Podiumsdiskussion “EU enlargement and the role of CSO in the Western Balkans’ democratic development”

Maja Bobić, Sonja Nita, Katrin Böttger, Nedzma Dzananovic, Manuel Sarrazin (v.l.n.r.)
Maja Bobić, Sonja Nita, Katrin Böttger, Nedzma Dzananovic, Manuel Sarrazin (v.l.n.r.)

The panel discussion set focus on the civil society in the Western Balkans. It discussed the role of civil society organisations (CSO) regarding the democratic development and European integration of the region. The topic was addressed from three different angles: Ms Sonja NITA, Center of Thematic Expertise on Civil Society Support, DG NEAR, represented the European Commission and gave an overview of the roles and functions that are taken up by CSOs to contribute to the democratic development of the region. Ms  Maja BOBIC, Secretary General, European Movement in Serbia, Belgrade, and Dr Nedžma DZANANOVIC, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science of the University of Sarajevo, shared their practical experience as members of the Serbian and Bosnian civil society respectively. Member of Parliament Manuel SARRAZIN, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, Hamburg/Berlin, took the German viewpoint and elaborated on the German support to the Western Balkans’ democratisation in general and to the civil society in particular.

The panel discussion at the Vertretung des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt beim Bund was moderated by Dr Katrin BÖTTGER, Deputy Director, Institut für Europäische Politik

According to Ms Sonja NITA civil society organisations play a crucial role in the democratic development of the Western Balkans. She highlighted three areas of action:

1) Watchdog function

The freedom of CSOs to fulfill their role as a watchdog exists on paper, but is often restricted in practice. Especially freedom of expression and freedom of association are not thoroughly guaranteed in the region. Therefore, the European Commission monitors the compliance with the guidelines for CSO support annually.

2) Engagement in policy development

Ms Nita emphasized that CSOs need entry points to engage in policy development in order to be involved from the beginning. It is a precondition that civil society builds up the necessary expertise which must be recognized by the governing bodies. CSOs mut be equipped with sufficient personal, technical and financial capacities to maintain appropriate relationships to policy makers. She shared a best practice example from Kosovo regarding the law on telecommunications interception.

3) Bridge function

Ideally, CSOs function as a bridge between authorities and citizens. When it comes to funding schemes,  grassroot organisations should not be let out of sight. Rather, the donor community should consider regranting schemes and institutional operational grants. The latter is offered by DG NEAR Center of Thematic Expertise on Civil Society Support within a limited financial envelope that helps to contribute to a transition from a donor-driven agenda to a community-driven agenda.

Finally, civil society is not to be understood as a sector in itself. It is important to understand that civil society is relevant and functions across all sectors.

Ms Maja BOBIC emphasized that the EU policy towards the Western Balkan states builds on the lessons learnt during the accession process of the new member states. As a consequence, the EU tries to reinforce conditionality towards the candidate states in the Western Balkans by negotiating chapter 23/24 (Judiciary and fundamental rights/Justice, freedom and security)first. CSOs strongly approve of the attention the EU pays to reforms in the areas rule of law, public administration reform (PAR), competitiveness and economic governance. According to Ms Bobić the success of these reforms is crucial to the overall credibility and endorsement of the European integration process. As a result, she called upon the EU not to trade the quality of reforms for stability in the region. Such a trade-off is already doing harm to trust and reform endorsement within the population. Instead, a track-record for transition has to be built and political dialogue with all stakeholders needs to be reinforced.To illustrate which role CSOs can play in the accession process, Ms Bobić shared a best practice example from Serbia. To get a say in the accession negotiations, civil society self-organised and created the National Convention on the EU. This coalition of organisations covers all negotiation chapters and engages in monitoring, consulting and informing the citizens, in short, in all areas named by Ms Nita. Finally, the participation of the National Convention in the negotiation working groups was recognized and institutionalized.

Mr Manuel SARRAZIN stated that the crucial role of CSOs for the democratic development of the Western Balkan states remains unquestioned by the German executive and legislative. In his opinion, neither “no enlargement nor bad enlargement is an option”. According to Mr Sarrazin civil society engagement can make the difference in creating successful enlargement stories in the Western Balkans. To reach this aim, the governments in the region should start to take the civil society into account, before the messages of CSOs come back to the authorities as a boomerang from Brussels.

Ms Nedžma DZANANOVIC opened her statement with the question “Why are countries ready to accept the enlargement process”? After all, it is the EU that sets standards and holds the candidate states accountable for them. She stated that in Bosnia and Herzegovina the answer is connected to stability, prosperity and borders. According to Ms Džananović, no major political idea exists that could substitute the idea of European integration. Overall, the wish for European integration is shared by approximately 80% of the Bosnian population and is valid across ethnic boundaries. However, this pro-European attitude is not reflected by the political actors. CSOs must engage to hold them accountable. As a good practice example Ms Džananović named a group of CSOs insisting on regular meetings in parliament to overcome trenches between parliamentarians and imposing a reform-oriented agenda.

The discussion with the audience proved to be vivid and rich in content. As regards the current (in)stability of the Western Balkan states, different opinions were stated, not only concerning internal factors, but also external influences, e. g. by Russia and Turkey. The question of sustainability of both German and EU engagement was also raised, with regard to the shifting political focus (e.g. Ukraine, migration) of both actors. All panelists agreed that it is essential to continuously support the democratisation processes in the Western Balkans. In this context, the question of appropriate funding of civil society initiatives was discussed. It was consensus that funding schemes should be diversified and regranting mechanisms should be implemented in order to include single-issue and grassroot organisations into the process.

Both panelists and audience welcomed the event to keep the discourse on the political development of the Western Balkans on the public (western) agenda – beyond the European migrant crisis.

By Anne Bercio, Constanze Aka, Martin Stein