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.
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.
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.
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.
This discussion paper argues that successful economic and democratic transformation of the Western Balkans depends not only on a more coherent political engagement of the EU and its member states with the region, but also on a more effective use of the full range of tools within the enlargement policy toolbox. The revised methodology for accession negotiations and the recently announced Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) have the potential to revive the region’s sluggish EU integration process. For these instruments to succeed, it would be essential to show that they help drive the process forward. This will only be the case if negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia are launched, i.e. the first Inter-governmental Conferences (IGCs) are held during the German presidency of the Council of the EU. In this way, the EU and its member states will show their actual commitment to the process and also likely incentivise the other countries in the region to speed up their domestic transformation processes in view of EU accession.
Analysis of the European Commission Report on the Republic of North Macedonia from 6 October 2020.
This report is the first one following the political decision of the EU for the start of negotiations with our country from May 2020.
The findings on North Macedonia in these documents are particularly important in order to maintain and strengthen the case for actual start of negotiations with the holding of the first inter-governmental conference by the end of this year – according to the plan of the German Presidency.
In this analysis, the European Policy Institute – EPI Skopje focus on the key aspects of the Enlargement Strategy which are related to North Macedonia as well as on the specific report for our country.
There were times in the Western Balkan (WB) countries, maybe some fifteen years ago, when local politicians, media and civil society were carefully reading the European Commission’s (EC) progress reports. It was a time in which the public was eager to hear from civil society and media as per what exactly was the EU’s assessment of the country’s progress. Progress reports were considered technical rather than political documents: an expert opinion by an objective and trusted “judge”. At that time, civil society organizations (CSOs) were pushing the EC to use unbiased language and include an assessment scale, so that we could better track the progress and explain it to the public. Eventually, the EC did so by introducing scales for progress and subsequently for the level of preparedness for each chapter.
Faced with the prospect of more direct language that would expose their resistance to progress and even autocratic tendency, WB leaders started channeling other sources within the European Union (EU) to question the credibility of EC reports. First in line was the group of sister parties in the European Parliament. Depending on the political affiliation of the WB government, WB leaders would ensure the citizens hear Members of the European Parliament (MEP) commenting on positive aspects of the EC report. However, as the opposition parties started doing the same with MEPs from their political spectrum, this channel was soon exposed in the eyes of WB public. The next in line were Member States’ officials and the narrative that “the EU is complex (…) Member States have different interests (…) and that it is not us, but the EU that is failing”. It has not been difficult to find senior officials in the Member States articulating the narrative of a faulty EU over the past decade. Indeed, the EU is complex and has diverging interests at times, which has made it easier to sell a half-true narrative to the public as a fully true one.
As WB leaders succeeded to undermine the trustworthiness of EC reports in the eyes of the domestic public, they also cast doubt among the Member States. And truth be told – who can blame them? When the EC claimed good progress in Albania for the fight against corruption, the country was sinking at TI’s Corruption perceptions index with a record drop of 23 places between 2016 and 2019. Similarly, while Vučić was attacking the free press and closing media in Serbia the then Enlargement Commissioner Hahn was seeking proof of media censorship. These developments challenged the objectivity of the Commission specifically and the EU more generally and caused EC reports to be seen as biased and political by many audiences in the WBs and the Member States. Consequently, the EU’s credibility is standing on shaky ground, both at home and in the WB region.
The new methodology
The new accession methodology is a good, but insufficient attempt towards restoring EU’s credibility in the WB region. The document resembles more a “peace agreement” between EC and EU Member States, rather than a roadmap for a credible and accelerated accession for WB countries. Although its purpose is to reinvigorate the accession process and build a credible EU perspective for the WBs, much of its content is about reassuring the voice of Member States in the enlargement process. It is less about the role of WB citizens and civil society in the accession process. A simple word-count in the document underscores this conclusion. While explaining the new methodology, the 8-page document mentions :
The Member States / 18 times
European Commission / 14 times
Western Balkans / 10 times
Enlargement / 6 times
Conditionality / 4 times
WB citizens / 3 times
(EU) Membership / twice
Civil society / only once.
A peace agreement between EC and the Member States is not a bad thing per se. WB citizens are in dire need of a credible EU to speak with one voice on issues that matter to them. We haven’t seen much of this recently, which has led to great disillusionment and lack of hope.
The mutual trust between EC and the Member States is a good development, for as long as it aims to restore the EU’s credibility and reinvigorates the Commission’s annual reports as an objective expert evaluation of WBs progress – free of political games. In doing so, the EU should not trade stability for democracy. EU and EC reports should be equally vocal and straightforward, not only when Member States’ interests are threatened (illegal migration, organized crime, terrorism, etc.) but also when WB citizens’ priorities are at stake (corruption, state capture, decline of democracy, shrinking civic space, and deteriorated freedom of expression).
To deliver on this expectation, the new methodology must carefully read the causes and the symptoms of stagnation in the WBs. Most importantly, it should not ignore the most reliable partner and ally of the EU in the region: citizens, civil society and independent media.
Needless to say, the EU has to work with governments and political actors in the WB, but it should align with the ambition of citizens. It should not shy away from their voice just to please fake reformers in the government or opposition. It should strengthen the people’s role, and the voice of independent media and civil society to keep governments accountable.
Unfortunately, the document largely ignores the WB civil society and the role we should play in the accession and democratization reforms. We are mentioned only once in the methodology with the purpose of being assured that EU funds will continue supporting our work, even when the EU decides to punish WB governments for lack of progress.
The new methodology for EU enlargement fails to capitalize on a huge potential for change in the WBs. This change requires a credible EU speaking openly with one voice against state capture, corruption, shrinking freedom of expression and civic space, threatened independent media and democratic values. More than funding, WB civil society needs to be reassured about its role under the new accession methodology.
There is still time to improve the document and make the new approach more effective and reliable. It will increase chances for real change and the impact of the novelties introduced in the methodology. There are many positive elements in the new methodology such as:
The inclusion of Chapter 5 and Chapter 32 under the Fundamentals cluster;
Stronger link with the economic reform program;
Regular EU-Western Balkans summits and intensified ministerial contacts;
Clear and tangible incentives of direct interest to citizens, such as “phasing-in” to individual EU policies, increased funding and more investments.
Other positive aspects of the document have triggered interests by Member States and WB leaders. However, the main challenge ahead is to make the new methodology more credible and attractive to WB citizens and their civil society.
This will require something less expensive than EU funds, but far more impactful. It will require partnering with the ambition of WB citizens, entrusting them a role in the accession process, and empowering civil society, media, and other agents of change against captured political class in our countries. That is the only sustained way to help ourselves at home and to help address the EU’s own concerns such as illegal migration, security, and organized crime.
 # of mentions excluding the title of the document(s).
In the context of the global crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, free, impartial and professional media reporting has become ever more important. This represents an issue in Serbia, considering its ongoing decline in media freedom as confirmed by independent international reports.
The conditions for practising professional journalism have been degraded for years and the Serbian media sector has faced numerous challenges, including political control over the mainstream media, low financial sustainability of media outlets and related high dependence on state funding, as well as a lack of transparency of that funding. Obscure media ownership and privatisation issues are yet another reason for concern. Additionally, the safety of journalists is problematic as the number of pressures, threats and attacks has grown since 2013, but the impunity phenomenon remains present. All these factors lead to a general state of censorship and self-censorship in the media in Serbia.
This report, developed in cooperation with Clingendael institute, presents the most prominent problems that the media sector in Serbia faces today. It argues that the flawed media landscape is the major factor leading to poor and biased reporting on topics related to the EU, the US and Russia. It observes media bias as a phenomenon in which media coverage presents inaccurate, unbalanced and/or unfair views with an intention to affect reader opinions in a particular direction. The analysis places a special focus on what such reporting means for the EU, given its strategic and communication goals for Serbia and the Western Balkans region.
The ongoing coronavirus crisis has spurred a myriad of measures from governments in the Western Balkans to better inform their citizens and provide services in emergency circumstances. Yet, responses to the pandemic and the institution of unprecedented lockdown measures have introduced various challenges to already fragile standards of transparency, accountability and rule of law, as well as have exposed shortcomings in the functioning of public administrations, in the Western Balkans. The crisis is increasingly being used as an excuse to backslide on previously achieved progress. The way emergency measures were adopted and enforced, and how citizens were informed, require close scrutiny, so as to ensure that the practices developed during this crisis do not become the “new normal”.
This policy brief, developed as part of the regional WeBER initiative, examines the approaches of public administrations in the Western Balkans to the COVID-19 crisis. It looks at the quality of communication and implementation of the measures taken by the governments of the Western Balkans to respond to the pandemic. It argues that simple and streamlined communication and transparency in the implementation of such measures are equally, if not more, important in times of emergencies and crises, when citizens are more vulnerable in their relationship with the government than in normal times. Based on an overview of positive and negative practices exhibited in the region, this brief offers a set of recommendations for governments to consider as soon as possible, in order to ensure maximum learning from this experience. There is a two-fold benefit to considering these recommendations. Firstly, they may prove valuable in the event of a second wave of pandemic (as is projected by epidemiologists), which might require the re-imposition of some measures in the coming months. Secondly, certain precautionary measures are likely to remain in place even after lockdowns and restrictions across the region are ended, with the implementation of these recommendations potentially of benefit to citizens in the near future as well.
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