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Civil Society Forums: New impetus for WB regional cooperation and EU integration

Ulrike Lunacek; Photo: European Parliament

Op-ed by Ulrike Lunacek, Vice President of the European Parliament, member of the European Green Party, and the EP standing rapporteur on Kosovo. Lunacek will participate in the Civil Society Forum Tirana, which takes place from 26 to 28 April 2017 in Tirana, Albania.

The six Southeastern Europe states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – and the majority of their citizens are united by the common goal of joining the EU. However, they still face many divisions, be they political, ethnic or otherwise, and are confronted, among other things, by a dire social and economic situation which challenges stability, as well as by bilateral disputes. This in mind, coupled with knowing that long-term stability, ecological sustainability and democratic transformation of the region can only be secured through economic growth, increased regional cooperation and inclusive domestic policies, has led in 2014 to the so-called „Berlin Process“. After Germany, Austria took over, last year the summit took place in Paris, and this year it is Italy in the lead, with the summit planned in Trieste on July 12th.

This process enjoys the support of the region and the EU alike, as an initiative which brings new impetus and perspective to the enlargement process. It has also brought a positive momentum for regional cooperation, notably through projects which are expected to have an economic and social impact, complementing EU membership ambitions of the individual countries. Apart from high-level government summits, stimulation of youth exchange and education projects to enhance reconciliation processes, and resolving outstanding bilateral disputes, for me ensuring the participation of civil society in the whole process is the most significant aspect of this initiative – without the Civil Society Forums where government representatives meet CSO representatives and have to listen and debate their proposals, this process would be missing the essence of what democracy is about: citizens’ participation.

In times when trust in politics is at a rather low level in many of our societies, the role of citizens, especially youth, in the restoration of confidence in democracy and its processes is pivotal. These processes need to be open and inclusive and can only be successful when young people can develop and advocate their positions towards the institutions – and when they are listened to in serious terms.

This year’s Civil Society Forum in Tirana is part of a larger series of events in the run-up to the Summit in Trieste. The CSF, which I am gladly joining every year, constitutes an important opportunity for civil society to articulate recommendations, suggestions and demands, and be a critical and competent voice to be heard also at the summit in Trieste. The CSFs are vibrant platforms, encouraging a culture of constructive dialogue with all stakeholders, including the ones from governmental institutions. A wide range of topics is debated, including issues that are sensitive, like fight against corruption, ethnic and sexual minority rights, rule of law, division of power, media pluralism, etc. CSF Tirana will be another opportunity to unite fellow citizens in providing food-for-thought and motivation for action by collaborating and creating new networks, in raising awareness for major concerns and in creating and effectively communicating the Vision of Democracy in Southeast Europe.

Finally, the Civil Society Forums and other civil society formations have to be recognized as a relevant segment of democracy for governments and politicians in the region. Social movements and civic activism show the emancipatory potential of citizens in the Western Balkans. Democratic processes, especially after dictatorships and wars, have to provide not just for institutional transformation but also for transformation of authoritarian mindsets at all levels of society. Criticism is the salt of democracy, and politicians have to deal with criticism in an open-minded argumentative way. I know from my own experience that this is not always easy, but it is what distinguishes democracies from authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. So, let’s do it!

Nationalist rhetoric does not solve any problems. Nationalist rhetoric does not create jobs. Nationalist rhetoric does not strengthen the economy. Nationalist rhetoric does not build institutions and functioning states. On the contrary: Nationalist rhetoric paves the way for conflicts.

The EU is well advised to harness the positive energy present in the Western Balkans – and even more so because in some countries of the region change towards authoritarian thinking and acting has become visible again, after a period of steady democratic progress which is now in danger of being reversed. But nationalist rhetoric does not solve any problems. Nationalist rhetoric does not create jobs. Nationalist rhetoric does not strengthen the economy. Nationalist rhetoric does not build institutions and functioning states. On the contrary: Nationalist rhetoric paves the way for conflicts. Just look back to the last decades of history in the Western Balkans, and before in what is now the European Union: Nationalism paves the way into the past, into conflict and war. The European Union, 60 years old, was built on the promise of „cooperation instead of confrontation“, on good neighbourly relations and cooperation especially in economic terms and between people.

That is also the way for the Western Balkans into the future: A functioning democracy needs rule of law, inclusiveness and transparency as well as free, independent and unbiased media.

For those of us in the EU who believe in all Western Balkan states‘ future in the EU – despite some unfortunate public statements on “enlargement fatigue” – Western Balkan citizens are part of one European family based on the same values and principles, and they are part of one European society whose stakeholders are active citizens throughout the continent. Because the democratic present and future of the Western Balkans is inseparable from all of us in Europe.

Ulrike Lunacek is the Vice President of the European Parliament, Member of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament and the EP rapporteur on Kosovo. Lunacek is also a Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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.

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