European Western Balkans

Civil Society Forum 2023 opening: Increasing EU financial assistance and democratic reforms in focus

Launching event of the Civil Society Forum; Photo: CSF Tirana 2023

TIRANA –  Civil Society & Think Tank Forum Tirana 2023 started today with a launching event and an opening forum. Calls were made for the EU to further increase financial assistance to the region, while a part of the participants also voiced their concern with the state of democratic reforms.

Civil Society Forum is taking place before the leaders’s summit of the Berlin Process, also in Tirana, on Monday. For the first time since 2014, this initiative of regional cooperation is taking place in the Western Balkans, and not in the EU.

“This is Berlin Process coming home. It comes to the region. This talks volumes about the agency that the region wants to have in the process, not only the governments but also the civil society”, said Andi Dobrushi, Western Balkans Director at the Open Society Foundations and the co-organizer of the Civil Society Forum, at the launching event in the Pyramid of Tirana.

Read also: [EWB Interview] Dobrushi: The 2030 target is not just realistic, but a must for the EU and the Western Balkans

Ioannis Armakolas, Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, stressed that the seven Thematic Working Groups were active in the preparation of the Forum, working on areas such as politics of enlargement, digitalization, connectivity and green agenda.

“Through their work, and I encourage everybody to read the reports that were produced, we debunk two myths. One is that there is not enough capacities in the Western Balkans to join the EU soon. I think we have shown that there is enough intellectual, conceptual, and ethical support. Another myth we debunked is that Western Balkans care only about local disputes, and not big global issues such as green transition, energy, and mobility. The Western Balkans will be part of the EU approach to these global problems”, Armakolas said.

Participants were also welcomed by Erion Veliaj, mayor of Tirana, while the keynote address at the opening forum was delivered by Igli Hasani, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania.

In his speech, Hasani stated that the EU integration of the Western Balkans has gained new momentum and that now a clear commitment is needed for both sides.

“This is why we are looking forward to opening the cluster on fundamentals in the second EU-Albania intergovernmental conference by the end of this year”, Hasani said.

The Minister also emphasized the role of the Common Regional Market as a step in the EU integration process and welcomed the announcement of the new growth plan for the Western Balkans, which is expected to be presented by the European Commission.

“We need to face, at the same time, slow economic convergence, which needs to be supported by the infrastructure investments”, Hasani said.

He added that the present practice of limited IPA funds during the status as candidates and cohesion funds after EU accession cannot bring convergence.

The need for stronger EU financial instruments for the region was also expressed during the subsequent panel discussion by Odeta Barbullushi, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Albania on Western Balkans and EU affairs.

“This particular pillar of the new EU Growth Plan – EU financial instruments – has been underdeveloped so far. What we have seen with the connectivity packages in 2016 is that this is a strategic priority for the Western Balkans and the EU, funding has been limited – transport, digital infrastructure, and energy – these policy areas require more funding”, Barbullushi said.

She added that, if the Western Balkans were to become a part of the EU members now, the rise in the burden on the EU member states would be 0.014% to 0.027% of GDP, which, according to her, debunks the economic argument against the enlargement.

What is actually the most important currently is the alignment with the EU acquis, Barballushi said.

Commenting on the role of the Common Regional Market, Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, said that even for EU member states, the Single Market was started 30 years ago and is still a work in progress.

“Common Regional Market will take time, but it is a good instrument that enhances regional cooperation. It is an instrument that will bring tangible results if it is taken seriously”, Bregu said.

The reduction of roaming costs between the EU and the Western Balkans, which was introduced at the beginning of October and followed the reduction of roaming costs within the region, is proof that there can be a positive spillover of regional cooperation for EU policy, Bregu said.

Michela Matuella, Acting Director for the Western Balkans at the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations, said that the new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, presented by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Bratislava in May, addresses exactly what was pointed out by the previous speakers – the economic gap between the EU and the Western Balkans.

“Common Regional Market, and also more broadly the Growth Plan, are clearly not an alternative to enlargement; they are exactly the opposite, their aim is to accelerate it”, Matuella said.

In addition to economic integration and bridging the gap between the EU and the region, issues with democracy were tackled as well.

“EU invested many years in wrong figures who mislead the West in the wrong direction; they supported Vučić, Đukanović, other corrupt leaders… What we really need from the EU is a strong presence on the ground, and experts from the EU to be on the ground; the EU should invest in the experts to help us start these democratization reforms”, said Milka Tadić Mijović, President of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro.

Donika Emini, Director of the CiviKos platform, meanwhile, said that financial incentives are important, but not enough.

“In the case of the Western Balkans, we are dealing with systems that are not willing to do the reforms – Serbia, which is the elephant in the room, but also other systems”, Emini said.

She added that in the past years in the Balkans, nobody has been talking about reforms, everybody has been talking about how to prevent conflict, and that the situation in Ukraine and, now, Israel and Palestine will totally securitize everything.

Michael Reiffenstuel, Director for the Western Balkans at the Federal Foreign Office, agreed that there is currently a lot of instability in the region and not enough focus on reforms it is in the interest of both the region and the EU that the candidate countries implement the reforms.

He stressed that the EU supports the acceleration of the enlargement process, which means that both the Union and the Western Balkans do their homework.

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