Civil society role in regional cooperation
“Regional cooperation shall also include the civil society level” stated the Final Declaration of the Chair of the Conference on the Western Balkans in Berlin, in August 2014. The statement of expectations from civil society opened the way for a more structured contribution coming from the WB6 non-governmental sector. Furthermore, by emphasizing the role of an active civil society and of its constructive support in the further enhancement of democracy in the Western Balkans, the German presidency gave institutional legitimacy to the expected input of local civil society organizations in this process.
As a result, the Berlin process has given a new impetus to regional cooperation amongst WB6 civil society organizations, and to the dialogue between civil society and politicians. From this angle, Tirana CSF of 26-28 April 2017 is designed to promote and nourish the dialogue between citizens and policy-makers. More than 100 participants coming from the region and EU will contribute to the discussions. Forum’s conclusions and recommendations will be presented in the Trieste Summit of the Heads of State and Governments, on July 12th. As such, this event marks a very important step in the empowerment of the Balkan civil society through its inclusion in the early stage of regional decision-making process.
Berlin Process and peoples’ connectivity
Berlin process stands aside from the 71 existing WB6 regional cooperation initiatives because of the prominent place it reserves for the civil society. Thanks to it, regional civil society forums (prior to Tirana, CSF gathered in Vienna, Belgrade and Skopje) have become a permanent fixture of regional cooperation scene. Owing to them, the concept of people’s connectivity is gaining traction and is becoming more visible as a strategic component of regional cooperation, and of the EU Enlargement strategy.
To be in step with the political agenda of the Trieste Summit and for maximum impact, Tirana CSF debates will be focused around the priorities of the Italian Presidency: youth cooperation, rule of law & anti-corruption, small & medium enterprises networking & support, and bilateral issues. In Tirana for the first time CSO, politicians, MP, MEP, member states, EU Commission, grassroots, academia and researchers will discuss those priorities together. Background papers produced beforehand, will allow for the debates to remain focused.
Re-politisation of enlargement
The direct communication established between CSF and Balkan politicians, the regular dialogue between Balkan civil society and European MPs, the constructive and professional relationship established between CSF partners and the Presidencies of the Western Balkans Summits, are evidence of an emerging shift towards the re-politisation of the enlargement process. Through their civil society organizations and other grassroots movements, the Balkans citizens are connecting, engaging into and endeavoring to impact directly the engaged reforms and influence the policy makers.
From their side, Balkan politicians are using the progress achieved in the Berlin process as a political argument in their internal politics. The example that comes more often to illustrate this thesis are the stellar relations between PM Rama and PM Vučić. This is a welcome shift from the former use of the “neighbor” only in a negative light, and as an appeal to populist and nationalist movements. By reinforcing regional civil society links, our goal is to make regional cooperation pay off more for our politicians during the elections, as compared to the fanning of regional tensions.
CSO as a strategic actor in the enlargement process
Our objective in Tirana is to propose constructive and feasible policy measures that further support the reform process engaged by our countries in their way towards EU membership. Those proposals will pro-actively bring the voice of Balkan citizen, civil society and other non-governmental actors into the table of the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste. Working together with their counterparts in the EU, as well as with policy-makers, will increase the efficiency and the utility of the Tirana CSF policy recommendations.
Our next challenge is to solidly embed our contribution in the planning, implementation and monitoring of regional cooperation processes, being them connectivity projects or the economic reform programs. To achieve this goal, we have partnered with sector experts, businesses, grass-root organizations, researchers, etc and are establishing and solidifying working relationship with the different inter-governmental structures and actors involved in the Berlin Process. This feature of multi-actor anchoring, connection and cooperation is the novelty of the Tirana CSF, and a welcome contribution to regional cooperation and to the enlargement process.
Ardian Hackaj is Director of ShtetiWeb.org, the public policy platform of Cooperation and Development Institute. He has authored many research works on the Berlin Process, EU Enlargement and Economic policies in the WB. Mr. Hackaj has held management positions at the College of Europe, International Organization for Migration, United Nations and the EU Commission.
European Western Balkans is an official media partner of the Civil Society Forum Tirana, supported by European Fund for the Balkans, ERSTE Stiftung and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.