An historical imperative for EU civil society

Luca Jahier
Presidente del Comitato economico e sociale europeo (CESE)

The engagement of the European Economic and Social Committee in the Western Balkans

During these difficult times of Covid-19 pandemics for Europe and the world, it has been of crucial importance to send out to the Western Balkans the positive message that we stand united and that "we share the same continent, the same history, the same culture – and that we will share the same destiny too". (EC President von der Leyen)  

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has since long strongly supported the enlargement of the European Union in the Western Balkans, provided that they fulfil all the necessary criteria for EU membership.

As body representing organised civil society at the EU level, the EESC has over time established an efficient network with civil society organisations (CSOs) in the region through multiple bodies and events.

After the Council's non-decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in October 2019, a Resolution was swiftly adopted expressing a deep disappointment, as well as a renewed strong commitment to support and continue to work even more closely with the civil society in the region. An exploratory EESC mission took place in North Macedonia in November 2019 and a high-level debate on a clear roadmap forward was held in Sofia in December 2019.

The Council's decision to open accession negotiations with the two countries on 25 March 2020 was definitely overdue. Europe could not afford another deadlock and disappoint young people’s expectations in the Western Balkans who need a positive perspective for their future, allowing them to live in a region that is stable and prosperous.

The EESC Declaration issued after this historical decision welcomed the opening of accession negotiations and stressed once more the importance of the role of the civil society's accrued implication in all of the steps of the accession process.

This is especially true in the current Covid-19 crisis, as the Western Balkans will need help to cushion its social and economic consequences. The European Commission’s decision on a specific aid package for the Western Balkans and the post-pandemic recovery is therefore to be welcomed.

Enhancing the accession process - A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans

Last February, the European Commission adopted a Communication "Enhancing the accession process - A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans" putting forward a proposal to drive forward the EU accession process.  The document is a good compromise between of the various EU member states' proposals in the aftermath of the October 2019 Council's non-decision. The revised methodology gave a strong impetus for the Council to find an agreement to the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The announced possible shorter time periods in the accession process in case of progress of negotiating countries is positive, as such an approach could give additional motivation to speed up their reforms.

Indeed the accession process has to become: a) more predictable; b) more credible; c) more dynamic and d) subject to stronger political steer. Organising the negotiating process into clusters would revive the chapter approach and give it additional rationality and coherence. The vital importance of the role of the civil society in all clusters, with special emphasis on the Fundamentals and Green Agenda and Sustainable Connectivity clusters, is of great importance. Furthermore, the opting-in of Serbia and Montenegro to the revised methodology could inject more dynamism in the process, but it is also true that both countries need to progress on the Fundamentals cluster. 

The process applying the revised methodology is merit-based, meaning that successful reforms would be rewarded with more funding and phasing-in to individual policies, but also that lack of progress could be sanctioned or even negotiations suspended. The critical issue lies in finding the right balance between positive and negative incentives and avoiding discouragement. Factual merit in a merit-based approach cannot be determined nor complete without objective monitoring and participation from the civil society, especially as regards the Fundamentals and the specific political context in some of the countries of the region. The EESC has called for High-level Civil Society Conferences to be organised just before or as side events to regular EU-Western Balkans Summits as it is vital to ensure bottom up progress monitoring of the negotiating process.

In conclusion – reunifying Europe with civil society at the core

The revised methodology for enhancing the accession process is a step in the right direction for a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans.

The EU will continue to be a magnet for the region and not just because of the prospect of better economic and social living conditions. Membership in the EU also means being part of a very special "club", based on peaceful coexistence and the protection of fundamental and human rights, that this region, with its recent past of conflicts and hatred between neighbours, desperately needs to embrace.

Potential instability of fragile democracies at the EU doorsteps is an additional reason why the EU should not spare any efforts to ensure that the perspective of the Western Balkans is indeed to join the EU family.

EU institutions should pay more attention to the real needs of the citizens in the Western Balkans and to the views of the CSOs, since they are generally closer to people than the political élites.

Positively, the EU and its Member States have committed themselves to enhancing support for building the capacity of CSOs to strengthen their voice in the development process and to advance political, social and economic dialogue.

EU institutions are encouraged to facilitate a major access of CSOs to the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance. IPA III should increase funding and reach the smallest organisations and the most disadvantaged sectors of society. Priority for pre-accession assistance should be given to institutions and initiatives creating links between the EU, candidates and potential candidates in the fields of energy, digitalisation, innovation, transportation and protection of the environment. While stressing the importance of individual merit, in building of regional cooperation and people-to-people relations a crucial role is played by regional initiatives.

The effective enlargement of the EU and the promotion of its values in the Western Balkans will ensure security and stability, enhance social and economic development and prosperity, consolidate democracy and the rule of law, facilitate the free movement of people and goods, and stimulate investment policy. In that respect, a functioning social and civil dialogue at national level is crucial. In fact, organised civil society, including social partners, from the Western Balkans must be included in a wider dialogue on European integration, and civic voices from the region should be represented at the Conference on the Future of Europe that is due to be operational very soon.