Western Balkans Civil Society Forum

The prospect of EU membership drives transformation in the Western Balkans. The enlargement process is a fundamental tool to carry out necessary reforms. Of course this means asking big change, also of mentality. We need to realise that takes time and there is no such thing as a free ride. But in fact, the EU also has something big to offer. Let us not forget, that EU reforms are achieved, not only at the EU’s request, but because they are in the interest of the citizens of the Balkans. They cannot wait for corruption to stop, for the judiciary to be truly independent. A continued focus on strengthening rule of law, including security, fundamental rights, democratic institutions and a stronger role for civil society in participating in such reforms, are key priorities for the entire region.

EU integration, with a focus on the rule of law and human rights is the common goal of all Dutch embassies in the region. For that reason we decided to start a regional rule of law pilot. Each embassy has a local legal expert, and one diplomat who functions as regional coordinator, based in Belgrade. Together they report and assess, for instance to our colleagues in Brussels, the Rule of law developments in the region. We focus on what connects the region in terms of rule of law and what is needed to move the EU integration agenda forward. All countries need more independent institutions for instance.

Let me share some success stories in the area of rule of law in the region. Last July, Albania unanimously adopted constitutional amendments which provide the right framework for a justice system reform. It is now high time to implement them. Macedonia and Montenegro have moved forward in creating Special Prosecution Offices, set up to fight corruption and criminal conduct by public officials. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo alike, have all intensified their efforts to solve war crimes’ conflicts.

All these countries have strengthened their framework to fight corruption and organized crime. Success stories cannot however remain limited to passing new legislation. A solid track record of actual investigations, prosecutions and court cases is needed. Actions should be beyond any doubt. Big fish need to be caught. Transparency and accountability is necessary. What is needed to fight corruption is leaders showing the right example and a zero-tolerance policy and practice.

I am glad to see a rise in civil society engagement in the rule of law. This is after all a priority highlighted by the Berlin process itself. Not only has civil society become a promoter of legal reforms, but its engagement has also produced positive results at the regional level. Still, often a finger is pointed towards the international community, we are asked to do more. But as much as we love your countries, we will never be able to love them as much as you, citizens of the Balkans, do. And as much as we want to work together for change in the Balkans, in fact you, as Balkan citizens need to make that change happen. I call on you to be even more active as watch dogs, to speak up, to get even more organised together.

Let me share with you some examples of good cooperation in the region:

Civil society monitoring of public administration reform by the European Policy Center. The main goal is to increase the influence of civil society and media in the public administration reform in all six countries of the Western Balkans.

A project on prosecutorial investigation in the Western Balkans is implemented in Serbia and Montenegro. The aim is to support efficient administration of the criminal justice system, through exchange of regional experience.

Pointpulse is a network of seven civil society organizations, created to monitor the state of police integrity in law enforcement agencies in the Western Balkans and advocate for policy changes for tackling police corruption.

Certainly, examples of good cooperation make us proud. At the same time, they should motivate us to address what else is needed to bridge the gap between the Western Balkans and the EU. I think that freedom of expression and independence of the media remains a particular concern in most enlargement countries. Progress in this area is necessary. We need more media outlets such as BIRN, which is another positive example.

The proper and independent functioning of democratic institutions is crucial and needs to be deeply rooted in the political culture. Guaranteeing human rights should remain an absolute common objective for the entire region. The Western Balkans is a region that has shown an incredible ability to rise beyond conflicts and find common grounds for progress. And that is exactly the reason why I am confident that with hard work from all actors we will be able to continue to bring the Western Balkans to where it belongs: integrated in the EU.