Though not as intensive as it could be, the European integration process is evolving over 7 decades. It started among 6 Western European countries, and after Brexit the EU now covers 27 countries, but leaves in the “waiting room” the 6 countries of Western Balkans, as well as Turkey.

The military intervention of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, rather clearly that it is time for Europe to start thinking with its own head, and follow a more independent global policy – delinking itself from the US strategic interests.

In order to become more independent, Europe has to intensify its integration process, by creating a true economic union, adopting an efficient knowledge-based development strategy, and accepting the remaining 6 Western Balkan countries and Turkey. If this is not going to happen, Europe will become in 10-15 years a third-ranking, ex-global player.

Unfortunately, there are very few strategists among present European leaders, and consequently, none of them are fully aware that this is happening, nor that it could be prevented.

Let us illustrate this by the attitude taken by the EU, as well as by Western Balkan countries’ leaders, on integration. And in this context, we look particularly at the role of NGOs and other civil society actors, who could have a much stronger influence on the process, but are often, unfortunately not sufficiently aware of the problematic prospects if nothing happens.

Western Balkans and the EU

Although Western Balkans represents a very small region in relation to the EU in terms of population (about 2.5 %) or GDP (about 1% of the total EU GDP), the political relevance of the integration of Western Balkan partners is much larger. It is however complicated by the negative political dynamics that various phenomena (economic crises, populism, Brexit) have brought into the evolution of political relations and foreign policy positions in the EU. On the other hand, the structural weaknesses, political divisions, and potential instability inherent in the situation in the Western Balkans, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, as well as the more dynamic GDP growth, cannot be overcome without the positive action of an external integrative factor, which is the EU.

None of the international political and economic initiatives and strategies implemented in the WB over the last thirty years have been successful.

In the recent Zagreb Summit Declaration of May 2020, the EU leaders have stated that the EU is determined to further intensify its engagement at all levels to support the region’s political, economic and social transformation, and welcomes the pledge of the Western Balkans partners to uphold European values and principles, and to carry out necessary reforms thoroughly and vigorously. Increased EU assistance is to be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socio-economic reforms, as well as on the Western Balkans partners’ adherence to European values, rules and standards.

The EU membership remains a quick and universal solution to many internal and regional problems, and it at the same time represents an opportunity to articulate and develop relations between countries on a systematic, structured and long-term basis, with a positive cooperative agenda, similar to what happened also between the older members of the Union.

Therefore, European integration is undoubtedly the undisputed strategic option for each WB country, about which there is a relatively stable consensus in the public, as well as within most political groups in each WB country. This, however, needs to be nurtured, and governments are definitely not doing enough.

The role of NGOs

The EU institutions have especially in the last two decades voiced their support for enhancing civil society. As part of the civil society, NGOs foster a more participatory democracy within the European Union by representing civil society, contributing to policy-making and European integration. In line with this philosophy, the EU has introduced policies on promoting the development of civil society in several EU policy domains. In 2008, the European Commission Directorate-General on Enlargement established the Civil Society Facility (CSF) under the Instrument for Pre-accession (IPA), with the purpose of financially and politically supporting the development of civil society for the task of advancing candidate countries towards EU accession. The CSF promotes and supports the EU integration process by assisting civil society development and its capacity to influence policy-making and decision-making processes. The EU efforts to include civil society and NGOs into its external policy-making on accession countries are interesting as they contradict the general notion of international relations which argues that the EU foreign and external policy sector is ‘high-politics’ and is, therefore ‘insulated’ from the involvement of non-state actors.

Let us have a look at the situation in 6 Western Balkan countries individually:

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, cooperation between the government and civil sector exists and is supported by the international community, but not permanently. The inconsistency of these efforts was evident, for instance, in the Structured Dialogue on Justice with the EU, launched in 2011, in which civil society received very limited representation. Bosnia and Herzegovina is party to all relevant international and European human rights treaties, although with limited implementation. The creation of a state-level ombudsman in 2010 was one of the few successes, though the office remains weak. Cooperation with CSOs has proved significant in addressing migration challenges. Monitoring mechanisms for the implementation of strategic reforms in the justice sector were established between the government and five NGOs. Yet, the existence of four separate judicial systems and the absence of cooperation between them significantly impedes the fight against corruption. A focus on civic education is needed to enhance civic responsibility, democratic values, and citizen engagement. The continuous involvement of the international community is especially important since it is the largest source of support for civil sector activities.

Kosovo faces a number of challenges related to the early stages of state building and integration with the EU. New procedures adopted by the government and its strategy for cooperation with civil society create a framework for civic engagement in policymaking. Yet, a collaboration between the sectors remains ad hoc, and drafts of public policies and legislation rarely mirror previous consultations with the CSOs, and their role as monitors of public institutions is still in its infancy. The unresolved status of Kosovo and its ethnic composition constitute a challenge for human rights observers. The inclusion of marginalised ethnic groups in public processes requires more effort. New laws on asylum and irregular migration are in place but the institutional capacities to implement them remain insufficient. The wider involvement of NGOs in monitoring judicial-sector reform is recommended to overcome the shortcomings of the judiciary, which otherwise faces a very low level of public confidence. The new anti-corruption strategy recognised the significance of CSOs’ involvement, but the government needs to make greater use of their expertise. Civic education is only a limited part of the NGOs’ activities and the government is yet to recognise the importance of civil society in raising citizens’ awareness about their involvement in governance.

In Macedonia, the strategies for governmental cooperation with CSOs and a number of similar documents are in place. Nonetheless, the consultation mechanisms are often conducted pro forma and the recommendations of the NGOs do not receive sufficient consideration. There is a need for effective CSO involvement in monitoring, which can serve as a long-term framework for cooperation with the government. Consultation practices with CSOs on legal acts and public policy documents on human rights have not been sufficiently implemented, which leaves room for the adoption of potentially damaging and regressive policies in this area. An efficient legal aid system for asylum seekers and illegal migrants needs to be established through the adoption of relevant legislation. Issues with “fake” asylum seekers and denial of Roma rights to leave the country remain as challenges.

Although numerous reforms have been undertaken in the justice system, its impartiality is disputed and the judiciary is seen by the public as the most corrupt sector. The failure to establish effective anti-corruption policies is linked to modest media freedoms and a lack of relevant laws. Civic education was incorporated into the national curriculum but greater NGO involvement faces difficulties due to lack of support from the government. CSOs play a role in promoting a reduction in prejudices, but ethnic tensions remain at a considerably high level and the implementation of national policy on integrated education faces early stage challenges.

Representatives of civil society, based on public pressure, were included in all 33 working groups for negotiations with the EU. A coalition of 16 NGOs prepared semi-annual “shadow reports” on progress in the negotiations in the areas of human rights, the judiciary, and the fight against corruption. For effective cooperation, the government needs to be completely open about the negotiations. The NGOs have made contributions to human rights protection by drafting some legislation, but shortcomings persist in the enforcement of rights.

In Serbia, the government adopted the so-called Slovak model, in which CSOs play an independent monitoring role while not being part of the formal working groups. Therefore, the possibility NGOs can be excluded from the negotiation process remains a challenge. Although inclusiveness, transparency and synergy were announced as the government’s principles for cooperation with civil society, the latter was left to organise its own initiatives, including the Coalition PrEUgovor, which focuses on monitoring progress solely in chapters 23 and 24. A number of CSOs are active in monitoring human rights-related matters, but the government needs to consult the civil sector more frequently. Adopting procedures for mandatory public hearings during drafting of legislative acts is recommended. Laws on migration need full implementation and ensuring the rights of asylum seekers is a challenge. Tighter cooperation with a policy advocacy group of NGOs could serve to overcome these shortcomings. CSOs have to be able to monitor court practices, especially in relation to two issues - protection of human rights and the fight against corruption - in order to assert themselves as proper watchdogs of the judiciary, but such efforts are hampered by numerous factors. Although the anti-corruption strategy envisions a role for CSOs, the conditions for more active civic participation are yet to be created and the legal framework improved. NGOs remain involved in lobbying and advocating for education reforms, also as part of networks, and they would welcome more government openness to enable them to provide alternative services where state provision is absent or insufficient.

Final comment

There are many reasons why the EU should accelerate the process of welcoming the 6 Western Balkan countries, as well as Turkey, into the Union. This should strengthen the Union and improve its global position, particularly vis-à-vis the USA.

Of course, this cannot be expected unless the processes of Europeanisation will also be accelerated within the candidate countries. And this should not be left only to the respective governments and parliaments, but requires a much more proactive and decisive contribution of the CSOs and NGOs, particularly influential in the main sectors, like development strategy adoption, securing rule of law and efficiency of judiciary, as well as accession negotiations.

As stated in the introduction, the future of Europe lies in the hands of Europeans – going wide beyond the politicians and governments. It cannot be neglected that – due to the low participation of the public in selecting policies and in monitoring their execution – the politicians have brought us all into this unenviable situation. They will change only if being told to change and become more responsible.

This is equally, if not even more important for the countries of Western Balkans, who need to be more appreciated by the EU but have to do more also themselves – including the CSO and NGOs. As we can see in the Annex, there are many, and one can only hope that their efforts to accelerate the European integration process will continue increasing and gaining in impact.