Beyond civil society: prospects and limits for civil society’s role in EU integration in the Balkans

The relationship between the state and civil society organisations (CSO) is never easy. Even more so in the difficult but presumably transformative process that deprives some elites of power - including state and political actors - and empowers citizens and institutions. The EU integration process is ideally just such a process, and the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey are ‘marathon runners’ - applicants for EU membership. The EU progress reports do not miss the opportunity to emphasize the role of civil society, among many other criteria, in securing democracy and the rule of law, though in practice its support is not always well-tailored.   

EU enlargement is also a process that is losing support from the public in candidate, potential candidate and EU Member states alike. Mutual relations between citizens, society and, frequently, institutions and businesses are clearly underdeveloped. Not that knowing each other would automatically make us kin or prepare us for membership: but lack of information and interest is definitely stirring both realistic and unfounded prejudices and, put simply, is not helping.  

These two problems, or rather questions, were the focus of the European Movement International (EMI) and the European Movement in Serbia (EMinS) Conference on February 25-26, 2016 in Belgrade. The event – part of a series of regular CS Congresses organised by the oldest pan-European CSO, EM international - was supported by TACSO and the EU and gathered 200 participants. The majority were representatives of CS from the region, but respective government representatives, EU institutions and European CSOs were also present. The work was organized over two days in 3 plenaries and 2 sets of Workshops taking place in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, followed by “World Café” discussion.

Notwithstanding the importance of affirmative political messages coming from those high level officials who joined us at the Conference, the real dialogue was among CS representatives, and it opened a number of shared problems faced in establishing meaningful and effective dialogue with governments. The EMinS presented one particular format of CSO self-organization and cooperation in EU integration and dialogue with the government and Parliament – the National Convention on EU in Serbia (NCEU). Based on past Slovak experience and support, it aims to help the democratisation and legitimacy of the EU integration process by gathering different stakeholders from politics, civil society, academia, business and media around the table to discuss reforms, effects, costs and benefits, at the same time providing a mechanism for consensus building, as we wrote in the panel background. 

In its current form, the NCEU is an organic collaborative network of almost 700 CSOs in its most inclusive definition, organized within 21 Working groups, covering all 35 EU negotiation chapters. The entire endeavor is managed by the Programme council, which is comprised of coordinators of 21 WGs, while EMinS, in addition to being initiator, is also Secretariat for the platform.  Since 2014, the NCEU has been part of the regular procedure on adoption of the Negotiating Positions of the Committee for EU integration in the Parliament of the Republic of Serbia, and in August 2015 it was recognized by the Serbian Government as a channel for informing the public on the negotiation process and for consulting the interested public on negotiation positions. Thus, it is institutionalized and unavoidable in Serbia-EU negotiations. We have now set the stage and continue to work for the quality and effectiveness of this dialogue. Transparency and availability of information and documents can always be improved. Why draft negotiation positions are secret, and why we write recommendations based only on their summaries, is beyond my comprehension. NCEU actually has enabled a more transparent and inclusive negotiation process so far: it has contributed to building a culture of dialogue between state and CSOs, established cooperation with the parliament (all sessions held in the Parliament and Committee for EI seeks the NCEU's opinion before their sessions on EU negotiations) and with the Chief of the Negotiating Team, Prof. Miscevic, who regularly attends NCEU sessions. NCEU has local outreach (one third of the members are local CSOs and some sessions are held outside the capital), has established cooperation with regional platforms (Eastern Serbia and Southwest Serbia) that gather together municipalities, NGOs and local stakeholders around the debate about regional priorities in EU negotiations. In numbers, NCEU held over 80 sessions since June 2014 and had over 1200 participants in the debates.

We still need to develop monitoring, evaluation and communication functions – which are the second and third pillars of the operation, the first being the analytical and other input of CSOs for all relevant documents and reforms. For this, we need to foster the capacities of the CSOs and closely monitor the implementation of our recommendations. Monitoring will be equally important in assessing Serbia’s fulfilment of the obligations after the adoption of the negotiation positions and action plans, and, most likely, this is going to be a long-term and often unwelcome endeavor.  Communication is important, as we aim to ‘translate’ the process to the citizens and different parts of the public sphere to secure not only support for accession, but also the success and quality of Serbia’s accession / membership. NCEU also needs to widen its membership and include more academic institutions (currently it has 19 faculties and 12 institutes among members) and improve local representation and activities. It is a learning platform for CSOs as much as EU integration is a learning process for Serbian society.  

In the debate about CSO-government dialogue in EU integration, we have discussed the prioritization of the new EU enlargement policy, where the criteria for Chapters 23 and 24 are most developed. But it was also observed that the EU does not always and consistently insist on transparency.  It was emphasized that dialogue is important, so that CS has the required know-how, adds to the accountability of the reform process and improves communication with citizens (Srdjan Majstorovic, Serbian EI Office). But it was also mentioned that national governments tend to cooperate only to the extent that ‘it does not hurt’, and the bottom line is that they are responsible for providing space for the CSOs (Alida Vracic, Mercator fellow). In striving to be effective, the practice of emergency ordinances is used extensively in the region, so the process ends up being ‘less democratic’.  It was emphasized that we need more regional CSO cooperation in the rule of law, especially in monitoring and regionally addressing the issue of financial resources.  The appeal was heard that international donors should support informal forms of cooperation in the region rather than imposing certain formats. More of the practical inputs and conclusions from the workshops that focused on different roles of the CSOs (consultative, monitoring, programming assistance) and three EU enlargement priorities (rule of law, economic governance and competitiveness and public administration reform) will be available soon and hopefully provide guidelines for both the EU and the region, both governments and CSOs.

One very interesting debate focused on enlargement policy and the ways in which to ‘regain enlargement momentum’. While it was recognized that enlargement policy is a strong indicator of whether the European model is still attractive (Tomasz Strazay, SFPA), it was also observed that enlargement momentum is connected to integration momentum, and there is an accumulation of crisis in the EU, a diversion of opinions and attitudes, a fragmentation of Europe which is undoing past achievements.  We need to rebuild trust and identify a set of common goals (Corina Stratulat, EPC). That there is a need for a pan-European rule of law mechanism in order to be credible and maintain reform achievements in the EU itself, and at the same time, a need for making the political case for enlargement, politicizing it and linking it to big European issues (Marina Skabalo, GONG, EESC), is well understood among regional CSOs. However, there is the bitter resonance of the politicization of migration flows and Turkey’s EU accession, revealing how the rule of law can be overlooked if ‘greater’ issues are at stake. The secret ingredients for the acceding country, the past teaches us, are a functional state, a willing constituency, a capable political elite (statesmanship) and European self-confidence (Francisco de Borja Lasheras, ECFR). All are missing currently.  


Maja Bobić

Maja Bobić is an anthropologist with an MA in Southeast European Studies conferred at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. She is employed in the EMinS since 2003, firstly as a Local Council Coordinator, later as a Project Coordinator/Researcher. In 2007 she was appointed Secretary General in charge of the overall planning, fundraising and management of EMinS, its representation to partners, associates and beneficiaries. She was a Freedom House fellow at the 'Advocacy and Lobbying' school seminar in the USA, an alumnus of the School of political studies of the BFPE and CoE, an alumnus of IVLP, etc.

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