Montenegro continues to negotiate about the Chapters 23 and 24 with the European Commission

Cooperation between Montenegrin CSOs and the Government of Montenegro is an important precondition for progress towards the EU, however, having in mind the political situation in the country where rule of law needs to be improved and corruption tackled, concerns are raised whether CSOs can really make a difference and have their voices heard or their “participation” is only used as a tool to please EU representatives.

Even though Montenegro has included its civil society organisations (CSO) in the process of accession negotiations with the EU, the question that needs to be raised is – is the involvement of CSOs in the process substantial or only make-believe?

Montenegro is often called the front-runner in the Western Balkans region when it comes to European integrations, with 32 out of 33 negotiating chapters opened since the accession process began in 2012, leaving Serbia far behind.

Questioning how much is the voice of civil society actually taken into account in discussions about Montenegro’s accession to the European Union, in other words, can civil society make a change in reality, European Western Balkans talked to Ana Novaković, Executive Director of the Center for Development of Non-Governmental Organizations (CRNVO) from Montenegro, and Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon network, a Podgorica-based think tank.

Marović, who is also a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), and a member of the Working group for Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) within the EU accession negotiation with Montenegro explained that in formal terms, Montenegro has made a step forward comparing to the countries that have previously negotiated EU membership, and included representatives of the non-governmental sector directly into the negotiating working groups.

“Under the influence of EU conditionality policy, Montenegro has also improved the framework for organizing public hearings and the participation of NGO representatives in working groups for drafting laws and regulations. The framework is therefore present and it is satisfactory”, said Marović.

However, she added that civil society in Montenegro shares the same problems with the rest of the region.

“First of all, the impact on public policies is limited and mainly comes down to technical refinements during public hearings. It is the same when it comes to participation in legislative change working groups and negotiating working groups. Representatives of the civil sector are over-voted in these bodies, since the relation of forces is naturally on the side of those coming from public administration bodies. In this sense, the “opportunity” given for conversation and formal involvement mean little to nothing, as the proposals are not measured by whether they are constructive or not, but whether they threaten the interests of the ruling party”, highlighted Marović.

Novaković agrees and adds that the authorities hear their voice very well, but as expected, respond selectively, in areas that cannot disrupt their interests. However, Novaković highlights the importance of appreciation of the voice of civil society by citizens, which represents the most important indicator for CSOs to play their part in the process properly.

“Public support for CSOs in Montenegro has been stable for years, higher than trust in political parties. So far, both the European Commission and representatives of other European institutions have shown that they perceive civil society as an important interlocutor and actor in this process”, said Novaković and added that from the perspective of government corrections, she believes that civil society contributes to change on a daily basis, raising important issues that the public would not otherwise hear about, helping those in need, protecting the environment, and other vital rights and values ​​for every society.

What does the European Commission say?

In the latest report by European Commission on the progress of Montenegro published in May 2019, it is stated that the legal, institutional and financial environment under which civil society organisations operate improved overall. However, EC also highlighted that the genuine inclusion of civil society organisations in the policy-making process is yet to be ensured in practice.

“Controversial dismissals of prominent non-governmental organisations’ representatives from key institutions and bodies, and the growing trend of public institutions declaring information as classified are matters of serious concern. Substantial efforts are needed to ensure meaningful consultations with civil society actors as part of an inclusive policy dialogue, both at central and sectoral levels”, it is stated in the report.

Commenting on the report, Novaković says that it goes without saying that years back, civil society raised the most important issues in the field of judicial reform, the fight against corruption, freedom of expression, to disclose affairs or irregularities in the work of institutions, and that these findings are, as a rule, justified and true.

“At the same time, for eight years since opening of the first chapters, civil society has been proactively proposing various measures, legal texts, and decisions which are supposed to enhance the condition in the rule of law, which is still intangible in Montenegrin society”, stressed Novaković and adds that she considers the contribution of civil society to this process in Montenegro is beyond question, although the representatives of the authorities often question it when our findings do not support them.

Even though the five pieces of secondary legislation aimed at implementing the Law on NGOs were adopted, which strengthen the legal framework regulating the work of CSO, and a new Strategy for Improving the Incentive Environment for NGO 2018-2020 and Action plan that with the overall objective to “further improve the legal and institutional framework for the operation of NGOs and to strengthen the cooperation of public administration and NGOs in the process of creating and implementing public policies, while respecting their different but complementary roles and responsibilities in this process” were adopted in January 2018, the implementation of the said documents is under the review.

The question raises to what extent does the Strategy work, are the provisions set out in the Strategy respected and implemented, especially in the context of civil society participation in Montenegro’s European integration process?

Novaković stressed that the Strategy is not a true reflection of the needs of civil society, as the Government did not include several important measures and proposals submitted by civil society organizations when drafting.

“With the passage of time, I can now conclude that the implementation of this document did not answer the tasks – it did not create an enabling environment for NGOs to operate. The measures related to the participation of civil society in the process of European integration of Montenegro do not treat the essential participation, but rather there are several events on this topic, which is why, neither in this area, the existence of a strategic document did not guarantee that participation would be encouraged”, highlighted Novaković.

Form without substance

Last December, Prime Minister of Montenegro Duško Marković said that “since the beginning of the negotiation process, Montenegro has taken a position on honest and transparent negotiation. Not only were we the only country to bring the civil sector into working groups, but we didn’t push our shortcomings and problems under the rug, we put them on the table”, adding that it would not be correct to misuse such an approach and use problem information to achieve some other goals or short-term daily political points.

However, EC stated that the inclusion of CSOs is deficient and uneven in practice, varying from one working group to another. They also added that CSOs are not given sufficient information or notice to be able to contribute meaningfully to the process, or that their contributions are ignored.

“Consultation practices require better planning, transparency and openness to CSOs’ suggestions to make them genuinely inclusive. Cooperation between civil society and local government is yet to be developed”, it is written in the report, as well as that “controversial dismissals of prominent NGO representatives from key state institutions, and from regulatory and watchdog bodies while related legal proceedings were under way, are a matter of serious concern”.

Marović shares similar concerns saying that the environment is not incentivizing for those NGOs that criticize the Government.

“Throughout the negotiation process, we had the opportunity to see how ineligible NGOs were being removed from the advice of agencies, Radio and Television of Montenegro and other institutions. It should also come as no surprise that the courts later declared these shifts illegal in the trials. Finally, we now have a trend of including alleged NGO representatives in these bodies, whose only criterion for election is blank consent on all government initiatives. The civil sector in Montenegro has a lot of space in the media, thus informing the public about all obstacles it faces in trying to influence the democratization of society”, says Marović adding that it is that channel of communication, as well as that toward the international community, that gives rise to a slight optimism that change is possible.

Is Serbia behind Montenegro?

The latest EC report on Serbia was explicit when it comes to civil society situation in the country stating that no progress was made towards establishing an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society.

EWB analysis on the CSOs position in Serbia shows that some of the latest reports, besides EC report on Serbia, point out that the representatives of Serbian civil sector continue to face substantial obstacles in their efforts to participate in the EU reform process like the two consecutive CSO Sustainability Index report for Serbia (20172018) indicating that the situation with CSOs in Serbia has worsened over the past two years.

“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, adding that the participation of the public and CSOs in Serbia’s negotiation process has not been clearly defined within the institutional framework.

Another big concern is that even though that by 2020 Serbia should have had its second National Strategy for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development in the Republic of Serbia adopted and implemented, after the last one for the period from 2015-2019, not even the first draft was ever passed for adoption.

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.