10 October 2017
To ensure that the reforms undertaken in the process of integration of the Western Balkan countries in the European Union go beyond box-ticking, the concept of “irreversibility” was introduced in the 2014 Enlargement agenda. It serves as a yardstick by which to evaluate both whether the technical compliance to the European Union rules is being translated to practice, and whether the reforms-induced changes are taking roots in the societies of the acceding countries – and becoming sustainable.
For the reforms-induced changes to become social norms and as such – irreversible and sustainable – a broad social consensus is necessary. To secure the consensus, political processes in the Western Balkans’ European Union aspirants and processes taking place among them need to include all the parties that the changes may affect – citizens and their interest groups, think tanks, business associations, trade unions and others. This is the reason why the participation of civil society in the process of negotiations with the European Union is indispensable for an inclusive, consensus-driven policy-making at the national level, as are the other forms of the sector’s cooperation with governments in the process of individual countries’ integration in the European Union.
However, since during the process of integration in the EU, in parallel to individual countries’ merit-based approach, the Western Balkans region as a whole is being appraised against its projected image of a future European region, the attainment of a deeply-entrenched regional cooperation remains de facto conditionality. Therefore, analogue to necessity for broad inclusion of stakeholders as a pre-condition of irreversibility of reforms at the national level, for the regional cooperation to take deep roots, especially in the context of the recent conflict past, it is necessary to extend the typically narrow circle of participants in the regional economic, political and social projects initiated at inter-governmental level – and include civil society organisations and other parties interested in and affected by the long process of establishment of structural and functional ties across the Western Balkans.
In order to efficiently include the citizens of the region in these regional connectivity processes, it is the regional, and not only the national platforms that are called for. The Civil Society Forum (CSF) of the Western Balkan Summit Series (the “Berlin Process”) is one such platform, and a single mechanism of a kind directly linked to the “Berlin Process”. Being an inherent part of the Western Balkan Summit Series (the “Berlin Process”), the CSF’s role is to continuously feed the Process with contributions from the civil society stakeholders.
Ever since its set-up at the Vienna Summit in 2015, CSF has been bringing together prominent think tanks, policy-oriented civil society organizations, institutes and other civil sector representatives and facilitating and streamlining their contributions in the “Berlin Process”. The joint civil society endeavours yielded concrete results: Declaration on Bilateral Issues and two related bilateral agreements were adopted in Vienna two years ago; this year’s Declaration of the Summit in Trieste reiterated the importance of the civil society, and, most importantly, the Declaration’s chapters dealing with topics such as bilateral issues, rule of law, youth cooperation and SMEs development and environment are considerably in line with the Civil Society Forum recommendations as is the Declaration’s emphasis on the importance of involving the civil society of the region in building of communication narratives to counter extremist and ideological influences.
Still, although the fact that their recommendations were taken into account by the politicians is a success, there is still room for civil society of the Western Balkans to contribute to Europeanisation of the region and to establishment of cooperation and ties among states that will diminish the possibility of conflicts, which are the essential goals of the “Berlin Process”. Obviously, the CSF should continue to open the topics that are still not part of the “governmental” part of the “Berlin Process”, to propose solutions and start initiatives, and put pressure to speed up the now belated implementation of the agreements already made. But, what else can the civil society do? How to fully use the CSF, currently the largest platform gathering civil sector organisations of the Western Balkans?
First, its impact should be strengthened, ensuring more intensive involvement in deliberation of future agreements and in implementation of the “Berlin Process” -instigated projects and initiatives. For this, the CSF should step up its advocacy activities in the region, but also in Brussels and in the Member States involved in the Process. Also, it should further advance its representativeness – through broadening of its outreach and including in its work as many non-governmental actors as possible – thus making it hard for the Western Balkans governments to not take into account its positions and proposals.
Second, considering that the civil society often harbours the expertise that may be useful to state administrations, and considerable track record in areas relevant to European integration, and can therefore assist or serve as corrective to the administrations – CSF can directly support the implementation of the “Berlin Process” projects and initiatives. As was proposed by the Balkans in Europe Advisory Group, civil society experts could, in between two Summits, prepare progress reports with recommendations on particular topics of the Process. Also, since a more welcoming public opinion would facilitate attainment of the “Berlin Process” outcomes, as well as implementation of the reforms required for its projects, the experts gathered in the Civil Society Forum could provide support in planning and management of the necessary communications.
“There is still room for civil society of the Western Balkans to contribute to Europeanisation of the region and to establishment of cooperation and ties among states.”
Not only the announced continuation of the “Berlin Process”, the so-called Berlin Plus, but also the distant deadlines of the projects and initiatives produced in the Process so far, which all should connect the region and bring it closer to the European Union – point to the need to plan the civil society involvement in the long run. However, for it to make sense, not only should the Western Balkan governments be more agile and inclusive, but the civil sector organisations should also thrive to offer “added value”, in order to truly influence and contribute to the regional integration processes, which are both the tasks for the Civil Society Forum in the years ahead.
 The phrase irreversibility of the undertaken reforms was coined and introduced to the 2014 Enlargement agenda, to provide a framework for assessing the fulfillment of the chapter 23 criteria. According to its relevant interpretations (i.e. Conference report The Western Balkans and EU enlargement: ensuring progress on the rule of law, March 2013 | WP1217) the term implies local ownership, as a vehicle to attain deep entrenchment and sustainability of the accession-induced reforms. This translates to the need for a robust, strong-voiced civil society, free from political co-optation and intimidation, enabled to influence and monitor policy processes.
How to participate in the Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkans Summit Series?
The Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkans Summit Series is a widely inclusive initiative. Its regional and annual meetings are open to various participants and their inputs. A twofold method of Civil Society Organisations’ involvement has been introduced – open call for applications and Online Consultation Process as an additional instrument for the inclusion of participants.
The Civil Society Forum Series is focused on establishing a sustainable and relevant second-track platform in the so-called “Berlin Process”, creating an impetus for debate among decision makers and wider Europe. The series was launched in 2015, with the Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkans Summit Vienna 2015 as a joint initiative of ERSTE Foundation, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and Karl Renner Institute, in close cooperation with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. The idea of being recognized as an important segment where the governments and the politicians in the region can continuously maintain closer cooperation with civil society has remained as an imperative from the very beginning.