Newsletter 24/2012 - Our South East Europe
South East European civil society finding their way to EU accession negotiations
Negotiations with the European Union (EU) in the accession process are either a recent history or a near future for the majority of South East European (SEE) countries. That makes the issue of transparency of the process and its all-inclusiveness very relevant. Are civil society organisations well represented in the EU enlargement negotiations?
Judging from the soon-to-be EU member country example – Croatia, not everything is as EU enlargement principles on authorities-civil society partnerships foresaw.
Marina Skrabalo from GONG Research Centre, Croatia, the author of a discussion paper titled Transparency in retrospect: preliminary lessons from Croatia's EU accession process attempted to structure observations on barriers to meaningful participation in the accession process. They were gained from direct engagement with advocacy oriented civil society organizations primarily focusing on democratization, transparency, environmental protection, social inclusion, anti-discrimination, human rights and peace building, all of which made part of the accession obligations.
These are the findings on the key barriers: unknown or unclear “rules of the game” – transparency not operationalised; informal policy of confidentiality, combined with weak legislative framework on freedom of information, hindered attempts to access information on negotiations; urgent and overloaded legislative procedure, combined with weak provisions for public consultations; limited agency of the Parliament to catalyse public deliberation on EU accession and inadequate Government Communication Strategy on EU accession.
Maja Bobic, Secretary General, and Relja Bozic, Associate Researcher, of the European Movement Serbia researched the same issue in Serbia and compared experiences of Croatia and Montenegro. Their results were published in a study titled Civil society in the European integration process – from constructive dialogue to successful negotiations.
Preparations and beginning of negotiations with the EU for candidate countries are an ideal opportunity to improve transparency and inclusion of European integration process, says Bobic.
“This is very significant since it ensures better use of all, the most frequently insufficient, human resources and knowledge in candidate countries. It is also important because it provides democratic legitimacy to this complex process.”
As the study concludes, the negotiations define manner and dynamics of a country’s taking over obligations that automatically become obligations of all interested parties and citizens, which requires timely information sharing.
Taking into account experiences of Croatia and Montenegro, it is necessary to create institutional preconditions and introduce legally-binding involvement of civil society in the EU negotiations process, explains Bozic.
“That is not a formal requirement for the EU membership but represents a great opportunity to lead the process more effectively, qualitatively and finally more transparently. In the end, the citizens express their opinion on the EU membership at the referendum, subject to the effects of civil society’s efforts through promotion of citizens’ interests and information provided on legal and social-economical consequences of the membership.”
Defining a binding legal document, criteria and ways for selection of civil society representatives in the negotiating process are, therefore, a necessity, Bobic and Bozic agree.
Andris Kesteris, Principal Adviser on Civil Society and Media at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Enlargement believes that it would be wise to involve NGOs in the very process of accession negotiations for several reasons.
“In smaller countries, the necessary expertise in matters of the EU law could be found rather with the non-governmental sector than with the state administration. Also, it is crucial in the negotiations to find proper ways of transposing and implementing EU laws and rules so that they do not inflict harm (financial, economic, social, etc.) to the negotiating country.”
Kesteris further adds that in the above context advice from sectoral NGOs on exactly what transitional measures need to be agreed with the EU is very helpful.
“It is also beneficial in terms of ’selling’ the negotiated results to the society and winning the confidence of the people. Cooperation mechanisms between the government and NGOs in accession talks will function best if they build on the already existing consultation arrangements, e.g. established system to regularly consult civil society on the policy issues of its interest."
Aida Daguda, Director of Civil Society Promotion Center from Bosnia and Herzegovina, assesses that, although well aware of marginalisation of civil society’s role in the EU accession negotiations process, civil sector itself is quite responsible for such a situation.
“Civil society organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina have to strengthen theirs expert capacities, increase effectiveness in networking and public appearances with the aim of promoting specific EU reforms.”
According to Daguda, fragmentation of this sector caused by the fight for financing, which makes Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) competitors rather than partners, is another weak point, while the approach to the EU requires a strong front-line of all society forces, in which civil society is one of the leading actors.
Cooperation between authorities and CSOs is yet another opportunity for strengthening civil society in the EU accession process, adds Daguda. She says that despite the signed agreement on cooperation, attempts by several biggest CSO networks, and the good will expressed primarily by the Directorate for European Integration (DEI), the institutional cooperation, unfortunately, does not exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The European integration process is strongly influenced by the quality of regional cooperation. The countries of Western Balkans and primarily the CSOs should view this process through a prism of mutual influences”, concludes Relja Bozic.
To that end, Maja Bobic adds that the role of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) – a body that has an insight into the regional perspective – is extremely important, especially as it can ensure exchange of experiences as well as of good and bad practices in the region, but also together with governments and civil societies of the region, the RCC can get actively involved in defining a minimum required civil society participation in this process.