Interview with Felix Henkel, Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Dialogue Southeast Europe, one of the organizers of the Trieste Civil Society Forum, which is held on 11-12 July.

European Western Balkans: The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) is one of the key supporters of the upcoming Civil Society Forum in Trieste. What are your expectations from the Forum?

Felix Henkel: The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has been a co-organizer of the Civil Society Fora of the Western Balkans Summit series since their inception in 2015. Over the past two years, the series has evolved remarkably and has become a leading platform for organizations both from the region and from Europe as a whole, to debate all manner of political and socio-economic challenges in the framework of the Berlin Process.

As an example, when CSO representatives from the Western Balkans met some three months ago in the course of the Tirana Civil Society Forum, a set of recommendations on a range of topics — from air quality to assets disclosure — were put forward. In Trieste, these ideas must and will reach the proper addressees: the policy and decision-makers. And the FES is committed to making that possible.

The confirmed attendance of Commissioner Hahn, as well as several Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers from the European Union and the Western Balkans, is a positive sign. The litmus test for real impact, of course, will be whether any of the points raised by regional CSOs make it into the final declaration.

EWB: Will there be any novelties in this year’s event?

FH: I should underline that the European Fund for the Balkans, which coordinated the preparations for Trieste, went out of its way to make this Forum as inclusive as possible. There was an open call for participation and several online working groups were established to give everyone interested a chance to contribute.

This effort was both new and necessary to remedy the Forum’s evident lack of representation and inclusion and, by extension, legitimacy. In short, we are in a constant process of reviewing and improving on our own organizing and outreach efforts. That is essential to our work.

EWB: How do you see the importance of the Civil Society Forums for the overall success of the Berlin Process?

FH: Even though it has not been included in the formal program of the Western Balkans summits under the Italian presidency, it is safe to say that the Civil Society Forum today forms an important “second-track” stream within the Berlin Process. Accordingly, the central role of CSOs has been to advise and offer recommendations within this process.

Given its legitimacy struggles in the past, however, this gathering of ‘civil society’ must make an effort to give a voice to ordinary citizens of the WB countries, and to create an environment for the airing of their grievances. To that end, the Civil Society Forum should serve as a platform to lead a critical dialogue with the leaders on issues beyond policy: issues that reflect the priorities and concerns of ordinary citizens and not only those involved in formal political frameworks.

Guided by this thinking, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has aimed to address the substance of the wider European project — namely, the question of our overarching social and democratic values within the framework of the wider Civil Society Fora. For instance, the (lack of) independence of major state institutions has been and should be brought up by representatives vis-a-vis their governments, as should the broader ideal of participatory, just, and open societies in the Western Balkans. In fact, we believe that the (re)introduction of such concerns, those beyond the usual talking points, might be the actual “added value” of the Civil Society Fora in the Berlin Process.

EWB: Germany and German organizations still appear to be the main driving forces of the Berlin Process. Do you believe that the priority of this process remains high in the German foreign policy agenda?

FH: The Western Balkans and their path to membership in the European Union continue to be a priority for Germany, as was recently reaffirmed by the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel, when he introduced new ideas for a “Berlin Plus” agenda. Personally, I think Germany has come to deeply appreciate close inter-dependency and significance of Central Europe and the Western Balkans. And this fact is reflected – and I trust will continue to be reflected – in her foreign policy.

EWB: How do you see the announced “Berlin Plus” process? What effects do you believe it may have on the Civil Society Forums?

FH: First and foremost, “Berlin Plus” does not advocate for any compromises in the conditions for membership. It does, however, open the door to increased ‘sectoral’ integration by opening more EU programs for the WB6. An example is inclusion in the EU’s ‘roam-like-at-home’ policy to the region. Berlin Plus also strives to create new opportunities for growing industries, specifically in the IT sector, while reintroducing the idea of dual vocational training.

At the same time, Berlin Plus crucially recognizes that societies in the Western Balkans are (still) undertaking a massive reconstruction process; economically, politically, and socially. Drawing from the European social model, it acknowledges the need for financial compensation for those who find themselves on the losing end of the region’s transformation. Again, this is an attempt to bring into the process the voices of those ordinary citizens who have often been left behind by both local and European reform efforts.

Finally, Berlin Plus encourages us to question the wider narratives on European integration, both in the case of the Western Balkans and in general. Foreign Minister Gabriel rightly pointed out, for instance, that while it is easy to blame the EU for all that goes wrong, responsible politicians should encourage their citizens not to forget that “nowhere else in the world can people live with such freedom, safety, and social protection as in Europe.” That’s important and that historical perspective matters, and I think it will be appreciated in the region as well.

If the Civil Society Fora succeed in creating resonance with these themes, both by producing sound policy and stressing European values, they might just help us all overcome the core challenges facing the Western Balkans. Specifically, the deep disenchantment and disillusionment of too many ordinary citizens with their politicians and, in truth, with the European project.

EWB: Do you believe that Civil Society Forums should perhaps become a part of the formal program of the Western Balkans Summit, as BiEPAG recently advocated?

FH: I think the Civil Society Fora are already well-integrated into the structures and processes of the Western Balkans Summit series. Nevertheless, it is true that the degree of civil society involvement in these meetings has varied over the years. In this respect, I think the colleagues from BiEPAG have a point in calling for a permanent and clearly defined presence for civil society groups. Guaranteeing a seat at the table for these groups would help everyone feel like the aforementioned commitment to inclusion and participation is not just a flash in the pan and is instead the new normal for European engagement in the Western Balkans.