On 19-20 October 2023, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organized the 9th Western Balkans Civil Society Forum in Thessaloniki, just a few weeks ahead of the European Commission’s Enlargement Package and the New Growth Plan. The event brought together around 120 participants, including a broad range of civil society representatives from the EU and the Western Balkans, as well as representatives of EU institutions, international organisations and governments of the region. The Forum reflected on the renewed momentum for the region to join the EU, in view of the current geopolitical situation and a clear commitment of EU leaders to the enlargement policy.
The first session of the forum focused on assessing the relations between the EU and the Western Balkan region in light of the 2023 Enlargement package and ongoing democratic developments. Key points of discussion included the impact of geopolitical shifts on the Western Balkans and the EU’s enlargement policy, obstacles faced by the region in their accession path, the role of civil society, and ways to monitor civil society progress.
Mr. Oliver Röpke, the President of EESC, emphasized the EESC role in EU enlargement, welcoming members from candidate countries, especially the Western Balkans, and acknowledging their importance as democratic watchdogs crucial for successful accession negotiations.
As one of the speakers of the inaugural session, BCSDN Executive Director, Ms. Biljana Spasovska highlighted concerning developments in Republika Srpska (BiH), such as legislation targeting dissent, including repressive amendments to the Criminal Code and a proposed “foreign agents’ law.” She also emphasized broader regional challenges, such as shrinking civic space and media attacks, sporadic consultations, notable decline in CSOs’ cooperation with the governments, limited involvement in the monitoring and implementation process of the European policies, restricted access to foreign funding and information. Ms. Biljana Spasovska highlighted the importance of amplifying the voice of civil society in the Western Balkans’ EU accession. She stressed the need for effective collaboration between the EU, governments, and CSOs to shape policies that benefit citizens.
The second session explored the state of education, youth policies, and skills development in the Western Balkans, emphasizing necessary reforms in the education system, reasons behind youth emigration, and strategies to integrate them into the labor market. The final session explored the role of social partners and CSOs in implementing the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans and the SEE2030 Strategy, addressing challenges, opportunities, and areas requiring additional support for a successful transition to a sustainable economy in the region. Discussions also emphasized the collaborative efforts of the EU and the Western Balkans in pursuing common objectives to advance the accession process.
The forum concluded adopting a Declaration as a step towards the European Commission’s Enlargement package expected in November and the EU-Western Balkans Summit in December. These conclusions, reached through consensus, will shape the EESC’s actions concerning the region from 2023 to 2025, uniting the perspectives of civil society groups from the Western Balkans and the EU on common concerns.