia call for the lowering of tensions

PODGORICA / BELGRADE – Candidates for the membership in the European Union should resolve the disputed issues in the spirit of regional cooperation, stated ten civil society organizations from Montenegro and Serbia, adding that it is necessary to urgently calm the tensions between the two countries.

In a joint statement, CSOs pointed out that, at a time when leading candidates for EU membership are expected to show stronger political leadership and credibility in fulfilling the commitments and values ​​on which the Union is based, calming the tensions between Serbia and Montenegro and ending the use of inflammatory and passionate speech in statements by officials of these countries is imperative.

The statement was signed by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE), Centre for Contemporary Politics (CSP), European Policy Centre (CEP), International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), European Movement in Serbia (EPuS), Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM) from Serbia and Centre for Civil Liberties (CEGAS), the Institute Alternative (IA) and Politikon Network from Montenegro.

Civil society organizations have stressed that it is the duty of the leaders of both countries to show their readiness to resolve existing disputes through dialogue, instead of inciting low nationalist passions that may bring votes in the upcoming elections, but can have long-term and serious consequences.

“The responsibility lies with the officials of both countries, who should lay the foundations of the European path for all other countries of the Western Balkans, to act rationally and diplomatically when resolving disputed issues, respecting the sovereignty of both countries. We appeal for such issues to be resolved through a dialogue between representatives of relevant institutions in both countries, and not through statements by media officials,“ the statement said.

Governments in the WB still do not provide adequate information on their achievements: First results from PAR Monitor 2019/2020

In the policy development area, PAR Monitor 2019/2020 starts by focusing on the information available to citizens on governmental performance. Evidence shows that citizens of the Western Balkan countries, with the exception of BiH and to a lesser extent North Macedonia, do not have access to basic information about the work of their governments; the level of detail provided in annual governmental work reports is generally substandard to allow proper public scrutiny. Even weaker practices are shown in how understandable and result-oriented these reports are, as well as how regularly the public is informed on the implementation of central planning documents.

This PAR Monitor cycle enables the comparison of trends against the baseline results of the PAR Monitor for 2017/2018 and indicates slight progress at best in the WB generally. Though governments are a bit more diligent in reporting on their work and on the implementation of central planning documents, there has been little change in all aspects of reporting that concern the quality of data – they do not publish open or gender segregated data and performance information on annual results is scarce, for instance, which almost mirrors the baseline PAR Monitor results.

Despite this general picture, there are nevertheless some developments that have brought about notable changes in specific countries in the period between the two monitoring exercises. For example, Kosovo, which scored the best of all countries considered last time, has scored only one point in this round due to the problems in the formation of its government and the acting government’s failure to produce the annual report.

On the other hand, the largest positive developments were recorded in North Macedonia, improving from a very low score in the last round. In this cycle, it assumed the runner-up position of all countries considered due to the settling in of a new government after a period of political unrest, publishing regularly of annual reports, despite scoring zero points last round with no information published.

Apart from these more noteworthy changes, BiH, Serbia, and Montenegro have all recorded slight progress, though nothing too drastic. BiH has improved in terms of its government’s inclusion of gender-segregated data in the information issued about its activities. Serbia’s complete absence of regularity in its government’s publishing of reports on its work plan online has continued, though reporting on central planning documents has improved somewhat. The only notable improvement in Montenegro is regarding the regularity of its government’s annual reporting on its work.

Finally, there has been no change in Albania when it comes to how the government reports on its work. With governmental annual reports and information on the implementation of government-wide plans and strategies largely absent, Albania is at the lower end of regional scale once again.

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Proactive informing from public authorities is still at a low level in the Western Balkans: First results from PAR Monitor 2019/2020

Worrying trends in the limited proactive information made available to citizens of the Western Balkans by their governments, indicated in the baseline PAR Monitor 2017/2018, have shown little change. Although some online information is easily accessible in most of the countries included, limited open data practices and transparency in annual reporting and budgets, as well as limited citizen-friendliness in the presentation of information, are still common.

The same as in the PAR Monitor 2017/2018, the information published by national authorities was assessed on a sample of seven institutions and against same key criteria which enables comparison of results over time: completeness of information, whether available information was up-to-date, the accessibility of information, and the citizen-friendliness of its presentation. Overall, countries scored fewer points for completeness of the information and if available information is updated – 33% of all points compared to 38% in the first monitoring cycle.

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Some progress though is notable regarding accessibility and citizen friendliness in presenting information as compared – out of the total available points for accessibility and citizen friendliness, countries of the region managed to win 26% as compared to 17% in the baseline PAR Monitor. 

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Sample authorities generally fare better at providing more basic content, such as in providing information on scopes of work, contact information, organisational charts, and information on policy documents and legal acts. In almost all countries, however, there is a lack of transparent information as in the previous monitoring on budgets, annual reporting, but also on policy papers and analyses produced by authorities. Although with some improvements, particularly worrisome was the lack of information on cooperation with civil society and other external stakeholders. Despite the emergence of open data portals in the region, publishing of open datasets is still a major challenge.

In terms of individual country rankings, the only notable decline in results is for Albania, with sample authorities for the current PAR Monitor being significantly less proactive than those selected for the previous cycle. At the same time, the lack of proactive publishing of budgetary information come into prominence this time around.

Serbia is still among the top scorers but with slightly poorer results, bringing to light uneven practice of information provision by different authorities within the administration. The lack of annual reporting still represents one of the key issues, on the other hand, it is the only country in the region with basic budget information readily available online.

Sample authorities in BiH have a more user-oriented and coherent webpages, which is why BiH again ranks higher than many. Key weaknesses still relate to the lack of available budgetary information as well as limited information on policy papers, studies, and analyses.

In North Macedonia, the government has taken important steps toward remedying the past limitations in transparency and accountability, which have been translated into concrete measures, and resulted in slightly better scoring. There is still a lack of proactive publishing of budget information and annual reports by administration bodies, and information about cooperation with civil society and other external stakeholders is missing.

Comparing both monitoring cycles, results for Kosovo remain the same, with sample institutions once again being notably negligent when it comes to publishing budgetary information and annual reports – a common characteristic among many WB countries. It should be noted that during the monitoring period, Kosovo government was undergoing major structural changes, with the decreased number of ministries as the result (from 21 to 15) and major restructuring in terms of ministries’ jurisdiction.

Finally, this years’ monitoring in Montenegro have somewhat increased the country’s score, however with no major steps forward. This time, sample authorities were found to be provide less complete and less up-to-date information on scopes of work, but better at presenting their organisational structures.

 

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For more information about WeBER Project, please visit www.par-monitor.org

Western Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic perspective revived

Five months later and the continent is overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic – by the German Chancellor dubbed as“the biggest challenge since World War II.” This crisis tests the values, norms and partnerships between countries. As all brace for the impact, Western Balkan countries remain subject to regulatory limitations on purchasing much-needed protective equipment from the EU. These export limitations outside the EU caused a truck loaded with ten thousand protective masks destined for Albania to be stopped and turned around at the border with Greece on March 25th.

These tendering regulations were blasted by Serbia’s President during a speech earlier in the month, where he condemned EU’s lack of solidarity with his country. According to Vučić, he had to turn to Beijing for aid in medical supplies and staff, claiming that “without China and our Chinese brothers”, the country is incapable to defend itself from the virus. The test kits sent by China were received with a grand ceremony and billboards in Belgrade were revamped to thank “Brother Xi”.

European Union’s response was swift. On March 20, four MEPs urged the Commission to include Western Balkan countries in the bloc’s medical device authorisation scheme during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary Speakers from the region wrote a letter to the European Commission and the European Parliament Presidents, urging them to include the region into the EU+ export scheme. The topic was also discussed at the last Council meeting.

In the midst of the widespread criticism, a series of positive signals emerged in regard to the European solidarity and the Euro-Atlantic perspective of the Western Balkans. On March 25th, the European Council gave the green light for Albania and North Macedonia to open negotiations talks while the Commission allocated a sizeable financial package to assist each of them to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Some €38 million will go to support the region’s immediate health emergency and an additional €374 million is reallocated to assist with the socio-economic recovery.  

On March 30th, the Commission announced its plan to expand its green lanes within the region which in effect would permit the flow of food and medicine within the region and between it and the EU. On the same day, news came from Washington DC that North Macedonia became the 30th official member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), making it an illustrious month for the region’s euro-Atlantic aspirations.

North Macedonia

Skopje’s pathway to opening negotiation talks with the EU have been severely prolonged, which made it ever-more painful to absorb the conclusions of the European Council meeting in October 2019. A candidate country since 2005, North Macedonia had been recommended by the Commission to open negotiation since 2009. The country’s bid to join NATO had also been put on hold since the 2008 Bucharest Summit, where Greece exercised its veto over the name dispute. The country turned inward, and the reform agenda of integration was switched off.

Fast forward to March 2020 and the country made substantial progress on both fronts. On March 25, 2020, the European Council recommended opening negotiation talks. Two days later the country officially became a fully-fledged member of NATO. This is a substantial achievement for a country that has gone through great lengths to achieve this.

Besides the political decisions taken in March, Western partners have also provided important financial support to North Macedonia to help it cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the request of regional partners, the European Commission announced €4 million and the United States $1.1 million to help the country alleviate its immediate needs for medical supplies. EU pledged another to €62 million that will be redirected from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) to help the country mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus.

Although relatively overshadowed by the pandemic crisis, both decisions have far-reaching ramifications for the political and security future of the country and the region. Negotiation talks with the EU elevate Skopje’s relationship with Brussels to a new status, opens the way for transformative reforms, and more assistance. NATO membership boosts the country’s peace, security and territorial integrity – effectively making it a net contributor to the security of the region and the alliance. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a country that received three peace support missions in the last two decades.

Albania

Tirana’s European perspective was given a boost as well, as it received the backing of the European Council to open negotiation talks. A candidate country since 2014, the country has been recommended to open negotiations by the European Commission since 2016. Unlike North Macedonia, Albania’s recommendation by the Council came attached with additional conditions, to be fulfilled prior to opening chapters. The importance of this outcome should not be overshadowed by the added criteria as Tirana enters into a closer relationship with the EU.

The attached conditions are tangible and non-exhaustive. They include the adoption of the electoral reform in line with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, making political party and campaign finances transparent and seek the continuation of implementation for the judicial reform. Specifically, Tirana is asked to ensure the functionality of the Constitutional Court and the High Court and establish the anti-corruption and organized crime special structures – both involving procedural appointments.

Moreover, the conditioned reforms are necessary, in particularthe electoral reform. So far, the country’s political parties have shown little desire to adopt the recommendations of OSCE/ODIHR. On several occasions, political parties have used tactics to prolong and even manipulate the outcome of such processes. Similarly, it is argued that attempts have taken place to delay the successful implementation of the judicial reform. Due to the conditions laid out by the Member States, the pressure is on political actors to display maturity and stop obstructing reforms.

Attached conditionalities should be seen an opportunity for the government to prove its reform credibility to hesitant Member States. This is especially a welcome boost to those who want to reform the electoral system, preserve freedom of speech, and ensure the successful implementation of the judicial reform. Through these conditions, their efforts become part of the scrutiny by EU and Member States. Ultimately, this provides an opportunity for the country’s political actors to demonstrate maturity before Albanians and European allies, who have in a matter of five months displayed unmatched solidarity and commitment to the country and its people.

Following the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Albania on 26 November 2019, the European bloc rushed in to assist with search and rescue operations. EU’s Civil Protection Mechanismwas activated on request of Albanian government and 11 experts were dispatched to help coordinate the country’s humanitarian response, damage assessment, and rebuilding efforts. On 17 February 2020, the EU organised donor conference “Together for Albanian” recorded over 100 delegations that pledged €1.15 billion in assistance and loans.  The European Commission alone pledged €115 million.

On the same day that the European Council gave Tirana the green light to start negotiation talks, the bloc allocated 4 million euros and to help it cover the immediate needs of the public health system amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As for other Western Balkan countries, the EU has redirected 46.7 million euros from IPA to help support its social and economic recovery. Considering, it should come as no surprise that Tirana has shown solidarity with European countries in return.

Conclusion

These are testing times that severely test institutions, leaders and partnerships resilience. The good thing is that crises have a beginning and an end. While the current focus is to respond to the immediate needs, politicians in Western Balkans, Brussels, Member States and beyond must be mindful of what the future cooperation will look like. Turning on each other will hardly aid immediate solutions, nor will it create a strong basis for the future.

It seems obscure and counterintuitive to emphasize cooperation at a time when social distancing has become mandatory public policy and travel between countries has been shut down. But solidarity is the only way through which this crisis can be overcome. The EU has throughout transcended to be a worthy partner to rely on for the Western Balkans. In spite of the financial assistance, by April 1st, four of the six Western Balkan countries had adopted the proposal on green lanes, effectively lifting the regulations that prevented the flow of medicines to the region.

Western Balkan countries must be mindful who they put their trust into. Even if Vučić’ criticism of the tendering regulations was justified, that is not a worthy language and tone to be used among allies. Lest we forget that the tendering regulations are put in place in part to prevent faulty medical equipment that put the life of citizens and professional medical staff in danger, as Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey have found out the hard way.

*This blog was originally published on ResPublica on 3 April 2020.

Authors: Alfonc Rakaj & Leonie Vrugtman

Looking ahead at the future of EU enlargement

23 April 2020 – “The Zagreb Summit: a moment of decisions for the EU enlargement?” event was organised today in collaboration with the Think for Europe Network (TEN) and the Clingendael Institute. The aim of the event was to provide a better understanding of the current state of the EU enlargement policy and to facilitate the exchange of views between leading experts and the public from the Western Balkans and the Netherlands.


The first part was a closed event, held according to Chatham House rules and featuring Dutch parliamentarians and experts from the region and the EU to share their perspectives on current developments in EU enlargement. In the second part of the event, which was open to the public, Srđan Majstorovic, Chairman of the Governing Board at the European Policy Centre – CEP, Milica Delević, Director of Governance and Political Affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, discussed the effects of the COVID-19 Crisis on EU – Western Balkans relations, the prospects for the Zagreb Summit, the revised enlargement methodology as proposed by the European Commission, and the outcomes of the March European Council.


Regarding the new enlargement methodology, Majstorović highlighted that his advice to enlargement countries is to adhere to the new methodology and to focus on the issues that can be delivered within clusters that are defined with this methodology. “The new methodology is a positive sign, but there are no guarantees. What is most important for EU enlargement is the readiness of candidates, more credibility from the side of the EU, and the broader context in which the EU will find itself”, Majstorović said.


Delević also pointed out that “we should not blame the old methodology for everything”, even though “the new methodology does have positive points and less time lag”.


The EU – Western Balkans Summit (Zagreb Summit), originally scheduled to take place in Zagreb on 7 May, has been postponed until June. A new date will be sought in June in agreement with the President of the European Council, or a video conference will be organised at some point by the end of the Croatian Presidency.


“Croatia has managed to keep the enlargement process on the agenda of the Council – we need to take a moment to acknowledge the successes of their presidency in these difficult times”, Majstorović pointed out.


Majstorovic emphasized that having good political leadership is extremely important for the European integration process. “Political leadership is an important component of the integration process, required to avoid the politicisation of enlargement both on the sides of candidates and the EU, respectively. Integration needs to be based on democratic principles and dialogue within democratic institutions. One of the governments showing such effective political steering is the current North Macedonian government. I would like to see more governments showing such a positive political direction”, Majstorović said. He also stressed that the EU should play a bigger role in the coordination of public health policies. “Pandemics do not recognise national borders and we will need to work together – the EU must therefore take the Western Balkans countries into consideration!”


Majstorović also mentioned that the COVID pandemic brings with it the necessity for closer cooperation in the Western Balkans, requiring sharing public health, and other, capacities. This cooperation needs to be enhanced,” he underlined.


The event is organised within the Europeanisation Beyond Process project, with support of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

The webinar video can be viewed here.

Event announcement – “The Zagreb Summit: A moment of decisions for EU Enlargement?”

The Clingendael Institute and the Think for Europe Network (TEN) are organising a webinar via Zoom looking ahead at the future of EU enlargement.

Date: 23 April 2020
Time: 16.00 – 17.00

Will the Zagreb Summit provide new momentum in the EU accession process? Can we expect actual negotiations with Albania and North-Macedonia to begin soon? And will the revised enlargement methodology lead to a more effective accession process?

This webinar aims to give you a better understanding of the current state of enlargement and to facilitate an exchange of views between leading experts and the public from the Western Balkans and the Netherlands.

Speakers & programme

Wouter Zweers (Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute)
Milica Delević (Director Governance and Political Affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development)
Srđan Majstorović (Chairman of the Governing Board at the European Policy Centre – CEP).

They will discuss:

the revised enlargement methodology as proposed by the European Commission
the outcomes of the March European Council
the prospects for the Zagreb Summit
the effects of the Corona crisis on EU-Western Balkans relations.
You will have the opportunity to ask questions and see them answered by our experts.

Registration

No matter whether you are a seasoned expert on the Western Balkans or just curious about what the enlargement process actually entails, you are most welcome to join.  After registration you will receive a Zoom link and password.

Recognise the benefits of integrating the rest of the Balkans into the EU

This article is originally published in a Danish newspaper “Magazinet Europa”

It’s telling that the most important milestones of the EU’s enlargement policy are closely tied to Denmark. In 1993, the “Copenhagen criteria”, which set the conditions for EU aspirants, were defined by the EU Council, then headed by Danish prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (S). In 2002, when Denmark was heading the EU Council again under prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (V), a historic decision was made to expand the Union to 10 new members. Fast forward to autumn 2019, and, in the context of enlargement to the Western Balkans, Denmark was one of the countries that opposed opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Denmark, once one of the strongest advocates of EU expansion, now finds itself rather sceptical on the Western Balkans’ enlargement dossier.

Our delegation from six Western Balkan think tanks, each of us representing the civil society in each country, recently visited Denmark and met with several political and non-governmental organizations. As the trusted voice of the civil society from the region, we fully understand the concerns of Danish citizens and politicians about the Western Balkans joining the EU. Our countries are still far from fulfilling the EU membership criteria. But our political leadership needs a strong prospect of EU membership in order to undertake the necessary political reforms and to establish of functioning institutions and rule of law. At the same time, we fear that ignoring and relegating the Western Balkans accession process due to more pressing issues at home is doing harm both to the EU and to the Balkan region itself.

It should not take a lot of political courage to explain to citizens that the opening of accession talks with one candidate country does necessarily mean that the country will eventually join the EU unprepared. Look at the so-called “front-runners” from the region – Montenegro and Serbia: they have been negotiating EU membership for years but have been stuck in the process due to their inabilities to demonstrate a strong reform record on democratic performance and rule of law. The opening of accession talks should be seen – as it really is – only a small step in a long and demanding accession process. In fact, it is the EU and its member states who set the rules and assess the results. At the same time, moving forward in the process bears immense symbolic importance for a candidate country, to the extent that its political stability can be threatened, as is currently the case in North Macedonia. To overcome the yearlong name dispute with Greece, the country even changed its name to finally embark on its accession talks with the EU. But despite doing its proverbial homework, North Macedonia has been blocked in the process – this time not by Greece but Denmark. That undermines our trust in the promises made by the EU, and makes us wonder if we have been given a chance at all?

These are some examples which show that the current method for accession negotiations is ineffective. On the one hand, the region’s political leaders have few domestic incentives to reform, knowing that the benefits of the EU integration process stretch far beyond their political mandates. On the other hand, the EU is unable to deliver on its promises towards the region. Therefore, the EU Commission has put forward a proposed revision of the accession process, which imposes stricter requirements for democratic, judicial and economic reforms on candidate countries. Denmark should see this as an opportunity not to be missed for making EU enlargement to the Western Balkans a success story, and to avoid possible democratic backsliding post-accession, which we have seen in Hungary and Poland. Our region should suffer from collateral damage of that or any other problem we did not cause. 

As citizens of the region determined to make a better future for the next generations, we pledge for a strict and merit-based accession process that would result in a transformation of our countries and societies to respect European values. In our view, for this to happen, three crucial ingredients are needed.

The first is the political courage of the EU member states to acknowledge all the benefits of having the rest of the Balkan region (with a total population smaller than Romania’s) as part of the bloc, as well as the risks associated with continued neglect. Following Brexit, the EU’s expansion to this region would offer new export opportunities for Danish companies. Moreover, the counties of the region are not only geographically, but also historically and culturally part of Europe: for instance, Bosnians are among the best integrated communities in Denmark. Moreover, three countries of the region are NATO members. And both the EU and the Western Balkans are concerned with climate change and intercontinental migration. However, the EU’s fading engagement in the region is already resulting in the stronger presence of other global powers such as China and Russia, a phenomenon expected to further intensify should the EU remain passive.

Secondly, the EU’s stronger political engagement needs to be accompanied by greater support to civil society in the region, the real agents of transformation. The EU should empower and reassure those actors who are interested in strong democratic institutions, freedom of the media, an independent judiciary, and the eradication of widespread corruption and organised crime. Functional democracy is a guarantee of political stability, but in the absence of a credible membership perspective, the region’s strongmen will find that their only chance of staying in power is by nurturing a nationalist and conflict escalating rhetoric.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have been stuck for years in the process of being granted official candidate status due to statehood issues, which has left their citizens disillusioned about their European perspective. 

Finally, the accession process itself needs to be rewarding for political elites. For them to engage in potentially politically costly reforms, they need to receive tangible rewards from the EU upon delivery. Offering access for the region to some areas of EU policy at different stages in the process, as is proposed in the EU Commission’s revised enlargement methodology, would serve as a stabilising factor for political systems in the entire region.

Now is the time to act. If this opportunity is missed, the Western Balkans risk another lost decade marked with new potential instabilities. If skilled and educated young people do not see a European perspective at home, they will take on existing opportunities to migrate and seek better living conditions in the EU themselves. This leaves our homes more prone to populism and dangerous nationalist conflicts, depriving the Western Balkans societies of their long-term economic potential. Conversely, if we increase the membership dialogue and mutual engagement now, we can go a long way in making the entire European continent a safe and sustainable place for living. It is in Denmark’s security, economic and civic interest to invest itself in this dossier and to reap its benefits.

TEN Network:

*  Arbëresha Loxha, Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS), Pristina, Kosovo;
*  Anida Šabanović, Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina;
*  Dina Bajramspahić, Institut Alternativa (IA), Podgorica, Montenegro;
*  Sena Marić, European Policy Centre (CEP), Belgrade, Serbia.
*  Gjergji Vurmo, Program Director, Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM), Tirana, Albania;
*  Stefan Ristovski, European Policy Institute (EPI) Skopje, North Macedonia;

Europeans who make a difference and inspire us all

This text is previously published on the EEAS website.

During my recent visits to the Western Balkans, I had the opportunity to meet exceptional and impressive people from all walks of life. Focus usually lies on my meetings with political leaders. But now I want to highlight the exchanges I had with the people of the region: young activists who want cleaner air and a greener region; women with the drive to achieve our joint European future and who fight for a bigger role in resolving conflicts. I hope all these people with great ideas, expertise, talent and determination will play a significant role in advancing the EU accession process of the region. They must have this role, if this process is to succeed.

Our policies often sound complicated, but in essence they are not. Joining the EU means ‘building the EU at home’: in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia. The success of our Western Balkan partners in ‘building the EU at home’ does not only depend on the performance of governments and EU institutions. While this is essential, the real success depends on the engagement of the people in these societies, on the actions of citizens, shaping the society in which they and their children can prosper.  

In this context, I am very proud of our recent campaign dedicated to the people of the Western Balkans, called Europeans making a difference.

This campaign does exactly this: it gives a platform to people – in this case women of the Western Balkans – who move boundaries, who inspire and open doors for others.

In our work we come across ‘Europeans who make a difference’ every day. With this campaign, we want to highlight their stories not just because they are good, genuine human stories. But also because their stories are not known enough in our EU Member States, and not visible enough in the Western Balkans either.

If fame is important in the age of social media, if fame is power – and experts say it is – then we want scientists to be famous and influential. We want people who fight for equal societies to be famous, as well as those who support entrepreneurship and make people thrive. We want champions who feel a duty to give back to be famous, as well as exceptional artists who stand for what is right – all building societies in which there will be no limits for anybody. And speaking of limits, there are none for determined young women like Mrika from Kosovo who decided to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on every continent, before the age of 18, and then she did it!

I have said it many times, and will repeat again: the EU is not complete without the Western Balkans. To complete the EU, make it stronger and more prosperous, we need people like our campaign protagonists Selma Prodanović from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nataša Kovačević from Serbia, Tamara Todevska from North Macedonia, Detina and Argita Zalli from Albania, Mrika Nikçi from Kosovo, Maja Raičević from Montenegro.

We are well aware of the challenges in the Western Balkans and the transformations that need to happen to ‘build the EU at home’. People featured in our campaign are indispensable for those transformations and for inspiring others to participate. Their knowledge and contribution are necessary for ‘building the EU’ in the Western Balkans.

Their stories are reminding me of why the EU accession path of the Western Balkans is so important for all of us in Europe. The process is about and for the people.

And, this process needs to succeed – in the best interest of all people in Europe.  

Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Joint event of the Clingendael Institute and TEN

The Think for Europe Network, together with the Clingendael Institute, organised the “Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Necessary Steps Ahead” panel discussion at the premises of the Clingendael Institute.

Strengthening rule of law remains a key challenge in the Western Balkans and represents one of the greatest obstacles facing the EU accession processes of the six countries of the region (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia). Necessary steps moving forward in the area of rule of law were discussed at this event. The first panel, “Rule of Law: stagnating or backsliding,” discussed key challenges faced by countries in the Western Balkans in the area of rule of law and experiences in implementing relevant reforms especially in areas such as the judiciary and freedom of speech, as well as the fights against corruption and organised crime. The panellists for this event were Member of Parliament Anne Mulder, Member of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands, Research Director of Institute Alternative (the TEN member organisation from Montenegro) Dina Bajramspahić, and research fellow of the Clingendael Institute Wouter Zweers.

“The negotiation process has flaws and should be improved, but we are surprised by the lack of understanding of the enlargement process by some member states. The problem is that our political elites only focus on elections and short-term strategies,” said Bajramspahić.

In the second panel, a researcher from European Policy Centre (TEN secretariat and member organisation from Serbia) Dragana Bajić, and Janneke Fokkema from the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussed problems facing the free media and freedom of expression in the Western Balkans region. “States are inventing more latent and indirect methods to shrink the space for impartial reporting, which makes the journalist’s job not only unsustainable but insecure and endangered,” noted Bajić.

The event was moderated by Head of the Clingendael International Sustainability Centre, a senior research fellow at Clingendael Institute and Coordinator of Clingendael Research on EU in the World Louise van Schaik.

Photo Credit: Clingendael