EU TACSO 3 project supported the organisation of the 8th European and Social Committee (EESC’s) Western Balkans Civil Society Forum, which took place on 30 September and 1 October 2021 in Skopje, North Macedonia. Almost 100 representatives from civil society organisations (CSOs), trade unions, chamber of commerce, experts and EU representatives attended the event.

The main topics on the Forum’s agenda were: How to enhance the accession process – a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans (new accession methodology, Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans and Common Regional Market, opportunities for citizens and CSOs from the Western Balkans to participate in the Conference for the Future of Europe, EU communication strategy towards the region); The contribution of CSOs to the Green Agenda and sustainable development of the Western Balkans as part of the EU accession process; the state of social dialogue, as well as enabling civic space in the Western Balkans.

The Forum aims to send a clear message to political authorities regarding the challenges and aspirations of civil society in the region and to spotlight the need for a clear EU accession perspective and for the role civil society should play in this process. In their statements, the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev and the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, highlighted the fact that EU enlargement is a geostrategic investment in peace, reduction of poverty and economic growth of the whole continent.

All participants in the Forum agreed that the prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans is in the Union’s own interest if the EU want to avoid destabilisation of the region, third-country influence resulting in negative impacts for the EU itself. The panellists representing civil society in the opening session emphasised that even in the best-case scenario, the accession of the Western Balkans is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. This means that the EU integration process, is no longer a sufficient incentive, as is reflected in the overall attitude of the citizens, in the pace of reforms, even in the reduction of civic space.

During the second day of the event, a specific session titled “Achieving an enabling civic space in the Western Balkans” took place. During the panel discussion, several main issues were tackled, such as the current situation in enabling civic space for CSOs in IPA Beneficiaries of the region; prevention of widespread attacks on critical CSOs, and the need to improve relations between them and the public authorities; the best practices in the region when it comes to the involvement of CSOs in the EU accession processes (emphasis also on the Guidelines for EU Support to Civil Society in the Enlargement Region for the period 2021-2027).

All speakers agreed that for civil society, the final gain of the EU integration process has never been only about joining the EU, but also about using the process as a tool for democratic reforms. It was concluded that there is evidently decreased involvement by the CSOs’ in the EU accession process. Civil society, once an important counterpart and driver for the EU integration process, is now being omitted from the dialogue with the EU. Speakers also discussed that the stalemate (in recent years) in WB countries accession to EU perpetuates avoidance of good governance, autocratic behaviour, diminished efforts for higher standards and values, resulting in disappointed/inactive citizens – thus closing the vicious circle of deterioration. It is clear that the vast majority of WB governments have clear autocratic tendencies and supporting or involving civil society is not to their benefit. The main attitude from the governments toward civil society is simply a “tick the box” approach.

On the other hand, the debate also pointed that civil society is not immune to these deteriorations, mainly visible through the dropping of citizen engagement. With fading EU perspective, the gap between CSOs and citizens, their constituents may also increase and prospects of local support (financial and other) further than ever. Some of the recommendations from the panellists were the following: It was stressed that EU needs to re-establish its credibility when it comes to the WB region: a clear commitment to EU values, to the EU integration process, to strengthen regional cooperation, and to hearing the concerns from and working with the citizens and the civil society of the WB.

Moreover, participants agreed that EU should visibly recognise that governments are primarily responsible for creating a supportive environment for civil society to operate and hold them accountable for their (in)actions towards civil society.

It was mentioned that the EU, in particular the European Commission, should stick to its political commitments and re-establish both the amount and quality of efforts put into communicating with and involving civil society from the Western Balkans in order to restore its credibility towards the citizens of the region and open the EU integration process beyond politicians and bureaucrats.

It was also pointed out that donors (and especially the EU) must re-think their approach towards supporting civil society since the current approach doesn’t produce results as expected or needed. Moreover, that innovative approach should be developed in extensive dialogue with CSOs and other relevant stakeholders.

It was highlighted that the cooperation between civil society and state must be organic – the push of donors to cooperate, while disregarding the fact of lacking results and state lead smear campaigns towards civil society, is non productive and puts civil society in an even more challenging position.

The implementation of existing and supportive civil society laws is of utmost importance. The state should not be abolished from the obligation to implement laws because they are developing and adopting even better ones. The rule of law should be the first step, followed afterwards by creating an improved legal environment.

Local ownership should be in clear focus, supported by all relevant stakeholders. Particular emphasis has to be on further improving the relationship and cooperation between government and CSOs, with local stakeholders firmly in the driving seat of such initiatives.

Finally, the panel agreed that civil society has to increase legitimacy (transparency and accountability, constituency, communication and outreach), but there should be incentives (not necessarily financial) and supportive context for these purposes.

The final declaration, videos and other documents relevant to the 8th EESC Western Balkans Forum can be found HERE