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Interview with Natasha Wunsch, WeBER Advisory Council Member

14. 12. 2018.

Natasha Wunsch, Postdoctoral Researcher, Center for Comparative and International Studies (ETH Zurich), WeBER Advisory Council Member

The WeBER project offers a valuable and objective bottom-up assessment on ongoing reforms in the public administration sector across the region. By complementing international evaluations, WeBER demonstrates both the interest and capacities of local civil society actors to monitor the implementation of key reform processes in their countries and their ability to come together in a regional forum to address common challenges jointly.

What are the main challenges for the Western Balkan countries in the implementation of comprehensive reforms? Why does it take so long?

The Western Balkans have a long road ahead when it comes to fulfilling EU membership conditions. Not only have accession requirements become increasingly detailed and comprehensive over the course of the past enlargement rounds, but the Western Balkans region, due to its recent experience of violence conflict, also faces particular challenges when it comes to demonstrating full preparedness for EU accession. Besides complying with the already extensive conditions set out in the EU acquis, the Western Balkan countries need to resolve persistent and often highly politically sensitive bilateral disputes while implementing comprehensive reforms across multiple sectors. The main challenge is therefore the combination of limited political support for further enlargement on the part of the EU and limited capacities to undertake the steps necessary to complete accession negotiations on the part of the Western Balkans. In light of this dual challenge, the perspective of an EU accession for Serbia and Montenegro by 2025, as mentioned in the Commission’s recent strategy, appears very ambitious.

Regional cooperation appears to still be an issue among Western Balkan countries. In your opinion, how can civil society support strengthening of the regional cooperation, particularly in the context of EU accession process?

 Civil society can play an important role when it comes to promoting cross-border dialogue and engaging in trust-building measures between populations involved in outstanding bilateral disputes. Such activities would prepare the ground for a successful implementation of any political agreement reached between governments and serve to communicate the benefits of regional cooperation to the wider population.

The EU as well is facing important challenges at the moment. What is the role of the civil society in today’s EU and can it contribute to resolving those challenges?

Civil society plays an important rule in connecting political elites to citizens, and can facilitate open dialogue on ongoing political debates. Moreover, civil society can act as a vector for transnational cooperation and build a foundation for initiatives grounded in a European, rather than a narrow nationalist perspective. Still, it is important to recognize that mobilisation occurs not only among reform-minded actors, but on the contrary often involves populist factions from different countries supporting each other in their contestation of the EU’s legitimacy. Those actors in civil society that are seeking to promote a European understanding and a common approach to the manifold challenges European integration faces today therefore find themselves up against considerable opposition.

What is the impact of the WeBER project in the Western Balkan countries and do you think it is sustainable?

The WeBER project offers a valuable and objective bottom-up assessment on ongoing reforms in the public administration sector across the region. By complementing international evaluations, WeBER demonstrates both the interest and capacities of local civil society actors to monitor the implementation of key reform processes in their countries, and their ability to come together in a regional forum to address common challenges jointly. The sustainability of this project will depend on the commitment of the partner organisations and the willingness of external actors to support the ongoing operation of the project. For the region, it would be very valuable to maintain the close ties and invest in the expertise built by the project partners over the past three years.