The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), representing the economic and social interests of organised civil society in the European Union (EU), has strongly and consistently supported the enlargement of the European Union to the six Western Balkans countries provided they fulfil all the necessary criteria for membership. It has been actively involved in the following and the monitoring of the enlargement process for each individual country through its strong and efficient network with the region's civil society, the publication of a number of opinions important for the region and reactions to developments as regards accession negotiations.
As the role and the voice of the civil society are vital for making any tangible progress on issues and values at the very core of the European Union, the EESC wishes to make the present declaration as its contribution to the political leaders participating to the Western Balkans Summit on 6 May 2020.
The European Economic and Social Committee:
- congratulates the Croatian Presidency on its commitment to holding the EU-Western Balkans Summit despite the unprecedented context in which the region, the European Union and the whole world are currently evolving;
- in line with its declaration of 26 March 2020, supports the Council's decision to give the green light to the opening of the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, while stressing that both countries needed to speed up and show serious efforts in implementing the necessary reforms for their accession. The EESC is convinced that the effective enlargement of the European Union and the promotion of its values in the countries of the Western Balkans ensure security and stability, enhance social and economic development and prosperity, consolidate democracy and the rule of law, facilitate the free movement of people and goods, stimulate investment policy and foster mobility. In that respect, a functioning social and civil dialogue at national level is very important;
- welcomes the European Union's efforts to help the Western Balkans to deal with the current COVID‑19 crisis and cushion its social and economic impact, including the aid package as detailed in the communication on the global EU response to COVID-19, and the proposal for a macro-financial assistance (MFA) package, while stressing the importance of a constructive social dialogue and inclusion of social partners;
- stresses the vital importance and calls for action of all national and European authorities to make sure that the place, the funding and the role of the civil society in the Western Balkans, as well as the European Union, do not get compromised in the crises recovery process, the civil society being a core actor of any true democracy. This is especially important in countries with weak state institutions and weak democratic checks and balances. The role of civil society, including social partners, in the relief of the crisis should therefore be facilitated and supported;
- encourages national authorities to insist upon democratic principles and international best practices in emergency measures affecting civic freedoms. Civil society's role in the monitoring of proportionality of emergency measures and the pathway towards lifting restrictions should be essential in providing checks and balances to the executive power;
- supports the recommendations of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, stressing the importance of reforms with fully-fledged membership as the final goal, calling for more engagement with Western Balkans countries, more efforts to counter corruption, reforming democratic institutions and judiciary and promote regional cooperation, and transparent, proportionate and non-discriminatory access to pre-accession funding;
- strongly welcomes the action of the European Commission and especially the general framework of the revised accession methodology for the Western Balkans, rendering the process more predictable, more credible, more dynamic and subject to stronger political steer;
- strongly welcomes the cluster approach with a particular emphasis on the Fundamentals cluster, as this should optimise the negotiation process, while ensuring that progress on the fundamentals determines the overall pace of negotiations;
- regretfully takes note of the insufficient recognition of the vital role of the civil society, especially in view of the specific political, economic and social contexts in the Western Balkans where the role of the organised civil society needs to be strengthened if the process is to be meaningful;
- looks forward to seeing more precise information on the ways in which Serbia and Montenegro could 'opt in', as their association could inject more dynamism into the process, but stresses that both countries need to make more tangible progress on the Fundamentals;
- encourages EU integration process of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while calling upon the authorities to adopt a new Action plan for implementation of 14 priorities mentioned in the Commission's Opinion published in May 2019 for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Support should be provided to conduct consultative process with the civil society to better target issues related to building democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
- supports a higher degree of involvement of the Member states in the negotiations, but calls for a well-established framework to avoid unnecessary disruptions to the process and ensure consistency at EU level;
- calls for high-level civil society conferences or forums to be organised just before, or as side events to, regular EU-Western Balkans Summits in order to feed them with the voice of the civil society on subjects that the summits will tackle, as it is vital to ensure objective bottom‑up monitoring of progress in the negotiating process;
- welcomes the merit-based approach of the revised methodology, but calls for an equal balance between incentives and sanctions, and a fair conditionality of accession negotiations;
- considers that merit in a merit-based approach can be measured and sufficiently well-defined only with an appropriate involvement of the civil society
- calls on the Commission to strengthen the role of the organised civil society in the future stages of developing, implementing and monitoring of the revised strategy, including the Economic and Investment Development Plan for the Western Balkans;
- considers that organised civil society, including social partners, from the Western Balkans must be included in a wider dialogue on European integration, and civic voices from the region should be represented at the Conference on the Future of Europe;
- expresses concern about the shrinking space for civil society in certain countries in the Western Balkans and encourage the authorities in the Western Balkans to enhance their efforts to ensure respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights, judicial reform, the fight against corruption and the independence of journalists and freedom of the press.
- strongly believes that the Western Balkans should align and be included in important European policies and initiatives, which, by their very geographical situation, is particularly the case with the European New Green Deal, and stresses the importance of a robust Green Agenda for the Western Balkans in the framework of the Economic Development and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, as it is in the interest of both the European Union and the Western Balkans; considers that the recovery from the universal Covid-19 health, economic and social crisis should include green policies as part of the EU’s post-pandemic response;
- stresses that civil society has a particularly important role to play in the transition towards a greener and more sustainable society and that its role in shaping and implementing measures to promote a smart and intelligent, circular and low-carbon economy based on the approach of a fair transition is vital;
- believes that the challenges that the countries of the Western Balkans face as regards decarbonisation, depollution of air, water and soil, connectivity and climate change can be turned into opportunities, a Green Deal, by learning and using alternative approaches to facilitate a just transition, circular economy, waste management, greener energy and connectivity solutions, and that greener and cleaner ecosystems are conducive to economic prosperity for the citizens;
- while stressing the importance of individual merit, fully supports intra-regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and calls for a rapid resolution of bilateral disputes as a precondition for accession;
- remains committed to continuing its firm engagement to ensure that the voice of the civil society is heard, as its role is vital for any tangible progress of the Western Balkans on their European path.
Brussels, 28 April 2020
The president of the EESC External Relation Section