Interview with Hannes Swoboda, former leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament and the Member of the Board of Directors of the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe. Swoboda is a participant at the Civil Society Forum Tirana, which will be held from 26 to 28 April.
European Western Balkans: How do you see the results and the potential of the Berlin Process for facilitating European integration of the Western Balkans?
Hannes Swoboda: The Berlin process gives a necessary push to the development of the Balkans. It reminds all the Europeans that the European unification process is far from being complete. It is a clear statement that the Western Balkans must not be forgotten when we design the new Europe. And that should give hope and confidence to the people of the Balkans without creating the illusion that it will be an easy and quick ride to join the EU.
It corrects also the one-sidedness of the attention given to the legal reform processes in that region in the past. Often the economic and social side of the necessary preparation for joining the EU have been neglected. But the Berlin process does not substitute the attention given to human rights and minority issues by economic and social issues. It just corrects the negligence given to economic and social aspects and creates a new balance of the different issues to be dealt with during the preparation for joining the EU.
EWB: The civil society has been recognized as an important actor within both the Berlin Process and the EU accession process of Western Balkans states. How do you see the benefits of including the civil society in these processes?
HS: Modern democracy does not only consist of free and fair elections and rely on functioning political institutions. Very often even these institutions need a critical public, the civil society, to observe, accompany and comment the work of these institutions. Modern societies and the political decision-making process are much more complex than what was thought in traditional political theory. That does not mean that the civil society in whatever form can or should substitute clear political structures. Necessary would be a fruitful dialogue between politicians, experts and civil society. Strong leadership is not afraid from a vigilant civil society, but is ready to involve it in the political process.
EWB: What do you see as the largest obstacles to effective participation of civil society organizations in European accession negotiations in Western Balkans states?
HS: Often politicians see civil society as competitor and not as aid to find just, fair and effective solutions to political problems. They think authoritarian ways of government are more suited to the difficulties the countries are confronted with. They think only with decisions from above, without interference from civil society, they can reach clear solutions. The economic and social problems in the region of the Western Balkans, together with a short history of peaceful and democratic development, invites several leaders to be sceptical towards civil society participation.
EWB: The state of democracy in the Western Balkans has raised many concerns, and many are criticizing the EU for being too lenient with Western Balkan governments.
HS: Recent history shows that the EU is hardly capable to defend democratic values and institutions inside the EU. This has of course weakened the attractiveness of the EU with human and civil rights defenders. And it has weakened the position of the EU vis-a-vis politicians in candidate countries, especially on the Balkans. It must be clear that the fight for the respect of civil rights has primarily to be organized inside the respective countries.
But, of course, the national aspirations should always have understanding and support from EU institutions. Especially the European Parliament should never shy away from speaking in clear words about human and civil rights abuses. But recent history shows that respect for civil rights can only be established by a long and difficult process of arguments and political struggles. The rules and values promoted by the EU can only play a complimentary role. But this role it has to play with determination.
Nikola Burazer, EWB Executive Editor
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.