One of the biggest problems for the Western Balkans in the last years has been the lack of visibility of the work done through cooperation within the region. This was stressed by Jelica Minic at the presentation of Advocacy Strategy for the EU Integration of the Western Balkans – Guidelines, organized by the Albanian Institute for International Studies at Tirana Times Book House.
Minic, President of the Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia said this lack of visibility and decreasing support to further enlargement, on the other side, was the starting point for the establishment of the Western Balkans 6 Advocacy Group and launching of the its portal wb6.info. The main goal was to improve the image of the region through better dissemination of good news and its achievements in the EU integration and regional cooperation. According to Minic the idea behind the Advocacy Group is also to develop a level of solidarity in the European integration process. It is expected that if one of the Western Balkan 6 would be integrated first in the EU a strengthened regional approach would prevent it from blocking the others in the accession process. Media coverage of the region is filled with bad news. “No one was interested about the good news”, she said. This was the environment in which the project started. “Only by appearing together, as a regional block, we can make the difference and improve our negotiating position”, she said. The Western Balkan region is an important region, according to Minic, and there is no political vacuum in it. “If the EU were not present others would be”, she said.“We are the inner yard of the European Union, not its backyard or front yard, as the refugee crisis demonstrated”.It is important to stress that the Advocacy Group wants to act at the regional level. “We want to appear together only in the areas where there is clear common ground and when we can address issues of regional relevance”. This is the first time in the history of the region where all have the same goal – the EU integration.
This point was also stressed by Mimoza Halimi, Director of the Europe and Central Asia Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She said that the road towards EU has not been easy and short. It has become more demanding, but, according to her this should not frighten the Western Balkan countries, because “it is the only choice we have”, she said. The regional cooperation which this advocacy group promotes aims to ease the region’s road towards the EU. Halimi said that “it is important to advocate how good we are, what we have done to fulfill the criteria and to show to the EU why this region is important”. The road towards the EU has become more difficult because of its internal problems: the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, migrants, Brexit, the rise of euro-skepticism. She emphasized the fact that the enlargement policy has been still there on the EU agenda. It is important to have the feeling that the process is going forward.
Michal Vit, researcher at Europeum, a think tank in Czech Republic, speaking on behalf of the Visegrad Group also said that it was important to keep the enlargement on the EU agenda. The Western Balkan region should focus on regional cooperation, not bilateral disputes.“We should not focus on nations only” he said. It is important to cooperate and work together. The Visegrad Group can assist the Western Balkan region when it comes to the cooperation.
Gjergj Murra, Executive Director of the Western Balkans Fund, said that the fact that 6 think tanks were coming together revealed maturity of the civil society in the region and its capacity to be faster in some areas than the governments. He said that the Western Balkan Fund was created according to the model of Visegrad Fund. It is dedicated to the cooperation of the civil society sector in the region. It will support initiatives coming from the civil society. This was the first time, he said, that the governments in the region decided to support jointly the civil society.
Sara Kelmendi of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, in her presentation of the Advocacy Strategy for the EU Integration of the Western Balkans – Guidelines said that the need to make an additional effort to support the EU integration of the Western Balkans came because of the circumstances of the European Union in the last years. Eight think tanks (4 from Visegrad group and 4 from WB countries) conducted a year-long research to learn about the use of tools of public advocacy in support to EU accession. The research demonstrated that the tools of advocacy (i.e. preparation and dissemination of policy proposals, communication campaigns, lobbying and all other methods used by state and non-state actors in attempts to influence the decision-making process) have been significantly less used for fostering the Western Balkans EU integration, in comparison to the level of their use during the accession process of the Visegrad countries, in spite of the less favorable circumstances of enlargement today.
WB6 Advocacy Group is a regional initiative of the 6 think tanks, which will work to rally WB administrations, civil society, media, educational institutions, business associations and other stakeholders to jointly advocate for EU integration and regional cooperation in the matters of regional scope and of regional relevance.The Advocacy Group will address those issues where civil society can play an important role in addressing the wider public in the EU, Member States and in the Western Balkans, bringing an added value to the work of public administrations in the area of advocacy.During 2017, the Group will work to simultaneously raise the awareness and capacities of the key advocacy actors in the region (administrations and parliaments), as well as other actors (civil society, business associations, institutions of culture, education and media) and in cooperation with them finalize the content and the coordinating mechanisms of the joint advocacy approach – within the final Strategy document – and set off with its implementation. Political support of the governments in the region, necessary for implementation of the Strategy, will be mobilized through their active involvement in development and implementation of the initiative, and through their participation in the Advisory Board of the Group. Support will also be sought from the existing regional initiatives and from donors.
In the big picture, the role of the Group will be to facilitate the finalization and implementation of the regional Advocacy Strategy for the EU integration of the Western Balkans.