The Western Balkans and the COVID-19: Effects on good governance, rule of law and civil society

This policy brief underscores outstanding issues that emerged during the COVID-19 crisis with possible long-term consequences on the functioning of democracy and rule of law in the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. This paper specifically addresses the impact of the crisis on the functioning of democratic institutions, the judiciary, fundamental rights and freedoms, transparency, civil society, and the media, and continues to assess its impact on the social and political climates in each country of the region. The report identifies country-specific as well as common issues that should be monitored closely going forward.

Download the brief here.

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Opening governments in times of lockdown

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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.

Download the brief here.

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Curbing the executive bias in EU enlargement policy for a stronger democracy in the Western Balkans

Almost two decades have passed since the countries of the Western Balkans (WB) began their way on the European integration process. From today’s perspective, however, the region’s prospects of achieving EU membership in the foreseeable future appear rather grim.

This policy brief zooms precisely on this “executive bias” – the focus of the region’s EU integration process based largely on dialogue between elected governments, with insufficient involvement of parliaments and wider society. It contends that meeting membership criteria and securing the irreversibility of reforms post-accession is only possible if the ownership of reforms in aspirant countries is extended beyond the executive branch of power. It also offers recommendations towards building more substantive involvement of national parliaments and civil society in the EU integration process.

Policy brief is available for download here (English) and here (French).

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Effective benchmarking for concrete rule of law reforms in the Western Balkans

At the outset of a new political and institutional cycle of the EU, 2019 has been a year of many unknowns. For the countries of the Western Balkans, the direction of the future development of EU enlargement policy has been a key concern. During the mandate of the previous European Commission (EC) it has been clear for some time that there is discontent on the side of EU member states concerning the on-the ground effects of the enlargement methodology.

The discussions on the effects of the enlargement methodology gained new impetus following the European Parliamentary (EP) elections over the summer and related to the October 2019 European Council session at which the much-awaited decisions on the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania were on the agenda. The EU debate on enlargement has recently been accompanied by formal requests from EU member states to revise the methodology of enlargement, primarily in view of the progress as related to monitoring rule of law. Such demands have surfaced in various places, including coming directly from French President Macron, as well as appearing in September 2019 decisions of the Bundestag and Dutch Parliament. In short, EU member states demand that the enlargement methodology includes modes of strictly ensuring the monitoring and implementation of reforms, especially in relation to rule of law, as well as responding to reversibility in the accession process.

In this brief, we focus on the lessons learned from rule of law benchmarking in the Western Balkans so far in order to provide input for ongoing discussions on revising the accession methodology. The brief first provides an overview of rule of law benchmarking and provides key recommendations that need to be taken into consideration when revising rule of law instruments in the accession process. It then proceeds to summarise the key findings of a comparative research project on the effectiveness of benchmarking in the EU accession process in the Western Balkans. The findings presented here reflect on the debates at the October 2019 summit, at which EU member states did not reach a decision despite the recommendations of the European Commission to the start the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.

Download the Brief here.

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Proactive transparency and the right of access to information: Two sides of the same coin

Depending on the side initiating communication, there is a reactive transparency of the administration in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is based on citizens requesting information pursuant to the Freedom of Access to Information Act, and the requested information is then granted to the citizens upon their request; and there is a proactive transparency, where the administration publishes specific information on its own initiative because it wants to inform the citizens of its work, on their rights and obligations, or wishes to involve the citizens in decision-making processes pertaining to laws, policies, actions and other.

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Preparing for accession negotiations in the Republic of Macedonia: What can we learn from WeBER monitoring?

This policy brief reflects on the significance of the findings of the WeBER project for the preparation of the institutional structures and procedures for managing the EU accession negotiations in the Republic of Macedonia. The WeBER project monitored a selected number of principles through its own indicators in all areas of the Principles of Public Administration and its findings are presented in a National Report and a Regional Comparative Report. These principles, offer a common denominator of public administration reform of all EU-aspiring countries, setting its course towards EU membership.

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Lack of government transparency in Serbia: Low accountability domestically and poor response to EU conditionality

The Government of Serbia falls short of ensuring transparency of its work. By regularly publishing cherry-picked information from its sessions, access to all adopted decisions becomes hardly possible and the approach to provision of information unjustifiably selective. In addition, by irregularly reporting to the public on its performance, the Government reduces possibilities for public scrutiny of its results. Also, irregular reporting on budgetary performance adds to the overall picture of insufficient and low-quality reporting. Civil society in Serbia recognises these problems and holds the view that the Government’s decision making is for the most part hidden from the eyes of the public. If the Government wishes to adhere to the principles of good governance, it can only do so by thoroughly and regularly publishing detailed information about its activities and results, thus paving the way for free exercise of public scrutiny and facilitating the accountability for its actions.

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Coping with the EU decision-making: How are the Balkan countries preparing their policymaking systems for membership?

High-quality standards in the development and coordination of public policy are always relevant in a domestic context but even more so in the framework of EU accession. Under the public administration reform (PAR) pillar of the European Union’s conditionality for the Balkans, the EU puts a strong emphasis on the improvement of the aspirants’ policy development and coordination practices. Independent monitoring suggests that the region’s governments currently display a low level of preparedness in the sphere of policymaking and coordination. Out of the broad PAR portfolio within the EU accession process, the area of policy development and coordination stands out as one of the weakest points.

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Western Balkan PAR Monitor 2017/2018 – Executive Summary

The PAR Monitor is the result of research undertaken over the past year by the Think for Europe Network, with the goal of providing a systematic civil society monitoring of public administration reforms (PAR) in the Western Balkans. This exercise was motivated by the need to strengthen domestic, bottom-up pressure from the civil society sector in the long run, in order to ensure that post-EU accession, when the leverage of the EU’s conditionality in the governance area weakens, the reform drive endures. Based on a robust methodological approach, combining quantitative and qualitative techniques, and building on the EU’s Principles of public administration, the PAR Monitor measures the countries’ state of play in PAR, benchmarks them against each other, and provides recommendations for improvement. The PAR Monitor also ensures complementarity with the monitoring carried out by SIGMA/OECD and the European Commission. It, therefore, provides a citizen and civil society focused perspective on the EU-SIGMA principles. The PAR Monitor comprises an overall comparative regional report and six country reports, each including findings on the 23 compound indicators designed by the WeBER project team to monitor a selection of 21 EU-SIGMA principles. All findings can be accessed via the Regional PAR Scoreboard at www.par-monitor.org. This document provides a summary of the key regional findings in the six areas of PAR.

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Evidence-based and inclusive policymaking in the Western Balkans: What role for think tanks and other policy-orientated CSOs?

 

This Policy Brief is produced within the project Raising capacities and advocacy potential of CSOs of Visegrad Group and Western Balkans.

The space for civil society contribution has been gradually shrinking across the Western Balkans, making it harder for civil society organisations to actively take part in the policymaking process in their home countries.

This paper aims to shed light on an insufficiently enabling, often even disabling, environment for the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) from the region. It does so by providing a comparative overview of CSOs involvement in the policymaking in different countries across the Western Balkans (WB), whilst also identifying the limitations of the very policymaking processes in the WB. Finally, as the accession process of the region accelerates, the paper shows how CSOs can use the EU’s more credible enlargement commitment to move beyond the unfavourable situation and increase their impact on policymaking.

The project was realised with the kind support of the International Visegrad Fund.

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