Civil Society and European Integration Process – Model Selection

Although the modern era limits the conditions and space for democracy, the minimum requirement that still has to be met is a (single) space to freely articulate interests of citizens (civil society) and to call institutions for accountability. There is no doubt that the concepts of democracy and civic engagement get a new characteristic and quality with the integration process within the supranational community such as the European Union. EU integration rearranged the place of CSO activities, requiring action on both levels (national and supranational). Hence, civil society ranks high in EU and national discussion on democracy.

EU launched a series of initiatives aimed at greater transparency, breaking the monopoly over information and ensuring conditions for greater involvement of civil society. The first step was to enable access to unpublished documents, as well as to emphasize the importance of partnership with stakeholders through consultation and participation. Finally, the Treaty of Lisbon provided basis for the CSO’s increased role in policy-making at EU level through introduction of new forms of citizens’ participation – the European Citizens’ Initiative. Alongside with providing conditions for better participation of civil society at the supranational level, the EU has an impact on its adequate positioning at the national level, in the member states or candidate countries. EU constantly insists on improving communication channels between state and non-state actors, conditions for the CSO smooth operation. Such policy encourages political support for civil society empowerment, providing impetus on a regular basis in the official reports of the European Commission and the European Parliament. In some countries, need for improving cooperation between state authorities and civil society was defined as a condition for the start of negotiations for EU membership. As a result of the EU’s conditionality, governments are declaring their commitment to the principle of including civil society in reforms (policy making). This commitment needs to result in improving the legislative framework and practice (participation of civil society in this process). Requirement for intensive inclusion of civil society in the European integration process stems from, among other:

o Need for opening institutions to the public;

o Demand for better informing stakeholders / citizens about the European integration process and the dynamics of reform;

o Importance of improving the quality of public policies, on the basis of external expert support in a highly participatory process of creating regulations and strategic documents (this condition is even more important if one takes into account that the negotiation process implies full harmonization of national legislation with EU legislation);

o Need to improve administrative capacity in small administrations which are limited and cannot be built overnight;

o Necessity of ensuring an impartial and independent evaluation of the reforms (reports of civil society organizations in the context of specific measures to Chapters 23 and 24, relating to the rule of law, are even cited as source verification for progress in the negotiation process).

In view of Western Balkan countries, there are various models of civil society participation in the European integration process. These models range from those that take place through the institutions, to less formal and sustainable, which depend on donor support and specific prerequisites for action. EU does not affect the model of civil society participation, but only intensity and quality. And, indeed, it is visible greater mobilization and the more active role of civil society from gaining the candidate status of the country, and it is particularly strong during the negotiation process. Bearing in mind the topic of this paper, we will deal only with those models that were created within this specific context and time frame (EU integration/negotiations). Standard models of participation will be treated only through the grouping challenges that CSOs face in their work. Therefore, we will briefly outline three models of the civil society participation in the European integration process/negotiations: joint actions by the coalitions and the conventions, as well as direct participation in the negotiation working groups. In line with the prioritization chapters 23 and 24 by the European Union, and a new approach that allows comprehensive monitoring of these most challenging areas of the EU legislation during the entire negotiation process, the greatest interest of civil society organization is exactly for this negotiation chapters. Thus, for example, coalitions of NGOs that monitor Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) are formed in Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia,5 mostly along the lines of the coalition that was established and operated in Croatia, just months before the closing of the EU accession negotiations. Unlike Montenegro and Macedonia, coalition in Serbia also monitors the negotiations under Chapter 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security). However, the specificity of the negotiation process for each of the countries, civil society development, and the existence of several non-governmental organizations that specialize in specific sector-policies, influences the association of non-governmental organizations to also tackle other negotiation chapters. So recently coalition for monitoring negotiations within the chapter 27, relating to environmental protection, was established in Montenegro. These three countries (Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) show that the level of transparency and openness of the process (since it is different from country to country) is not crucial for this type of association. Basic method for articulating coalition’s findings and recommendations so far are monitoring reports highlighting the degree of fulfillment of reforms with defined criteria by EU. Advantage of this model means that numerous organizations dealing with different areas in more holistic way can look at the entire chapter and offer a more comprehensive assessment on the fulfillment of the criteria in that particular chapter. Organization and functioning of the coalition largely depends on the funds allocated for their work. For example, pace of activity can be, and often is, higher if there is a project framework for the action and predefined activities in a specified period. Together with the need of coordinated action and non-use of the coalition in order to promote the activities of individual members, this can be one of the biggest challenges for the functioning. Actually, even if this model is suitable for financing, funding on “long run” it depends on the method of funding that is provided by the statute, (who may submit a project proposal on behalf of the coalition), but also on the program priorities of the organization that has the power to compete. However, established coalitions need to find a sustainable model of funding that will support permanent joint action, with minimal costs (transport, space for meetings, etc.).

Stronger involvement of the civil sector (compared to participation in working groups for law changes) is direct participation in the negotiation working groups. Decision on establishing the negotiating structure do not have to directly foresee, but have to leave the possibility for the participation of non-state actors. Selection process has to be based on public invitation and transparent criteria. Although Croatia also was familiar with this model (where representatives of trade unions and academia were members of the negotiation working groups, but not representatives of NGOs), it is widely used in Montenegro. Since the adoption of the Decision on the Montenegrin negotiation structure in February 2012, the Government has included 49 NGO representatives in the negotiation working groups. Montenegrin model of CSOs direct participation in the negotiation working groups is even more interesting having in mind that their mission was not determined after the preparation of negotiating positions and action plans for opening negotiations on individual chapters (as it was the case with the working groups during the previous enlargements). Namely, Montenegro redefined the role of negotiation working groups and expanded its task to monitor the action plans implementation (to be implemented until the end of the negotiation process). Therefore, this monitoring model is (or could be) even more transparent, with representatives from outside the government, thus enabling better control of the process. However, representatives of NGOs never had full access to information held by the Working Group (reports of expert missions, the opinions of the European Commission on key legislation, the statistics, which the working group is sending to the EC with reports on the implementation of the Action Plan for Chapter 23, etc.).

In addition, transparency in the most demanding chapters 23 and 24 is further limited by the “nature” of negotiation structure. In fact, at the same time with the decision to expand the jurisdiction of the working groups, the government established a new body that controls and monitors the progress of negotiations on chapters 23 and 24 while representatives of NGOs cannot attend its meetings. Moreover, the possibility for direct influence on the content of the documents prepared by the negotiation-working groups (primarily the screening lists, negotiating positions, action plans and reports on the implementation of action plans) is also significantly limited by the composition of the working group (NGO proposals are usually outvoted). On the other hand, the biggest advantage of this model is precisely “look from the inside”. NGO representatives communicate directly problems in transparency, coordination, communication and reporting to the outside: the public, the European Commission and other interested parties. The most important results of the civil society representatives in the working groups achieved so far is improving transparency of the process, and providing chance to other entities to submit comments on the measures and the content of the documents under the Chapter 23 (putting pressure on competent institutions to organize public hearing).

The national conventions model has emerged in Slovakia in 2001, have been successfully implemented by all the Visegrad countries, and taken lately by the Western Balkan countries, namely Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. National convention in Serbia is a permanent body established in 2006 and as thematically structured debate that gather leading representatives of public administration, political parties, NGOs, experts, businesses, trade unions and professional organizations. Working groups for all negotiation chapters are chaired by civil society organizations specialized in these areas. Convention provides regular consultations; define opinions, conclusions and recommendations on negotiating positions, represents space for open dialogue. Unlike Serbia, the working groups in Montenegro are coordinated by one organization, but the working principle is the same. An extensive consultation of various branches and governance levels with other important stakeholders is the major contribution of this model. The biggest disadvantage is reflected in the fact that defined conclusions and recommendations usually lose their sharpness due to the need of finding a consensus within various stakeholders.

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Regardless the model of civil society involvement during the European integration process, the problems that still limit its role can be grouped as follows:

Irregular and poor consultation process – Restrictions range from irregular or organizing public hearings only for specific legislation; still avoiding inclusion of civil society in the working teams to monitor the implementation of important strategic documents; drafting incomplete reports from the public hearing, due to the fact that very often it is not possible to get the full reasoning why a particular proposal was not accepted.

Lack of transparency – Although the transparency of the European integration process (particularly negotiations) has been significantly increased and improved compared to the previous “waves of accession”, there are still serious concerns: lack of transparency caused by placing the label “internal” by the state authorities, even for those documents where there is no legal basis for such practice, but also by the European Commission declaring, among other things, reports of its expert missions as ”property” and deciding in each case whether or not to publish it. Further, transparency is limited by: imprecise and biased reporting on the implementation of the key documents in the EU integration process/ negotiations; data that is usually not in an electronic readable form; inability for interested parties to attend meetings of the executive bodies; untimely disclosure of information by public authorities.

Unsustainable funding from domestic funds – Funding from state funds is limited both in terms of the sum and areas that can be supported.

European integration process is a demanding and concerns the whole society. As such, it encourages the strengthening of both – state and non-state actors. EU conditionality policy provides an incentive for proper positioning of stakeholders. Based on such policy civil society in the Western Balkans is increasingly mobilizing. Their interests are articulated through various models of participation. Although state institutions are more and more open, cooperation between the Government and civil society is still burdened with many challenges.