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[EWB Interview] Röpke: Inclusion of CSOs from candidate countries in the EESC an important step in gradual EU integration

Last week, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) launched the initiative to welcome civil society representatives from EU candidate countries. A total of 131 “Enlargement Candidate Members (ECM)” were selected to constitute the pool of civil society experts participating in the Committee’s work. The ECM initiative is a pilot project enabling representatives from EU candidate countries to engage in the advisory activities of the EESC. As EESC stated, this entails the participation of these representatives in the drafting process of selected EESC opinions, as well as involvement in relevant study groups, section meetings, and selected EESC Plenary Sessions.

About the significance of this initiative for civil society organisations from the Western Balkans and the position and role of civil society in Serbia, we spoke with Oliver Röpke, the President of the EESC. Röpke visited Belgrade last week, where he held separate meetings with representatives from civil society and the Serbian government.

European Western Balkans: The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is the first EU institution that open its doors to candidate countries. Do you think this could give impetus to the idea of gradual integration that is being widely discussed? 

Oliver Röpke: This is precisely the idea behind it. The initiative has been presented 10 months ago when I took office as EESC President. And I’m very proud that just last week, on 15 February, we finally launched the project during an opening ceremony in Brussels in our plenary session, which took place with the participation of the enlargement  candidate members from all candidate countries, including Serbia. The initiative was warmly welcomed by other EU institutions as well as candidate countries.

I believe that this is an important step, as you said, for gradual integration and enlargement of the European Union. But furthermore, this is also a step to involve civil society representatives from candidate countries in EU affairs. To give them a voice. And this actually is one of the main objective of our visit here in Serbia.

EWB: Five civil society organisations from Serbia will have their representatives in this committee. What does it mean for citizens and civil society in Serbia? 

OP: First of all, it gives the independent civil society organisations a stronger voice in Brussels. Because it’s for the first time now that your civil society organisations can speak up in an official EU institution.  The EESC is an advisory body, so we advise the European institutions, Commission, Parliament, and Council, on policy initiatives, but we can also take our own initiatives, with a medium and long-term perspective.

In this regard, we think it is a great opportunity for candidate countries to shape the future of the European Union actively, and not only as observers as it was in the past. This is also why we have chosen the name Enlargement Candidate Members and not “observers” for these colleagues.

EWB: How would you assess the atmosphere in which civil society operates in Serbia? 

OP:  I have seen the reports on the situation of the civil society organisations in Serbia. They are facing challenges regarding the shrinking civic space. This is unfortunately a development that we can observe in more and more countries, also in the EU. During my visit to Serbia, I had a chance to meet with a group of brave civil society organisations, listening to their expectations on our initative, also listening to the state of play of civil society in Europe and in Serbia . I admire their courage and dedication in difficult times of adversity. I promised to make sure their voice also resonates at the EU level. And I will keep that promise.

It is therefore important  to strengthen civil society organisations and social partners. For us, social dialogue and civil dialogue is key. We have to protect it and we have to make sure that this will be guaranteed in the future.

More specifically on Serbia, I think our committee will always call for an open and meaningful dialogue between government and civil society, social partners and political organisations. Dialogue is the DNA of our committee and it is key from our perspective. This is why I also had talks with Serbian government representatives, in order to convey to them the preoccupations of the Serbian civil society.

EWB: Some of the key points of last year’s Joint Committee (JCC) declaration addressed the electoral conditions under which the December elections were held. The EP calls for an international investigation into the elections in Serbia. Do you think the EU should react and mediate in the political crisis in Serbia? 

OP: We are fully aware of the content of the EP resolution and of its recommendations. We are expecting the final OSCE ODIHR report on the elections very soon. We have seen already the preliminary findings of the OSCE and we are seriously concerned about the situation, but we are still waiting for the final report.

Once the final report is issued, it is clear from our point of view, that the implementation of the observers’ recommendations must be ensured in a transparent and timely manner. As I said before, we call on the authorities in Serbia to ensure a constructive and inclusive dialogue across the political spectrum. This is crucial from our point of view.

EWB: In November last year, you said that Serbia should seize the new momentum of enlargement and demonstrate commitment to EU accession. Do you think EU integration is truly a priority for this government, considering all the anti-EU rhetoric that has been further intensified after the elections? 

OP: As I said last year in November, I’m still 100 percent convinced that the future of Serbia is as part of our European Union family. This is the reason why we have involved Serbia in this enlargement candidate members initiative. We think this can help to overcome current challenges and threats to the shrinking civil society space that have been made aware of.

I was also listening very carefully to the civil society organisations about the difficult situation at the moment. At the same time, I had also an exchange with the Serbian government representatives about the current  state of play from their point of view. So it’s important for me to have this dialogue. We have to have difficult conversations on difficult subjects between often differing views, but we need to keep open channels of communication. That’s how the EU works.

But I think there’s no credible alternative for Serbia and for the Serbian government but to continue on the path towards the European Union. This is a path we will always support.

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