One of the most important obligations of a country that is negotiating EU membership formulated through the political criteria of the accession process concerns enabling environment for civil society organizations (CSOs) to participate in the reforms. This means that civil society organizations would participate not only in processes related to negotiations but also in other decision-making processes at all levels of government.
In Serbia, the situation with the CSO participation in the decision-making process is far from ideal.
A gradually worsening situation
Some of the latest reports show that the representatives of Serbian civil sector continue to face substantial obstacles in their efforts to participate in the EU reform process. While two consecutive CSO Sustainability Index report for Serbia (2017, 2018) indicate that the situation with CSOs in Serbia has worsened over the past two years, the EC 2019 Serbia report concludes that “no progress towards establishing an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society has been made”.
“Unlike some of the countries that have concluded or that are currently in the process of EU accession negotiations, Serbia has failed to enable the CSOs to take direct participation in the EU-integration related processes, nor they are represented in the negotiating groups”, points out Bojana Selaković, the Programme Director at Belgrade-based NGO Civil Initiatives (Građanske inicijative) in a statement for European Western Balkans (EWB).
The Serbian government pledged to involve civil society in the EU accession negotiation process during the first Serbia-EU Intergovernmental Conference on the occasion of opening the negotiations (2014), referring to the Assembly Resolution in its opening statement and stating that “CSOs shall have a special role to play in the accession negotiations”. While the EC 2019 report on Serbia underlines that “the relationship between the government and CSOs is still marked by fragmented cooperation”, Selaković explains that the reason for this lies in the fact that the participation of the public and CSOs in Serbia’s negotiation process has not been clearly defined within the institutional framework.
“The fact that documents that regulate the negotiation process impose an obligation for the government to consult with civil society at certain stages, the rules according to which this should be implemented are not precise at this stage. As such, they do not provide space for a real impact of civil society”, stresses Selaković. Such a situation, she explains, leads to “a variety of practices in relation to the negotiation process and the institutions responsible for it”.
The practices, Selaković notices, vary depending on the capacities of the CSOs and their motivation to take an active role in different fields. “When it comes to the field of political criteria, Chapters 23 and 24, even when the Government does not adopt the proposals of civil society organizations, they are able to impose their views and opinions in public”, explains Selaković. “On the other hand”, she adds, “there are almost no active organizations in the areas of transportation and financial services”.
A strategy that went missing
The draft on National Strategy for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development in the Republic of Serbia 2015-2019 was the first time that the need for a strategic approach in the state-civil society relationship has been recognized, at least on the paper.
Considering the policy developments in this area, it shall remain on paper.
“The draft was developed through a broad consultation process that lasted more than a year – a process that, according to data of the Civic Initiatives, involved about 600 civil society organizations, making it the process with the largest number of participants in adopting one strategic document so far”, reminds Selaković. She adds that along with the development of the draft Strategy, an Action Plan, a Monitoring Plan and an Evaluation Plan have also been drafted, which have also been the subject of public debate. “These were practically incredible examples of good practice for Serbia”, says Selaković.
In addition to consultations, the development of the draft Strategy was also based on regular official statistics as well as specific initial research on the position of civil society and cooperation between the civil sector and the state administration. All in all, this was a unique endeavor, based on a combination of a broad participatory process and official data that give an overview of the activities and functioning of CSOs in Serbia.
However, even though by 2020 Serbia should have had its second National Strategy adopted and implemented, not even the first draft was ever passed for adoption.
“Although regular annual reports on the progress of the Republic of Serbia in the negotiation process from year to year, the lack of such a strategic document on cooperation with civil society is markedly negative”, says Selaković, adding that “clearly, there is no political will on the stateside for its adoption, and therefore no will for strategic recognition”.
Selaković assesses that such delay indicated a lack of political will which is reflected in the fact that the strategic position and influence of the Office for Cooperation with Civil Society within the Government itself is increasingly weakened. “Given the very dynamic environment and the many changes we are making in the meantime, within the context of civil society organizations in Serbia, the latest draft Strategy is no longer able to meet their needs, and even be adopted this year”, concludes out Selaković.
Bureaucracy as the final punch
Even though the National Strategy for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development in the Republic of Serbia 2015-2019 has only ever remained a draft, other legislative documents, such as “The decision on the procedure for reviewing the proposal for a negotiating position in the negotiation process for Serbia’s EU accession” stipulate that “before considering the proposal for a negotiating position, the Committee for European Integration must consider the proposals, contributions, and recommendations of representatives of civil society, such as the National Convention on the EU (NKEU)”.
Selaković points out that even though these provisions formally apply, in terms of the quality of civil society’s contribution to negotiating positions, the question of the useful value of such a solution is raised.
“One of the reasons for this is again the administrative nature of the negotiation process, as well as the dynamics imposed by the institutions of the European Union involved in this phase of the process”, she says, adding that the timescales within which this type of consultation can be conducted are often short and leave no room for a larger and better quality participation of civil society organizations. “Also, it is unknown whether there is an adequate and objective analysis of the received comments from civil society on negotiating positions, as well as a systematic justification for why certain proposals were rejected”, points out Selaković.
Even though the mandatory consultation mechanism “represents a good infrastructure framework”, reckons Selaković, “in order to guarantee the quality CSOs of participation, it must first be formally enhanced by clear consultation quality criteria”. She stresses that authorities, on the other hand, must show a genuine will for dialogue and openness to civil society suggestions, even when they contain a critical dimension.
The data obtained by Civic Initiatives through the process of monitoring the work environment and capacity of civil society organizations in Serbia indicate that a lot of CSOs share the perception of selectivity in consultative processes, as well as a lack of real motivation for the state to apply standards of participation and inclusiveness. “In perception of the CSOs, the consultative process between them and the state is only formally being implemented, keeping their actual participation at a minimal level”.
The EC 2019 report also stresses continued frequent use of the urgent procedure for the adoption of laws limits the effective inclusion of civil society in the lawmaking process. A number of CSOs have reported that periods for public consultations are sometimes too short, or that their comments on draft laws were not given sufficient consideration and follow-up.
However, even though CSOs in Serbia do not really participate in the work of the negotiating groups, they do actively monitor the entire process independently. “In my opinion this is the biggest benefit of negotiations to date”, concludes Selaković.
This article is written in the framework of the EU-funded project “Applying Sector Approach to Civil Society Contribution in EU Integration of Albania” implemented by Cooperation and Development Institute in partnership with Centre for Contemporary Politics and Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are not reflecting those of the supporting institutions.