Summit EU Western Balkan – With or Without (E)U?

Our public policy researcher Dina Bajramspahić spoke at the ’’Virtual meeting: Western Balkans Shadow Summit – With or Without EU’’, which was held through a moderated Zoom meeting on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at 12:00, on the topic of EU enlargement and Western Balkans.

The aim of the conference meeting is to contribute to the visibility of civil society’s demands having in mind inability to express their opinions at the EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit. On behalf of the Forum 2020, the conversation was organised by Documenta and CROSOL. Ivana Dragićević, N1, moderated the discussion.

Speakers at online meeting:

  • Emina Bošnjak, Sarajevo Open Centre (B&H);
  • Zoran Ivančić, Public Interest Advocacy Center (CPI) (B&H);
  • Sonja Stojanović Gajić, Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BSCP) (Serbia);
  • Ivan Đurić, Political Youth Network (Serbia);
  • Vildan Drpljanin, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia (Macedonia);
  • Agon Maliqi, Sbunker (Kosovo);
  • Luca Jahier, European Economic and Social Committee;
  • Gordan Bosanac, CROSOL – Croatian Platform for International Citizen Solidarity and
  • Vesna Teršelič, Documenta (Croatia).

Video:

Here are some of the key messages from online meeting:

  • Emina Bošnjak (B&H):

The European Union should send a message to B&H that its candidate status is possible and achievable. However, this will depend on the process of implementing all the concrete steps that B&H must undertake in regard to 14 priorities.

  • Vildan Drpljanin, (North Macedonia):

If a country invests 25 years in resolving single issue, and then there is a risk of opening a new one of that kind soon, perhaps the EU should foresee that this type of problem will continue in the Western Balkans. The EU should issue a declaration to support candidate countries and those yet to join on their European path.

  • Sonja Stojanović Gajić, (Serbia):

Democracy is a medicine that protects our environment and the collective public good. We can only convince our politicians to give up on their power in the long run, and that is where the EU needs to help us.

Political organisations and civil society organisations need to work more closely together. But the role of civil society should be, in the first place, to lower tensions against our government, to help and explain, and to support.

  • Agon Maliqi, (Kosovo):

The EU should not make promises that it cannot implement, it should be more realistic. Funds and energy should be invested in the protection of the space for civilian action and the media space.

  • Dina Bajramspahić, (Montenegro):

Without credibility, conditionality policies will not work. At this moment, we need to begin to work on a strategy of convincing European societies that enlargement is the common interest.

  • Ivan Đurić, (Serbia):

No one in Serbia is interested in this virtual summit. No message was sent to Serbia. The European Union for too long has given other the power to interpret by themselves what it thinks and says. EU voice is not heard, but only other people’s interpretations. Europe is not trying to enable for its voice to be heard. We are not lawyers of the European Union, we are advocates of European values.

  • Igor Kaleba, (B&H):

The Green New Deal is still too abstract for the citizens. In that context, environmental organisations tried to deal with thing that concern the everyday life of people, ie we wanted to show it through economics and money. Analyses show that the money, now being invested in coal, is a long term loss of money once B&H joins the EU, since that money should have been spent on harmonisation with European standards.

  • Gordan Bosanac, (Croatia):

The cooperation of CSOs with new social movements needs to be improved. The challenges to liberal democracy are global, and lessons from the Balkans in terms of tactically bringing together different actor can be of a great value at a higher level.

  • Marina Škrabalo, (Croatia):

At the period of the epidemic, the role of the media was highlighted. This opportunity should be used to create a new media perspective on the Balkans as it is a link to strengthen political influence. We need to reconsider the sharp distinction between the civil and political spheres, which makes it impossible for us to act in politics. One of the way of advocating should include the argument that topics such as the new Green Deal, digitalisation etc, should be embedded in EU enlargement processes, and especially the Human Security paradigm. This is what allows the EU to remain attractive and competitive in the 21st century.

  • Vesna Teršelič, (Croatia):

The attitude towards victims needs to be humanised. We live in Croatia, which, like other post-Yugoslav countries, failed to end World War II. Through advocacy of resolving the fate of the missing and more efficient prosecuting of war crimes, we have seen few success. The RECOM (Commission Tasked with Establishing the Facts about All Victims of War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violation Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia), should complement these mechanisms. We had the support of the European Union, but Croatia has always been ambivalent. But advocacy needs to continue, because moving closer to justice, building peace and trust is something that simply cannot be left out of focus. In the run-up to the celebration of the anniversary of the victory over fascism, we can see that we have lightly put on the sidelines the issues such as the holocaust, genocide against Roma, Serbs, especially in light of the growing exclusivity, antisemitism and xenophobia. It reminds us of the need to critically re-examine the past.

Connecting the process of building trust, cooperation towards the Berlin process and towards all countries that will take over the presidency after Croatia, the inclusion of the Western Balkans and as many citizens as possible in the Conference on the Future of Europe. Ways to encourage cooperation should be looked for. In Erasmus programs, we have a big problem that there are different funding opportunities for EU members, and different for non-EU countries, even for youth related programs. The door should be opened wide for cooperation among young people and in all other spheres, and civic initiatives should be more seriously supported.

  • Luca Jahier, (Italy):

European Economic and Social Committee has expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to postpone the opening of negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia for the third time. They stressed the importance of civil society in the accession negotiations. The attention and commitment of the leaders of the Western Balkans and the European Union to this process needs to be increased. Prior to the Zagreb summit, they issued a statement signed by 19 organisations from the Western Balkans. Funding for civil society organisations must not be compromised by the COVID 19 pandemic, nor their role in the recovery process.

Transcript of individual parts of the conference:

Journalist: Question for Emina, Dina, Vesna Teršelič and Zoran Ivančević… There is constant saying that this is an important process for citizens, and that citizens will understand what Europe is and how much it means in their everyday life, but we always have that Eurosceptic side that increase or decline, depending on some internal events, so here we will start with Dina, considering that you in Montenegro leading considering this issue. How difficult is it for the non-governmental sector in a country like Montenegro?

Dina Bajramspahić: ‘’It is difficult, but in a slightly different way, because at the nominal level we have the majority support regarding the European integration of Montenegro. However, it is very difficult to encourage citizens to participate and be interested for concrete reforms. There are several reasons for this – on the one hand, we do not have a tradition of democratic steps that were the result of bottom-up initiatives, and on the other hand we have a fairly young administration that has been involved in the European integration process for fifteen years. We no longer remember what it is like to function without that external factor of influence and big eyes of the European Union, which observe us and follow what we do.

For us, for civil society, this situation of pessimism coming from the European Union in relation to enlargement is very aggravating circumstance, because although we have a very, very critical opinion on how our public administration works on reforms, how little achieves etc, we what to use this process to encourage the authorities with this attitude for best possible results. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly clear that integration chance is not so credible and it is very far away, which makes it very difficult for reforms to happen. When the European Union for a very long time, for no reason, aggravated the position of Northern Macedonia and Albania by not opening negotiations, it had a very negative effect on the negotiations of Montenegro, because when political elites saw that out neighbors could not do something we did easily eight years ago, and something that has much symbolic meaning than real, it negatively affected their will to implement most difficult and complex reform, because the aim of what we now are supposed to do in Chapters 23 and 24 is to arbitrarily limit the power that political elites have. In order to do so, they must trust that at the end of that path there is an award, which now is not so.

Fact is that the political elites in my country have absolute power and that we do not have that critical mass of citizens which will put enough pressure on the government to implement all the most difficult reforms, and that is why we need much more credibility from the European Union than we are getting now. The fact that the word enlargement is being avoided at the Zagreb summit, although it is more than clear that this is of the great importance for us, shows that something that was previously covered up is no longer covered up and that forces which are opposed to enlargement, regardless of results and reforms, are increasing in European Union, an we use every possible opportunity to draw the attention of decision makers and the EU what consequences this leaves in our countries. It is very difficult because we have found ourselves in that dual role of criticising the situation in our country, with reason, but also we must frantically fight to be given a chance and hope that one day we can fulfil the tasks set for us.

Now I am speaking from the perspective of Montenegro. We have advocated a new methodology because Montenegro is in negotiations for eight years and they are not working properly, and it seems to us that the new methodology has many good elements, but of course implementation is something completely different, and we will see how this is going to work. We also advocated that we need much more ‘’carrots’’ and much more ‘’sticks’’ during the negotiation process, because at least in Montenegro, where no other option – geopolitical, has been considered seriously. So, we have been in the process for fifteen years, although there was ‘’flirting’’ by mentioning Russia and mentioning China, but these was never really an options that was seriously considered. So, the EU is something to strive for, but the EU has many more elements for influence in Montenegro in its hands than it has used so far, so that is something we have been asking for.

***

Answering the question on what civil society organisations can do and what would be the adequate role of CSO in the context of the problems Western Balkan countries are facing.

Dina Bajramspahić:

I don’t think there is an correct answer. The fact is that civil society organisations in our countries has been barren in unsuccessful in many ways, but, on the other hand, what we are facing is quite complex. Many EU countries have not found an answer for that either. I think we are fighting on too many fronts at the same time. On the one hand, we want to support reforms with a critical attitude towards the lack of results of the Government, and now we are trying to make pressure on decision-makers in the European Union and many member states who have established a negative attitude towards enlargement on many, in our opinion, wrong judgments, such as that the EU is already having a hard time functioning with twenty-seven member states, so they do not need new ones; basing the foreign policy of many countries in relation to this issue based on populist rhetoric in the public opinion of those member states etc, etc.… Along with all this we are under constant attacks by the authorities, and misunderstanding by many in the EU. So it’s a pretty complicated situation.

On the other hand, my country is quite small, half a million of citizens, and the chance that some completely new actors will be created there is not very possible. Those new one who keep showing generally have a problem with a lack of practical experience, since we have had the same political elites in power for thirty years. So it is quite pessimistic and I do not see a clear answer, but I believe in networking, I believe that together we can do much more and I believe in two important messages: one is that we must demand for the strictest possible process for Montenegro because we have to use this process for real transformation of society, but on the other hand, that actors in the EU must became more aware that their ambiguous messages, their occasional and fickle messages, cause great harm in our societies. If that perspective, the EU perspective, closes, or became too far away, we as a civil society will no longer have the tools in our hands to influence our authorities.

Let me remind you of just one example: when Commissioner Juncker was appointed in 2014, he made the famous statement that there would be no enlargement until 2025. He was criticised in the EU for saying that, because they though that 2025 is to early for Montenegro; and in Montenegro he was criticised because 2025 is too far away. Our authorities had no reason to refrain from authoritarian acts in 2014, ‘15 and ’16 if there will be no enlargement by 2025. We must look for a solution that will reconcile these two opposing issues – one is the quality of the process, and the other is the duration of the process, because unfortunately political elites think only in the short term. At best possible scenario, in four-year election cycles, and often much shorter, so the question is difficult and I do not have an optimistic answer.

***

Final remarks:

Dina Bajramspahić: I agree with what the speakers before me said. When we talk about the EU, it is important that everyone in the EU understands how important that word, which is already becoming a bit shabby, is – credibility, because without credibility, “conditionality policies” will not work, and without “conditionality policies” there will be no change made in our countries, at least not the key ones. So, (and at the EU there are friends who support enlargement) if there is a serious intention that, in case of transformation of our societies enlargement happens – now is the time for us to start working on a serious strategy to influence societies in the European Union, in order for them to understand why enlargement is of mutual interest, because it really is.
As for the region itself, I think that together as a region we have helped for the green light for Northern Macedonia and Albania to happen, and that is good for now, but we should jointly help Kosovo to achieve visa liberalisation, because I think that would be a real indicator that there is a European perspective of the region.

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