EESC chief: Western Balkans’ EU path driven by civil society empowerment

Luca Jahier: “Citizens need to own the process so that they can shape it in a sustainable way." [euranet_plus/Flickr]

The success of the accession process of the Western Balkan countries needs “meaningful involvement” of civil society organisations in the integration process, Luca Jahier, president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), told EURACTIV.

Luca Jahier, an Italian national, was recently elected as the 32nd president EESC, the EU body representing organised civil society, which he will head for the next two and a half years.

“Only if citizens are aware that the accession to EU will improve their quality of life and that of their children, we’ll see a positive outcome,” Jahier emphasised.

He explained that for these reasons it’s crucial that civil society organisations in the Western Balkans work closely together, both at national and local levels to demand citizens’ involvement.

“Citizens need to own the process so that they can shape it in a sustainable way,” he added.

As for the EESC’s role in this procedure, Jahier noted it would continue to develop its bilateral and regional relations with civil society organisations in the region in order to strengthen civil society networks and therefore contribute to the consolidation of democracy.

Deep concerns

EESC’s chief explained that there was “deep concern” about the shrinking space for civil society in an increasing number of countries in the Western Balkans.

“EU enlargement policy must focus more on democratisation, the rule of law, intra-regional cooperation and the building of trust, as well as a more structured and systematic approach in terms of civil society participation.”

He insisted that freedom of expression and free media are prerequisites for establishing solid democracies and allowing a vibrant civil society to develop.

“Civil society must be vocal and take the lead in denouncing the negative developments in the region in relation to freedom of expression, such as political pressure on the media,” he emphasised.

EESC and the European Commission organised yesterday (15 May) in Sofia a conference about the cohesion of the Western Balkan region and set a number of recommendations that will be submitted to EU leaders ahead of a crucial EU-Western Balkans summit on 17 May.

“Social, economic and territorial cohesion should be assessed when evaluating the fulfillment of EU membership criteria,” the participants noted.

They also raised a number of issues, ranging from quality education and necessary economic reforms to the protection of minorities and the empowerment of women.

Weak labor markets

According to World Bank figures, youth unemployment remains “critically high” in the region.

“Unemployment declined during 2017 by an estimated 200,000 people, from 23 to 21%, but inactivity remains high, especially among women, the low-educated, and youth. In addition, informal employment and long-term unemployment remain a significant challenge in the region,” the World Bank said.

Mirna Jusić, from the Analitika Center for Social Research in Bosnia and Herzegovina told EURACTIV that the region suffers from high income inequality, caused in large part by weak labour markets.

This inevitably leads to the so-called ‘brain drain’ phenomenon.

“The recent years a strong trend of immigration has been remarked. In the long run, this will have devastating effects on the economies of these countries for their growth and competitiveness,” she said.

Jusić underlined that the EU should focus on “investing more in active labor market policies, in quality education so that people in the region really have the benefit of decent jobs with adequate income and quality public services.”

Give an end to domestic violence

Another crucial element of the discussion was the role of women in Western Balkan societies and particularly the lack of sufficient institutional response to domestic violence.

Iliriana Banjska from Kosovo Women’s Network noted that the time has come to impose more punitive measures.

“We need to send the message to perpetrators that domestic violence will be prosecuted, to send a message to underperforming responsible institutions that failing to adhere to operational procedures in relation to domestic violence will be scrutinised.”

“When we talk about the Western Balkans, we tend to fall into a trap of exotifying certain phenomena such as domestic violence: “This is part of our culture”, “this is a result of the wars” etc,” she said.

She explained that domestic violence is a worldwide issue but the difference with Western Balkans institutions fails to address it sufficiently.

“For the Western Balkans, this remains to be the biggest challenge to tackle. Insufficient confidentiality, victim-blaming and attempts at family reconciliation remain prevalent.”

“Civil society organisations working on the promotion and protection of women’s rights should be recognised as important partners in conducting comprehensive and systematic reforms aimed at achieving gender equality in practice,” commented Jahier.

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