Regional CSOs networking in the Balkans has become an increasingly challenging effort for the most of organizations engaged in regional initiatives fostering human rights, democracy, good governance, rule of law, reconciliation or socio economic development. One can note at least three reasons for this unenviable situation facing both formal and informal regional CSO networks since 2020 – Covid 19 pandemic, lack of EU funding support for development and operation of CS regional co-operation and an evident lack of clear EU integration perspective. Regional CSO co-operation dynamics is strongly interconnected with the progress of EU accession negotiation and the recognition of the role of CSOs in overall reform process in the Western Balkans. Therefore, a core long- term support to regional thematic CSOs organizations is essential not only from the point of their contribution to effective implementation of the reforms but also from the point of strengthened local ownership over the foreseen factual positive change to the benefit of the citizens across the communities in the WB.

Numerous challenges ranging from labor migration and brain drain to hate speech and lack of the culture dialogue are the areas requiring consistent and comprehensive regional CSO platforms’ initiatives enabling the creation of a long awaited momentum for solidarity and collaboration among CSOs, policy/decision makers and other stakeholders at different tiers of government. The unprecedented pandemic and post-pandemic times require full commitment of all these stakeholders to finding adequate solutions that would ensure sustainable, resilient communities in the region still burdened with a heavy legacy of the past.

Much effort has been invested by the EU  in creating the policy and institutional framework for intensified regional co-operation, dialogue and networking including inter alia, Instrument for Pre-Accession Process (IPA), The Accession Negotiation based on compliance with 35 sector policy negotiation chapters, Berlin process, EU Green Deal, Regional connectivity Programme. However, it has become evident that a prolonged integration process coupled with increasing democracy deficits and lack of rule of law are more than obvious reasons to ensure continuous support to bolstering CSOs as relevant, reliable stakeholders capable to contribute to the EU accession process. CSOs effectively operating and advocating democratic processes at local, national, cross-border and regional levels are a necessary precondition for both socio-economic development and a long-term stability in the region. This is exactly why the institutional sustainability and policy capacity of regional CSO networks needs to be preserved in the long – run.

Balkan Network for Local Democracy created as a thematic CSO Network thanks to its committed local members – Local Democracy Agencies and a long history of co-operating regionally with the support of IPA CSF support programme. Bottom-up approach, education for active citizenship, fostering participatory democracy and good local governance have been the core BNLD activities over the decades of our existence.

Challenging times we live in require not only the need to remaining true to our core mission, but also we need to show capacity to retain enough flexibility and creativity to refocus our work on topical issues where policy need arises and project-based funding is available. The advisory role of civil society, coming up with new ideas for improving public policy, and the watchdog role, monitoring governments’ commitment to good governance and human rights, need to be fulfilled even when political and legal limitations are used by the authorities to suppress independent opinion or curb the genuine culture of dialogue.

Said this, and as reiterated in TACSO recommendations for the regional CSOs networks: they need to continue to build relations, linkages and cooperation among each other in the future. They need to learn from each other and take the greatest sources of knowledge and inspiration from each other. They need to remain in solidarity: most evident through cross-border cooperation, especially on issues related to fundamental freedoms and rights, civic space, democracy and the rule of law, as well as EU accession as a common aspiration across the region. They need to continuously develop their research capacities and monitoring tools for evidence based advocacy relying on active members as the driving force of networks.