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In order to EU enlargement process be more beneficial to it future citizens from the Western Balkans, NALAS and BCSDN (Balkan Civil Society Development Network) organized a workshop on the 5th of March in Brussels.

The workshop titled “A new bottom-up approach to bring the EU closer to its future citizens: Rethinking the EU Support to Local Authorities and Civil Society in the Western Balkans” gathered over 30 representatives from relevant EU institutions and from CSOs and Local Authority Associations from the Western Balkans. In two-panel sessions “Learning from the past, preparing for the future: bringing the EU and its future citizens closer together” and “Making the most out of the new IPA III: how to further strengthen and empower key non-state actors in the Western Balkans” participants exchanged views and specific proposals.

The workshop was opened with welcome remarks by NALAS Executive Director – Kelmend Zajazi and BCSDN’s Policy Advocacy Officer – Biljana Spasovska and keynote addresses by Ms. Alessandra Viezzer, Deputy Head of Unit in the DG NEAR and by Mr. Frédéric Vallier, Secretary-General of the Council of European municipalities and regions.

Ms. Viezzer noted that the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans is a top priority for the Commission. She noted that with the new methodology, the Commission is committed to strengthening and improving the accession process in which they see a stronger role for civil society. The key message in the first panel was that now, with the reinvigorated commitment of the European Commission, the new methodology and at the start of the planning of the new IPA, is the right time the EU accession process to be re-directed towards and for the benefit of the citizens.

Mr. Zajazi pointed out the need for the EU to make the accession process more than an administrative checklist but to provide tangible improvements for the everyday lives of citizens. He emphasized specific role of LGs as both beneficiaries and stakeholders of the pre-accession assistance, which should be acknowledged and reflected in new enlargement developments and EU financial support instruments to Western Balkans. Therefore, involvement of LGs in implementation of EU policies is crucial in maintaining positive attitude of citizens towards accession process, having in mind recent setbacks in opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. He expressed hope that this decision will be revoked and full support for the Western Balkans will be enforced to re-establish and speed up European path of these countries as well as other EU candidate countries.

BCSDN called on the Commission for stronger involvement of non-state actors in the process and for re-affirmed commitment and political support for empowering civil society.

The second panel of the workshop was devoted to a discussion about the new Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance which is currently under development by the Commission and presentation of key messages of NALAS-BCSDN Position paper on IPA III. Key messages on the panel were delivered from BCSDN by Ms. Juliana Hoxha, Director at Partners Albania, and Mr. Darko Mrvaljevic, NALAS Regional EU expert.

BCSDN urged the Commission for more systematic, and political support for the strengthening of civil society enabling environment and provided concrete recommendations for improving the modalities of assistance.

Mr. Mrvaljevic presented key challenges LGs have been faced in IPA II programme, as well as lessons learnt during implementation of EU funds. He emphasised lack of direct access of LGs to IPA funds as obstacle for better utilization of EU funds on local level. He proposed that EU Commission envisage direct support to existing regional cooperation initiatives of LGs (NALAS) in line with on-going support for its counterparts on national level and CSOs. Also, direct access of LGs to new IPA III instrument will foster implementation of European values and standards in local communities reflecting relevant EU policies, upgrading public services and provide insights into EU standards with positive effect on visibility and benefits of EU accession to citizens. He called upon EU Commission to further insist on strengthening role of LGs in design, implementation and monitoring of IPA III programmes, providing official and meaningful role of LGs as well as local ownership of results.

From the DG NEAR Mr. Massimo Mina, The Team Leader for Programming of IPA III had also intervention providing insight into the current stages of the planning of the IPA III.

Finally, the workshop concluded with recommendations for all stakeholders to support cooperation between civil society and local authorities being the ones closest to the citizens on the ground.