By Natalia Shapovalova & Eleonora Tafuro
The European Union (EU) aims to engage with and strengthen civil society in its neighbourhood by encouraging its participation in policy-making, both at the national and international level, and by spreading democratic ideas and practices, so that civil society actors can help transformation at home. Supporting a civil society forum, allowing for interactions among civil societies from EU and neighbouring countries, is a practical example of this effort.
|Courtesy of EaPCSF|
This piece focuses on two fora that exist in the East – the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (EU-Russia CSF). In early October, the EaP CSF gathered for the fifth time and the EU-Russia CSF held its fourth meeting. After attending the annual assemblies of both fora, it is time to take stock.
Both initiatives have developed into a recognisable brand for civil society cooperation in wider Europe supported by the EU. In the case of the EaP CSF, its very establishment, promoted by the European Commission, intended to create a civil society counterpart to the EaP’s inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary structures. Its assemblies are usually opened by Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle and top level diplomats from EU member states. The EU-Russia CSF was a bottom-up initiative of Russian and mainly German civil society organisations (CSOs) that later found support of the European Commission. The fora have established permanent structures – a steering committee and working groups – to allow for continuous work. EaP CSF has six national platforms in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to organise work at the country-level and since 2013 there is a small Secretariat in Brussels. The EU-Russia CSF is also considering setting up a secretariat.
Both fora attract great interest among civil society actors in the region, judging by the high number of applications from EaP countries and Russia. EU-based organisations, however, seem less active, participating more as observers. The fact that both fora took place in the same week, but thousands of kilometres apart, in this case did not help as EU organisations interested in Eastern neighbours had to choose between the two.
Both initiatives have some common drawbacks. Too much time during the assemblies is still dedicated to procedural issues, leaving little space to discuss content – common projects, experiences exchange, policy monitoring, research and advocacy. The work of the EaP CSF Steering Committee, which gathers several times a year, is also overwhelmed with operational rather than strategic initiatives. Moreover, the frequent rotation of the members of the EaP CSF Steering Committee lead to institutional memory loss. There is more institutional continuity in the EU-Russia CSF.
In the case of the EaP CSF, a real linkage between the forum’s working groups and the four EaP multilateral platforms is lacking. Civil society representatives are invited to inter-governmental meetings, but they can hardly influence the agenda. In the case of the EU-Russia CSF, its impact on the Russian government is practically inexistent. In this sense, the fora are more about civil society interactions than policy influence.
Both fora bring together diverse groups, from human rights and environmental groups to trade unions, from well-established NGOs from the capitals to grassroots rural organisations. EU-based organisations usually work in a very different environment with broader political and financial support for their activities. The situation of Eastern European civil society, however, varies greatly. In Azerbaijan and Belarus, civil society activists are often put behind bars, while in Moldova and Georgia they attend governmental meetings and help draft laws. It is a huge challenge for such a diverse group from such different contexts to speak ‘one language’ and with one voice when dealing with the EU. While diversity should be a strength, so far it has rather weakened the fora. Eastern European CSOs are very inward-looking and find it difficult to think in terms of overarching regional priorities.
The lack of a clear strategy is visible in both fora. At the October EU-Russia CSF, participants were divided, with some arguing for a firmer focus on Russia’s problems and the recent backlash against civil society, and others advocating for common EU-Russia goals such as visa-free travel or fight against corruption. The EaP CSF faces a new challenge given the progressive differentiation of the relationships between individual EaP countries with the EU. While some EaP countries have or will have an advanced relationship with the EU through Association Agreements and deep free trade areas, others have chosen cooperation over integration or have very limited interaction with the EU at all.
What is clear is that the potential of both fora can be better exploited. Neither initiative has fully taken the opportunity to become a strong representative of Eastern European civil society in the EU or in their home countries. These fora need to advocate for a better framework for civil society development and participation in the EU and EaP countries, as well as serve as a marketplace for ideas, good practices and pool resources (information, expertise, funding). Despite many common problems, there is also little cooperation between the two fora themselves while there are few trilateral projects involving the EU, Russian and EaP organisations. Such a cooperation could start with joint declarations, small research projects or a one-day event after the annual assemblies.
In order to keep up civil society interest on both sides and avoid becoming ritualistic window-dressing of EU cooperation with civil society, both fora should do more to improve the content of the discussions and create more tools for exchanging good practices and expertise. The EaP CSF should focus on two or three flagship initiatives reflecting the overarching interest of organisations from EaP countries (e.g. citizens involvement, visas, fight against corruption) and engage EU organisations in common advocacy efforts to promote these initiatives in the EU and in the East. On its part, the EU-Russia CSF should enhance communication among Russian and EU organisations and identify more common goals. The debate on the abolishment of visa regimes between the EU and Russia is a good example. When funding to CSOs in both the EU and Russia is shrinking (albeit for different reasons), the financial sustainability of NGOs could well be the next priority on the forum’s agenda. To have a greater impact, the forum should also coordinate the implementation of concrete programmes with policy analysis and advocacy in Brussels and other EU capitals.
Natalia Shapovalova is associate researcher and Eleonora Tafuro is junior researcher at FRIDE.