There are three reasons why the civil society of the Western Balkans is included in the Berlin Process – first, the reforms required for the infrastructure and other sizeable projects of regional cooperation require social consensus, to enable political continuity after power shifts; the consensus is hard to achieve without inclusion in policy creation and implementation of expert associations, organisations advocating for various citizens’ interests, business associations and other non-state actors. The second reason is that civil society often harbours the expertise that may be useful to state administrations, and considerable track record in areas relevant to European integration, and can therefore assist or serve as corrective to the administrations. The third reason why the civil society of the Western Balkans is included in the Berlin Process is its flexibility when it comes to regional cooperation – because while the cooperation of the regional governments is burdened with administrative demands and procedures, the cooperation of civil sector organisations is easily and quickly set up and put to work, which truly connects people.
Due to these three reasons, the need to include the civil society in the Berlin Process has been recognized since its beginning, in the Declaration after the Summit in Berlin, three years ago, and the cooperation of the civil sector and state actors has been given shape one year after that, through the Civil Society Forum of the Berlin Process. In this way, the Berlin Process, as currently the most important format of cooperation of the Western Balkans region with the European Union was added the civic participation component, and the Forum became the central platform through which the region’s civil sector influences the regional political processes.
The inclusion of citizens was not only formal – it yielded concrete results. Hence, the Vienna Summit two years ago brought a Declaration on bilateral issues, followed by two intergovernmental agreements, as a result of an initiative of the civil sector. This year’s Declaration after the Summit in Trieste reiterated the importance of the civil society as “independent, active, engaged and respected partner, contributing to the informed choice of political leaders, policy implementation and a better perception of public opinion expectations”. More importantly, the Declaration’s chapters dealing with topics such as bilateral issues, rule of law, youth cooperation and SMEs development are considerably in line with the Civil Society Forum recommendations, as is the Declaration’s emphasis on the importance of involving the civil society of the region in building of communication narratives to counter extremist and ideological influences.