In May 2021, the European Union launched the Conference on the Future of Europe – a new, bottom-up and pan-European initiative, which aims to give citizens, civil society and authorities a greater say in EU policy-making. The inclusion of the Western Balkans in the Conference has been brought up on multiple occasions in the past several months and this has started to materialise this month.
On 2 July, as part of the Prespa Forum Dialogue, the panel discussion “What can the Western Balkans do for the EU?” was the first in a series of public and civic contributions from the region to the Conference on the Future of Europe.
We spoke with Aleksandra Tomanić, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, about the expectations of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), the importance of the Western Balkans’ participation, and can the region make significant contributions to the CoFoE, on the margins of the Prespa Forum Dialogue.
European Western Balkans: Why is it important for the Western Balkans to participate at least informally in the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE)? In which ways can this be achieved?
Aleksandra Tomanić: The fact that we are speaking, to at least informally include the Western Balkans, shows that the opportunity has been missed to include them formally in the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is problematic in many ways.
The Commissioner responsible for the CoFoE is from Croatia, and if I am not mistaken, from Dubrovnik, so she is literally surrounded by the Western Balkans. So, the point that she might have forgotten about us is not really valid. Now we are trying to somehow sneak in, which is not the right signal nor the right message. I think that shows more that we are desperate and that we want to be part and that we want to be recognized on whatever basis. The enlargement as such is stuck, so please, please at least include us in the discussions on the Future of Europe, because you even named it “Future of Europe” and not “Future of the European Union”. Informal inclusion is better than nothing, but I think it is more damage reduction than real inclusion.
EWB: There was this expectation from the region ever since the CoFoE was announced that the Western Balkans will be included. Some time has passed since the initiation, and the region is for the first time included during Prespa Forum Dialogue. Do you believe that the expectations shared by some leaders and experts from the region that this would happen earlier, were justified?
AT: Well, yes, I think that that would have been a great opportunity to actually show that the mantra we have been listening for two decades now that the Western Balkans belongs to the EU, and that the Western Balkans has an EU perspective, would prove that it is not only lips service.
It shows that once the enlargement process, like the pure accession process with chapters or clusters, is stuck that the EU does not really have policy responses that would react to that. It shows that the Western Balkans is purely seen under the accession umbrella, although, of course, some programs are open. Still, when it comes to other policy areas nobody in Brussels is including the Western Balkans.
Of course, the EU now has a number of own problems, Brexit is still not digested, so on the one hand, it is clear that of course, nobody wakes up and like the first thing that comes to their mind is the Western Balkans but when you look at the topics of the Conference on the Future of Europe you have EU as a global player. How do you want to be the head if you do not even manage to include – not your neighbourhood, but your belly? We are already surrounded by EU member states.
Then there is the health union. We are now living through a pandemic that shows that no virus and, also no other disease will stop at the Schengen border. Then, you have topics like environment and climate, etc.
EWB: What about the citizens? How do you assess the level of interest of the Wester Balkans citizens in the CoFoE, in comparison to the EU citizens? Do you think there are particular topics, such as the ones you mentioned – like regional cooperation, migration, environment, in which citizens of the region could make significant contributions?
AT: Well, first I had a look on the website of the CoFoE, and I think that the interest of the citizens of the EU is rather limited. When you look at the numbers – the EU has 500 million citizens, and on that webpage for participation are registered less than 20 thousand. That figure is stable, it is not increasing. So, I would put into question how big the interest is, how much citizens have been informed properly, or how much they have recognized that as a possible instrument for their participation. Talking about the citizens in the Western Balkans – well as we have never been formally involved, I doubt that ordinary citizens that are not in this EU bubble know that this is at all taking place.
The Western Balkans is the most polluted area of this continent, and whatever you think regarding the environment and climate, you will fail if you do not include the Western Balkans.
And then there is the topic of migration. We all have witnessed the Balkan route. We all remember the terrible pictures that came from Bosnia and Herzegovina last winter. We see the pushbacks from Croatia, so even migration. I have just mentioned five out of ten topics that are impossible to solve without Western Balkans.
Regarding potential contribution, I think that the citizens of the Western Balkans could contribute out of many perspectives.
Unfortunately, we here know what it means, and we are actively reminded how important peace project is, and we could help remind the old member states as potential future ones, that the EU is a peace project and how important that is.
This is fundamental, and this is something that is more like historic memory for most of the citizens of the EU. On the other topics I just mentioned, I think that here we have a lot of creativity and out of the box thinking and that citizens and experts dealing with different topics could have added substantially. But again, this has been missed. And with the CoFoE including us somehow informally is like second best again.
EWB: Adding to that, do you think that the citizens of the region are empowered enough to make their voices heard in the debate on the Future of Europe, at least informally, like, in comparison to their EU counterparts?
AT: Well, I mean, the setup is challenging – if you cannot participate through the platform, how will you participate? Like somebody randomly hears something? Whom would you address then if you are a citizen of Bosnia, Serbia, or Albania? Who is your counterpart, where would you place your ideas? So, again, I think that this is now pure improvisation and that ordinary citizens with an idea or just somebody who wants to say something and to be heard does not have the means to actually be heard.
EWB: You mention that so far not many people have registered for the CoFoE. What are your expectations of it? Do you think it could have a significant impact? Do you believe that, with this setup, it can change the EU for the better or it is just a “ticking the box”?
AT: Well, I hope it will not be a “tick the box exercise”, although you never know. I hope that this will just be a pilot – a first step, in opening up EU policy-making to ordinary citizens. As we all know, the first steps and pilots are there to learn and to experience and to see what works and what does not. I am very sorry that the time frame is shortened by half. Originally, it was planned to last for two years, now it will last for one year.
Until people get aware that they can contribute, it will already be over.
So, again, I think really that it will be just a first step and we will see the figures in the end. It even has been postponed for a year, and a lot has been spoken and talked about the CoFoE, expectations have been high, and still registered numbers are not above 20 thousand. In a union with half a billion inhabitants, I think these numbers speak for themselves.