Guest post from Ana Colovic, Macedonian National Coordinator, Bankwatch.org
Regardless of the EU’s ups and downs, most people in Eastern Europe are still likely to believe that membership can help improve their lives. For pre-accession countries (Western Balkans, Turkey, Iceland), financial assistance from the EU in the form of IPA (the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance) is considered an important opportunity to promote development.
However, the past months have proven that the EU is either not willing or not able to consider the views of the local population in a substantial manner in the structuring of these funds.
Last month, the European Commission presented its proposal for the next long-term EU budget. In the fall, it is expected to come up with more concrete regulations regarding the specific use of regional funds but also of funds destined for pre-accession and neighborhood countries. These proposals come at the end of complex processes of study and negotiations, a significant part of which should be constituted by consultations with stakeholders.
The public consultation process over IPA took place this spring. The consultation was based on an online survey through which civil society organisations and citizens could send their input.
But, in the Western Balkans, the consultation process contained important deficiencies which eventually limited the ability of local citizens and groups to have their say on the future of IPA – and, ultimately, on the direction of development promoted by the EU in their own countries.
To start with, the consultation process was not properly advertised, so some important NGOs were not even aware of its start. In some countries, the time frame for commenting was far too short (11 working days in Croatia, 5 in Macedonia) for groups to be able to come up with a substantial contribution. Support documentation was often not provided, and generally stakeholders (governments, financial institutions, bilateral donors and civil society organisations) were not clearly and equally informed about the process.
Several local groups from Macedonia, Albania and Serbia (member groups of international NGO CEE Bankwatch Network) have addressed the Commission in March – before the end of the consultation period – asking for the consultation process to be improved and the period extended. [LINK: pdf ]
For some reason and despite numerous inquiries in the follow-up of this request, it took the Commission more than 3 months to reply.
The response – coming July 1, too late to make any difference for the consultation process and duration – was not even worth the suspense. The Commission argues that it was unable to prolong the process by more than one week without necessarily explaining the reasons, while at the same time declaring itself satisfied with the number of stakeholders involved in the process (it might be worth mentioning that Bankwatch did submit its position within its initial period – choosing to try to have a say on the future of IPA, but nevertheless remains critical of the process). The Commission adds that it „did not have the time or the resources to organise focus groups or large meetings in the beneficiary countries.” (the correspondence can be consulted in full on the Bankwatch website). [LINK: pdf ]
It also mentions having “deliberately restricted information on the questionnaire to IPA stakeholders as some of the questions were complex, and they all required prior knowledge of IPA’s existing structures and practices.” How inclusive can a citizens’ consultation process be if it assumes from the start that it can exclude quite many of the local citizens and groups because these do not have the necessary expertise?
It remains unclear whether the Commission intended to have a true and participative consultation process or just gather statistical and other information from solely “knowledgeable” representatives. After all, the IPA instrument is a financial tool that affects every citizen of pre-accession countries. A meaningful consultation would therefore mean listening to the demands and opinions of the most affected stakeholders, that is, citizens and civil society organisations.
As things stand, this consultation process was far from open, participatory and meaningful. It certainly did not help bring the people in Western Balkan countries closer to the EU and its values. On the contrary, it raised important questions about how much can the EU finally do for democracy and sustainable development if it does not have the capacity (or willingness?) to listen to its future citizens – in the name of whom, on the other hand, it is quite happy to make decisions.
Guest post from Ana Colovic, Macedonian National Coordinator, BankwatchBlogactiv Team