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Speech - Address to the Western Balkan Civil Society Forum, Commissioner Stefan Füle

European Commission - SPEECH/12/862   26/11/2012

Other available languages: none

European Commission

Stefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood

Address to the Western Balkan Civil Society Forum

4th Western Balkan Civil Society Forum /Zagreb, Croatia

26 November 2012

President Nilsson, Members of the European Economic and Social Committee, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring you up to date on relations between the European Union and countries of the Western Balkans and also on the contribution of civil society to the accession process and European Union support for it.

As you are all aware, last month the European Commission adopted its 2012 enlargement package.

If I may, before turning to civil society issues, I will say a few words about horizontal challenges and the conclusions that we have drawn on individual countries in our strategy paper.

The first challenge is putting the rule of law at the centre of enlargement policy. This is also the theme of the 2012 enlargement package. Countries that wish to become Members of the European Union have to start early on reforms of their judicial and public administration systems, ensuring that strong frameworks are in place to prevent corruption. Their law enforcement bodies need to be provided with the tools to fight and sanction organised crime.

The second horizontal challenge is regional cooperation and reconciliation in the Western Balkans. For this key element of the stabilisation process the enlargement package highlights the urgent need to address a number of open issues including border disputes and other painful consequences of the recent conflict in the region. It also underlines the importance of addressing bilateral issues as early as possible in a good neighbourly spirit so that the accession process is not delayed. We stand ready to help in the search for solutions.

And thirdly – on economic challenges we focus on the need to consolidate economic and financial stability, tackling economic criteria as early as possible in the accession process. The difficulties in the Eurozone and the global financial crisis have shown how interdependent national economies are inside the European Union and beyond. This is where enlargement comes in as it is a powerful tool that drives political and economic reforms.

What does this mean concretely for the countries of the Western Balkans?

Croatia continues to make progress in adopting and implementing European Union legislation and is now completing its alignment with the acquis. The process is now almost over – but not quite. Croatia has to deliver on some concrete tasks before accession. This does not mean that we question Croatia's capacity to be ready for European Union membership on the 1st of July. We are confident that Croatia will deliver.

Croatia's accession is important for the whole of the Western Balkans' region: it shows that reforms lead to tangible results on the path to European Union membership, and that the European Union sticks to its commitments.

Montenegro. The opening of accession negotiations last June reflected continued progress on key reforms. The new approach to 'judiciary and fundamental rights' and 'justice, freedom and security' will see these chapters opened early in Montenegro's accession process, putting the focus on the rule of law. Montenegro needs to further develop its track record in this area especially in the fight against organised crime and corruption. Screening is on-going, to be completed in the summer of 2013 with the possible opening of some chapters.

The Commission has recommended for a fourth time that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We need to show that the European perspective for the country is real. We strongly believe in moving the accession process to the next stage to keep the pace of reforms. The country is well prepared but negotiations are needed for the European Union to engage more deeply on issues such as the rule of law and the fight against organized crime. Moving to the next stage will also help to lock reforms into a dynamic process and strengthen inter-ethnic relations. It is also clear that all communities agree on the need to move towards the European Union.

It is essential that good neighbourly relations with all countries are maintained and that a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue is found under the auspices of the UN.

In Serbia, the leadership is acting on its commitment to pursue the country's European course. The momentum of reforms needs to be reinvigorated. An action plan to follow up on shortcomings in reforms is expected to be adopted in December.

Recent moves regarding Kosovo are encouraging.

Serbia is expected to implement all agreements to date and to engage constructively on the full range of issues in a higher level dialogue facilitated by HRVP Ashton. Criteria for opening of accession negotiations remain the key priority as defined in the 2011 Council conclusions, as endorsed by the European Council. The aim is to achieve normalisation of relations so as to enable both to move on the European Union path and avoid that either could block the other in these efforts.

Albania has made significant progress during the last year, notably on stronger cross-party agreement on the European Union reform process, as well as delivering on a number of substantial reforms in the areas covered by the Commission Opinion's Key Priorities. We are not proposing opening of accession negotiations just yet, but candidate status is within reach.

Kosovo. As part of the package, the Commission adopted a Communication on a Feasibility Study for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo. The study confirms that a Stabilisation and Association Agreement can be concluded between the European Union and Kosovo in a status neutral way.

Kosovo is largely ready to open negotiations for such an agreement. We will propose negotiating directives once Kosovo has addressed a number of short- term priorities that we have identified in key areas. There would be further conditions for concluding the SAA.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has made limited progress towards meeting the political criteria and achieving more functional, coordinated and sustainable institutional structures. The country's representatives need to focus on the implementation of the European Union Roadmap as agreed at the first HLDAP meeting in June. Strong public support in Bosnia and Herzegovina for European Union membership needs to be matched by the political will to reach this goal.

Let me turn now to civil society and its contribution to the accession process by addressing three fundamental questions:

  1. Why does civil society matter?

  2. Where does it matter?

  3. What needs to be done so that it can become more involved in our policy design, programming and monitoring?

I think the role of Civil Society lies in generating ideas, being a bridge between society and the authorities. Civil society provides a way for citizens to get directly involved with the enlargement process. Civil society organisations act as the independent eyes and ears inside enlargement countries and also inside the European Union, calling us to account, representing the views, concerns and aspirations of citizens, and actively supporting and promoting the fundamental values that lie at the heart of our Union.

  1. Active dialogue between civil society and government promotes:

  2. better governance;

  3. transparent political processes;

  4. less corruption; and

  5. confidence in our future partners.

Let me give you a few concrete examples from some of the enlargement countries:

  1. Croatia, through the National Foundation for Civil Society support, has established a model for the harmonisation of funding mechanisms in a more transparent manner, a model that has generated interest throughout the region.

  2. Montenegro has included civil society representatives in the accession negotiating team and in doing so has added to its collective expertise and also to the weight of its proposals.

  3. In Iceland, the main NGOs and interest groups have a direct role in the accession talks through their representatives in the ten negotiation teams that work with the Icelandic negotiation committee.

And on our side, in this year's enlargement strategy communication we have given prominence to the importance of freedom of expression and we have placed a strong emphasis on greater involvement of civil society in the accession process. We have also had a number of discussions in the European Parliament on how best to involve civil society in the process, most recently during last week's plenary debate on Ms Koppa's report on enlargement. I look forward to continuing these discussions.

So, what needs to be done if civil society is to perform its role effectively?

To start with, governments need to create a favourable environment, for example by

  1. adopting legislation to allow NGOs to officially register,

  2. providing incentives to attract donations; and

  3. ensuring that labour laws don't deter young people from participation.

And it is also for Governments and civil society to assume their proper responsibilities. The European Commission can only be a supporting actor and we will continue to do so through IPA II. But our efforts can never replace local and national efforts.

Civil society organisations also have to work on their

  1. credibility;

  2. accountability; and

  3. representativeness

This will allow them to achieve so much more by creating networks and partnerships with like-minded 'grass- roots' organisations, allowing for improved democratic control and issues of more direct concern for citizens to be addressed. This is what we are looking forward to. This is what we will support.

Thank you for your attention.


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