The EU as a promoter of democracy or ‘stabilitocracy’ in the Western Balkans?

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 (strahinja.subotic@cep.org.rs)

Overcoming the enlargement impasse – some ideas for the Slovenian presidency

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.   

Download the paper here.

The-Enlargement-Impasse-and-the-Necessity-for-its-Transformation

The Future of the EU in the Western Balkans… and the Future of the Western Balkans in the EU

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 publication can be downloaded here.

CSF_Paper_WG-J.pdf

Citizens First: Second Regional WeBER Conference

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.

Photo credit: Branko Birac (@vrlodobro)

TEN is named as one of the best think tank networks in the world

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.

The Western Balkans and the EU: Reassessing the relationship

The European future of the Western Balkans (WB) is increasingly uncertain. While the countries of the WB have been promised a European perspective, conditions for becoming part of the EU have become much stricter compared to previous enlargement rounds. At the same time, the EU’s appetite for accepting new members has decreased due to numerous internal factors. As a result, the EU’s enlargement policy seems to be stuck in limbo. What are the potential benefits of the EU’s expansion to this region? What kinds of options are possible for making the accession process more effective? What is the role of the enlargement in the context of wider debates on the future of Europe?

In cooperation with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, on 19 September 2019 we organised a seminar The Western Balkans and the EU: Reassessing the relationship in Helsinki, Finland. The seminar reflected on the current state of play with regard to the advancement of the Western Balkans in the EU accession process, brought forward potential benefits of the EU’s expansion to this region, discussed the possible options for making the accession process more effective, and put it into the context of wider debates on the future of Europe. These topics were discussed by:

– Ms Kaisa Penny, Director, Kalevi Sorsa Foundation from Finland

– Ms Milena Lazarević, Programme Director, European Policy Centre from Belgrade, Serbia

– Mr. Sotiraq Hroni, Executive Director, Institute for Democracy and Mediation from Tirana, Albania

– Mr. Keijo Karjalainen, Deputy director, unit for South-Eastern Europe, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Moderator was Ms Emma Hakala, Senior Research Fellow, FIIA

Video recording of the panel discussion can be found here.

Balkan Civic Practices: Promoting civil space

Civil society has an extremely important role in achieving sustainable social and democratic change, but CSOs and civil movements in the Balkans, and even around Europe, still lack enough space in order to achieve this change. The debated Law on Freedom of Association in NGOs in Kosovo and the regressive legislation changes in Montenegro, GONGOs rising in Serbia and Poland, smear campaigns by media and politicians against civil society leaders and activists in Slovakia and Romania and elsewhere… All these phenomena contribute to what we call a ‘shrinking civic space’. Instead of securing the democratic checks and balances and letting citizens express their views through CSOs and spontaneous groups, many governments take the other direction – limiting the freedoms in public spheres. While regressive forces are trying to consolidate their partnerships and are identifying common “enemies”, CSOs and activists lack spaces for their work. However, by limiting the freedoms and spaces, governments face a growing resistance in Europe. Again, civil society activists and organizations are at the forefront to resist these dangerous restrictions of liberties and growing tensions within societies. Citizens keep mobilizing and fighting for the freedom of expression, the right to peacefully gather and to join forces through associations, movements and so on.

It is with these challenges in mind that this Balkan Civic Practices edition brings together professionals, academics and activists from the BCSDN and its partners in the region, to debate what can be done to promote civic space in the Western Balkan countries and further. The second Balkan Civic Practices edition shares stories of CSOs actions in times of shrinking civic space in the Balkans and the wider Europe. From joint action by building national and transnational, thematic and cross-sector alliances, to creating synergies between traditional civil society organizations and non-formal social movements, the contributions of this edition give valuable practical examples of successful actions towards promoting civic space and preventing its further shrinking, while also discussing innovative organizational development approaches centered around resilience, accountability and powerful narratives to empower civil society in this struggle. The aim is to inspire and learn from each other, to reaffirm the collective voice in the joint struggles and to encourage coalition-building across regions.

For more information, please visit: http://bcp.balkancsd.net/our-stories-of-resilience/

Interview with Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the Council of Europe (COE)

Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the COE

Consultations with civil society in the process of drafting the Council of Europe conventions and reports is one of the formats of cooperation: for instance, many of the elements of the Istanbul Convention have been drawn from contributions of women and other human rights organisations. In this respect, the participation of civil society organisations, academia and think-tanks is really important both at the national level, where they engage with elected representatives, as well as at the European level.

This year marks 70 years of the Council of Europe. Congratulations! In your opinion, what have been the most significant accomplishments of CoE in the past 70 years – can you even number them?

Indeed there have been plenty achievements over 70 years. The first and foremost achievement and the basis for all of our work are the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of 1950. Together with the European Court system founded on the Convention, it is for me a civilisational accomplishment that should evolve further, to better equip Europe for facing new threats for human rights and democracy. Citizens in all of the countries represented in your network benefit from the ECHR, including the abolition of the death penalty.

Few years after the ECHR, the Council of Europe members agreed on the European Cultural Convention. Much of what we perceive as being “European” today, from respect and protection of cultural heritage to mobility of students and-discriminatory education is due to the cultural cooperation in Europe.

A recent achievement that jumps to mind is, of course, the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the so-called Istanbul Convention which all the Western Balkans states ratified, and have been bound by its provisions over the past five years. The reflections on how best protect women from violence in the context of this Convention have stimulated a lot of debate throughout Europe. Just over a month ago, the first monitoring visit under the Istanbul Convention to Serbia took place, and the monitoring report is in the making.

Another key achievement is the advancement of participatory democracy in Europe. Let me recall the value of the European Charter of Local Self-Government as well as the work of our expert body, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, widely known as Venice Commission, that has been helping European countries to bring their legislation in line with European standards.

The general public often confuses the Council of Europe with the EU. Although CoE is not an EU body, to what extent has CoE influenced EU integration process? Can the membership in CoE help the candidate countries for EU membership in their EU accession endeavour?

The Council of Europe is the oldest organisation created in 1949 to achieve a greater unity between European states, and it is now composed of 47 member states. Its goal is to safeguard and turn into reality the common ideals and principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. All 28 member states of the European Union are also part of the Council of Europe. The EU is based on the same values that inspire and guide the work of the Council of Europe, hence there is a strong link. All states acceding to the EU were first members of the Council of Europe. The scope of the Council of Europe’s activities is very is broad: it works in virtually all spheres of public life, excluding national defence and security. It helps states devise more effective policies based on European standards in economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative fields, with the ultimate goal to advance the enjoyment by all Europeans of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Council of Europe has set the foundation for what we consider today’s European way of life.

The key conventions guiding our work are the European Convention of Human Rights, the European Cultural Convention, the European Social Charter, the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the Framework Convention on National Minorities, to name just a few. Ratification of these Conventions and implementation of the standards they set is fully in line with the objective of the Western Balkans countries to join the EU.

On your remark about the frequent confusion between the Council of Europe and the EU, let me just add that it was the Council of Europe that has created the European flag – twelve golden stars on the blue background – in 1955, and has also declared in 1972 the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony as the European anthem. It was only in 1985 that the European Community (and since 1993, the EU) also introduced these symbols of European unity.

You have experience with working and living in several Western Balkan countries. In your opinion, what are the main challenges for the Western Balkan region in the EU integration process?

The Western Balkans as a region and its individual countries have -participated for some 20 years in the work of the Council of Europe, and is at the same time part of the Stabilisation and Association process (SAp) of the European Union.

Let me focus on some aspects that are important both the Council of Europe and the European Union.

The process of transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy based on fundamental rights and freedoms as well as the rule of law has turned out to take more time than many expected initially. We are also observing that the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is being negated by high officials. This is a setback with regard to the ambition of the SAp and with regard to the commitments undertaken by countries of the Western Balkans upon joining the Council of Europe. Furthermore, it questions the very fundamentals of the rule of law that cannot be upheld without respecting the European public law order, which obviously includes international justice.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is also concerned about the insufficient follow-up to and implementation of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights This cannot but reflect on the broader system of rule of law and accountability in the region.

Hence, the Council of Europe’s bodies tasked with monitoring countries’ progress in various fields, such as GRECO, the Group of European States against Corruption, often finds that not enough has been done to bring the countries closer to the Council of Europe’s standards.

Another concern has been the functioning of democratic institutions, with independent bodies all too often being subject to political interference. This contributes to low levels of trust in politics and institutions, as illustrated on a regular basis by the Balkan Barometer of the Regional Coordination Council surveys. This lack of public confidence in the authorities is a negative trend that we seek to reverse, but so far it remains a challenge for all of us that we seek to help.

You also have rich experience working with civil society. Why are non-governmental organisations and, particularly, think tank organisations, important for enhancing democratic societies and standards?

The Council of Europe can be compared to a triangle. On one side, we have European states and governments which aim to establish genuine democracy. On the second side, there is the European legal order with common standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which are legally binding on the governments committing to them. On the third side, there are people of Europe themselves – including, of course, the civil society. As a logical extension of the work of its intergovernmental bodies, the Council of Europe cooperates with a range of non-state organisations, including think-tanks that bring many valuable ideas and insights into the work of our expert bodies. A conference of international non-governmental organisations taking place twice a year is one of the formats of such cooperation. Consultations with civil society in the process of drafting the Council of Europe conventions and reports is another format: for instance, many of the elements of the Istanbul Convention that I have mentioned earlier have been drawn from contributions of women and other human rights organisations. In this respect, the participation of civil society organisations, academia and think-tanks is really important both at the national level, where they engage with elected representatives, as well as at the European level. The Council of Europe offices in the region, including our Office in Belgrade, work to make sure that all actors can participate in our work in order to shape the future of our continent for the next 70 years.

TEN one of the best think tank networks in the world

31th January 2019 – We are proud to inform you that the Think for Europe Network (TEN) has been selected as one of the best think tank networks in the world, according to the ranking of prestigious US program of the University of Pennsylvania, which has been ranking world’s best think tanks and think tank networks for 12 years.

On the occasion of the publication of this Report, in 80 countries in the world and in more than 330 institutions and organisations, the events on which the Report is presented were simultaneously held. For the second time, Serbia is among countries that participated in this huge initiative, at the event organised by the European Policy Centre (CEP), the Think for Europe Network Coordinator.

You can find the 2018 Go To Think Tank Report Index here.

Europeanisation Beyond Process

In January 2019, Think for Europe Network started implementing two-year long project “Europeanisation Beyond Process” in the framework of the Network, supported by the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE). The Project Coordinator will be the European Policy Centre – CEP Belgrade.

Under this project, TEN will strengthen cooperation with renowned think tanks from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Finland, in order to improve the quality of communication on the EU enlargement in the broader framework of the forthcoming re-definition of the EU and its future. Our approach in this project is to advocate not for the plain EU accession but rather for the WB as an entirety that has been going through numerous improvements in the democratic governance and rule of law structures, improvement of the economic governance processes as well as ambitious reform agendas for public administration.

Apart from reaching out to the influential European capitals and engaging with the EU policy scene, TEN will, thanks to the support of this grant, conduct activities to improve our research, communication and advocacy skills. By further increasing our internal capacities, TEN ultimate goal is to make Western Balkan countries substantially involved in the debates and policy solutions pertinent to the future of Europe.


Period: January 2019 – January 2020
Donator: Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE)
Project Coordinator: European Policy Centre – CEP, Belgrade
Contact person: Sena Marić, CEP Programme Manager and Senior Resarcher (sena.maric@cep-org.rs)