Event reports

Everyday I Love You Less and Less: Here’s what you missed at our Western Balkans event

  • December 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth



The Centre for European Progression held a panel discussion on Monday 9th December entitled The EU and the Western Balkans – An End of a Romance? Our panellists shared some vital insights for the future of the EU and for the Western Balkans.


CFEP’s CEO István Szekeres began the event with a brief introduction to the topic.


The first speaker was one of the few MEPs to hold a Serbian passport, Andor Deli MEP (EPP), a dual national of Hungary and Serbia. For him, the EU accession of the Western Balkan states is personal. He knows people who have been waiting two decades to become part of the European Union.  He spent his younger years in Vojvodina, Northern Serbia, which were marked by travel bans, embargoes, and NATO bombing. These experiences make him want integration even more.


For Mr Deli, keeping Serbia on the European path is essential, but the pace of the process is too slow. The October veto has also led to a loss of trust between the EU and the Western Balkan states. However, he sees a chance for a reset and rebuilding of trust with the new Commission. The Western Balkans can serve as a litmus test. If Member States can reach an agreement on that, they may yet be able to tackle thorny policy problems in other areas.


Andreas Schieder MEP (S&D), the Chair of the Delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, spoke next. Before becoming an MEP, he was the Chair of the Austrian-Serbian Parliamentary Delegation. For Mr Schieder, the Balkan states are part of Europe and, by extension, should be part of the EU. He believes that the Balkan states must work with other countries to solve their regional problems. In that regard, North Macedonia fulfilled all the conditions. The promise that Western Balkan countries will be rewarded for solving tricky issues no longer works after Macron’s veto.


The whole European Parliament, possibly bar the Identity and Democracy group, supported accession talks. Mr Schieder met North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on the same day they found out the answer was No. He learned there is a risk of nationalist grievance-based resurgence surrounding the name change.  After the EU’s decision, early elections in North Macedonia will take place at the end of April. At this point, Mr Schieder noted there was a chance to approve the talks in a March summit. For him, as the talks do not begin immediately, it is possible to reform the enlargement process (as Macron suggested) and open accession talks at once.


Alexandra Stiglmayer, of the European Stability Initiative think tank, was the third speaker. She presented a variety of statistics on the Western Balkans and discussed several problems with the accession process. The first was its lengthy nature, which results in painful reforms for a distant future benefit. Another problem relates to the EU institutions. There are over 70 veto possibilities. Member States have to approve progress at each stage (application, official candidacy, negotiations). These vetoes often have little to do with the country’s actions, but with domestic views on enlargement.


She also noted that even if certain countries are ahead in the accession process, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their readiness to join the EU. North Macedonia, which has not yet begun negotiations, is ahead of Serbia in Commission assessments. Secondly, Commission reports are also vague and lack concrete details which could guide foreign investors or NGOs. Thirdly, she added that these countries lag far behind the EU average and do not get much help to catch up.


She noted the Commission often argues that the Western Balkans do not have the absorption capacity to spend their allocated EU funding. Romania and Slovenia do not spend their entire allocation either, and yet they have seen dramatic improvement. Committed governments, such as North Macedonia, would make use of the money. The monitoring mechanism also needs reforms to include merit-based and detailed key requirements. These would aid comparison between states and remove the potential for political vetoes. Her third, and final, proposal involves pre-accession single market access. This would involve the implementation of 60-70% of the acquis. It could also motivate politicians who otherwise think in electoral cycles.


Dr Isabelle Ioannides, a Senior Associate Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, was the final speaker. She was cautiously optimistic about the chances of enlargement to the Western Balkans. It was not just any Member State that blocked the talks: it was France, which holds big sway at EU level and whose preferences cannot be overlooked. However, she noted that experts have had long-term concerns about enlargement policy and that there is a case for reform. These include ineffective development conditionality, double standards, and poor performance in Common Security and Defence Policy missions.


The risk, according to Dr Ioannides, is coupling enlargement reform to internal reforms. This could potentially push enlargement off the agenda. Shared responsibility is needed: willingness from below and pressure from above. She remained optimistic as a result of the continued pro-European and pro-enlargement majority in the European Union, and the re-election of MEPs with experience on the Western Balkans. The Commission should be given a chance, although she remains concerned not just about France, but other Member States which have questioned Albania’s readiness (such as Greece). Others still are happy to hide behind France’s veto. In light of the Commission resulting from backroom manoeuvres, she wondered if it would be able to stand up to the Member States on enlargement. For Dr Ioannides, enlargement was never a romance. It is a long-term process of hard work and sacrifice. Western Balkan countries need to understand it is a road of sacrifice, and the EU needs to be more understanding of the sacrifices made.


Audience questions touched on Macron’s non-paper ‘Reforming the European Union accession process’, the role of non-EU states in the region, Turkey, Ukraine, and, finally, the future of the region in 2030. Dr Ioannides did not think any of the Western Balkan countries would be members by that date. Ms Stiglmayer was more optimistic, perhaps seeing North Macedonia and Montenegro as members by 2030. For Mr Schieder, 2040 was a more realistic time schedule. By contrast, Mr Deli felt something had to happen by 2030 for the enlargement policy to remain workable.


The region’s future may be uncertain, but what is certain is that the EU-Western Balkans debates are here to stay – whether the Member States like it or not.

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Scotland’s Story: here’s what you missed at our panel discussion

  • November 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

The CFEP held a well-attended panel discussion on the Wednesday 6th November at the Press Club Brussels on the topic of Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire? If you weren’t able to attend, here’s a brief summary of what you missed.

Sheila Ritchie MEP began the event with a passionate defence of Scotland remaining in the UK. She cited her party’s preamble, stating that “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries.” The Liberal Democrats oppose another independence referendum and support a referendum on Brexit. This is often challenged for inconsistency, but for Mrs Ritchie, it is about ending existing chaos and preventing additional chaos. She explained that the difficulties of undoing a 46-year old partnership between the UK and the EU would only be amplified in undoing a 416-year-old partnership between Scotland and England. For people new to Scottish politics, Mrs Ritchie provided an insight into what it was like to campaign against independence in 2014. She described it as the worst experience of her political life and the beginning of post-truth politics. Economics does matter, and she noted that Scotland’s deficit is above the 3% target required for EU members under the Stability and Growth Pact. People, however, matter the most: Mrs Ritchie highlighted that a lot of Scots are married to people from other parts of the UK, and raised concerns about building divides between those communities. Her party wants a “reformed, federal, and fair union”. She conceded there would be little chance of this under a Boris Johnson government, but noted that this was another reason why they were fighting to stop him in the December 12 General Election.


Christian Allard MEP naturally disagreed with Sheila, but the two MEPs had a good-natured debate. For Mr Allard, his identity as a French Scot demonstrates the openness of the independence movement for people from everywhere. It was important to him that people’s ideas were not castigated, but that people were given respect and space to talk about their ideas. He believes most people are not hardcore supporters of either side and they make their decisions on polling, noting that he knew people who voted for their chosen side and would have been content with the result either way. Indeed, he sought to oppose the notion of two camps as simplistic: there were people in Scotland who voted Yes and Remain, Yes and Leave, No and Leave, and No and Remain. Overall, what matters for Mr Allard is the future. He explained that the future that people want is what really counts, and they should have the democratic and legal chance to vote on it. He acknowledged it would have been easier to become independent in 2014 because back then both Scotland and the UK were fully aligned to and participating in the EU. That is what united the two MEPs: they differ on independence but are fighting to keep the whole UK in the EU.

Schams El Ghoneimi spoke next, mentioning his time at the European Parliament. Part of his role involved assessing what an independent Scotland’s foreign policy would look like. Would it be like Denmark? Would it have opposed the Iraq War, if that happened today? Would it agree to host migrants from Italy and Greece, and then follow through on those commitments like many other states did not? His aim during his interventions on our panel was to look at the nuances of the issue: there were obstacles, but also things that had changed since 2014. For example, Josep Borrell stated that Spain would not block Scotland from joining the EU.

Mr El Ghoneimi added that this is a totally unprecedented situation, and so the EU would likely find a way over the political hurdles. The economic ones may be more complex to deal with. He noted, however, that there are real economic hurdles and that the Scottish independence campaign has work to do to win over those who voted No in 2014. He added that the EU would enjoy a strong message that joining is still desirable – and another net contributor to the budget. Scotland has an inclusive vision of what it means to be Scottish, but its pro-Europeanness is not perfect. Neither Lib Dem or SNP MEPs supported harmonising corporation tax rates or transnational lists. Opposition to the Euro persists, due to Scottish integration in the UK currency union. The most important consideration for Mr El Ghoneimi is where the most pro-European dynamic lies: it would be unlikely for the UK to remain in the EU, but that would be good for the world. If it did not, Scotland could be tempted away in favour of the EU.


Finally, Larissa Brunner rounded off the panel with the EU’s perspective on an independent Scotland. She agreed that Scottish membership would give the EU a PR boost. Furthermore, Scottish participation in the Common Fisheries Policy really matters for the other Member States. The only way to guarantee that it will continue to take part is remaining in the EU. Spain, particularly, does a lot of fishing in Scottish waters. She also agreed it would not veto Scottish independence: it sees the Catalan and Scottish cases as distinct based on legality and cooperation with the central government. It is also politically costly to veto, and Member States are unlikely to expend political capital to do so.

She described Scotland’s potential EU role as being part of the group of small Northern European liberal Member States that do not have the Euro. Such states used to hide behind the UK so they would not have to voice their own concerns but will need to speak up for themselves after Brexit. There is the danger of being marginalised by the Franco-German concentration of power, but these countries will all still have a vote and a Commissioner. She disagreed with commentators who suggest there is a ‘queue’ for membership but noted that Scotland will still have to go through the steps (albeit that this will be a short process.) Ms Brunner suggested EFTA could be a good holding place for it: Scotland being ‘small and humble’ enough to accept being a rule-taker and paying into the EU budget.

Audience questions were varied, discussing everything from the state of the Scottish border after independence to the nature of democracy as we know it. At the CFEP, we aim to facilitate discussion about the future of Europe and help people in the Brussels bubble learn more about the stories they see in the news. Our audience asked some insightful questions about the details of devolution in Scotland and federalism, and our panellists used some terms you might not have come across before.

Scotland has a system of devolved and reserved powers. This gets complex. The Scottish Parliament has an infographic summarising which issues are decided there and which are retained at Westminster. How does this relate to the EU, you might be asking? As Mr El Ghoneimi mentioned, Scottish Government representatives participate in EU meetings in their areas of expertise. As set out in this guide for Scottish Government officials, it is almost assumed that they would want to attend Council Working Parties on environmental, agricultural and fisheries issues. Mrs Ritchie sought to explain Henry VIII powers: the issue with Brexit is that the EU Withdrawal Act allows the UK Government to use these powers to copy EU law into UK law without having to consult Parliament. One question our audience members asked relates to the internal debate about these competencies – once they are regained from the EU, there is a controversy about when they will be devolved to the Scottish government.


Finally, we ended our event by imagining the future. If Scotland became independent, in its first Council Presidency, our panel generally agreed it can and should prioritise leading on climate change. Mr Allard added that he wanted to refocus Scotland and Europe on wellbeing, plugging Nicola Sturgeon’s TED Talk on the topic, and Mrs Ritchie wanted Scotland to take advantage of the EU’s tools to assist its smaller, more remote regions.


We hope you enjoyed our event, and that you learned something about Scotland and its potential futures. Watch this space for our next discussion event in December!

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Bucharest Calling: – “Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue”

  • July 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Bucharest Calling: – “Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue”

The Centre For European Progression goes to Bucharest

Source: Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue

We recently had the chance to go to Bucharest, where we met up with our partners from across Europe. NGOs from Italy, Bulgaria, Malta, Romania, Finland, Austria, Portugal and Estonia, as well as CFEP from Belgium, are all represented in the TRAIN – Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue project.

This project comes under Key Action 3 of the Erasmus+ Programme, and seeks to use the Structured Dialogue method to develop recommendations on migrant integration policies following input from young people.

To cut through the Euro-jargon, what this means in practice is that there are three Key Actions in the Erasmus+ scheme and all funded projects have to come under one of those umbrellas. Our project falls under number 3 – Support for Policy Reform – as it seeks to gather young people’s views on how to reform integration policy.


This is where the Structured Dialogue comes in. The European Commission wants to work with civil society organisations to hear from young people themselves. The Structured Dialogue takes place in cycles of three Council presidencies, lasting 18 months. The current cycle involves the Romanian, Finnish and Croatian presidencies and has a particular theme – ‘Creating opportunities for youth’. Each EU country carries out a national consultation of young people and youth organisations during the 18-month period.  The participating organisations’ role is to provide a more direct link between youth and European policy making, by holding discussions with young people in their respective communities in order to hear their views and experiences surrounding migration and integration.


The closing event will be held in Brussels in June 2020, organised by the CFEP. This is when the results of the dialogues will be submitted to the European Commission, in the form of concrete policy recommendations.
Over the last few days, CFEP and our partners met to discuss the Structured Dialogue, the project actions and best practices on integration from our countries. It was particularly interesting to hear about our partners’ experiences. For example, our Finnish partners have a number of members with a refugee background, and our Estonian partners have a dance company as part of their NGO and are working on connecting Estonian and Russian speaking communities. In Austria, our partners have discovered that young people need time and explanations in order to confidently take part in policy discussions. Finally, in Malta, our partners have experienced a disparity in treatment of migrants based on their wealth and their country of origin. Equally, they found it interesting that in Belgium, integration courses are mandatory for most non-EU newcomers.

Source: Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue

Our next steps as a group are to discover more about how these different policies work on the ground, and to develop recommendations for Europe as a whole based on the views and experiences of young people.

If you or your organisation wish to participate in this project, please contact hannah.bettsworth@c4ep.eu.

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Italy and the Franco-German Alliance

  • April 2018
  • Admin

Italy and the Franco-German Alliance

Panel debate on the result of the Italian elections






Franceso Ronchi, political advisor to the S&D group in the European Parliament started the debate by calling the elections as a turning point for the modern Italy’s history. From his point of view, it’s not only a turbulence but a hurricane that can radically change the whole Italian landscape.


He explains that the traditional mainstream parties have been wiped out. Ten years ago, the predecessor of Forza Italia and the Democratic Party scored together more than 70 percent of the votes. Now, they got only 32-33 percent. In 2008, the Lega Nord got 9 percent together and the Five Star Movement didn’t even exist. Now, they score together 50 percent. The left has a long list of defeats, though. But in the past, they could always go back to their basis to rebuild the movement. This time is different because only 10 percent of the blue-collar workers supported the Democratic Party, and their other core group, the civil servants have also turned their back on them. The “Italia rossa” or the the red Italy doesn’t exist anymore.


Mr. Ronchi gives three reasons for these changes: migration, economy and democratic renewal. Since 2014, more than 600 000 people have entered Italy illegally. The government didn’t have a consistent and coherent attitude towards this phenomenon. During the first year, they tried to cover up the problem. Then the minister of interior affairs said that the migration can threaten the country’s democratic stability. The fear has weakened an already struggling society.


The economic situation is also problematicin Italy, points out Mr. Ronchi. Besides showing their  achievements, the mainstream parties should have told the truth to the voters. The elections have also confirmed that Italy is confronted by a democratic crisis. Political opportunism, patronage and corruption have undermined the faith in the government. A member of the Italian parliament has changed his party nine times in the last five years, which is a systemic characteristic of Italian politics.


The speaker believes that the elections results can be explained by something deeper, which appears everywhere in Europe. From Greece to France, voters are fed up with the existing political order. It is challenged by all of its three pillars. Many of the voters are skeptical about the representative democracy its institutions, like the parliament, the trade unions and the political parties. The Lega Nord and the Five Star have been able to interpret these feelings. The last one has introduced a new way of a more direct democracy and spread the message that politics can be made without the traditional politicians and hierarchy, creating a kind of horizontal structure.


The Lega Nord opts for the vertical vision of a strong leader who has the power to decide and the borders of our local communities. The Lega defines the identity by ethnicity, while the Five Star identifies themselves as “being the people”.  Our society is also characterized by a greater hostility towards the free game of the liberal market, which has changed a lot since the 1990s.


Mr. Ronchi considers that Italy can be the laboratory to test if these tectonic shifts would be able to make a remarkable impact on Europe. The election results have already shown that the foundations of the whole European project, the liberal political order, the borderless zone of Schengen and the free market-driven economy are profoundly challenged.



Federica Sabbati, the vice president of the European Movement International starts her presentation by quoting some figures. Italy has always been one of the most pro-European amongst the Member States of the EU, but the last general elections hasn’t brought an unexpected hurricane, it was building up for some time. Data from the European Council for Foreign Relations rank Italy 23rd out of 28 Member States when it comes to individual support for the EU, which is considerably lower than the 10th position a decade ago. Moreover, according to Eurobarometer, only 34% of Italians tend to trust the EU and a similar number want to get out of the EU, which is second place after Greece.


She continues by saying that these statistics are very different from the trends when she arrived in Brussels ten years ago, which is disheartening for a pro-European. She explains the decline of the EU’s popularity in Italy with the financial crisis and the overall health of the economy in the country. What we saw in these elections was one party and a half campaigning very strongly on an anti-EU ticket and have, in fact, toned it down compared to the period before the elections. The Five Star Movement was one of those parties calling for Italy to get out of the Eurozone. The Northern League as well campaigned on criticizing the EU but focused more on immigration and how Italy would have dealt with the crisis in a better way if it hadn’t had the limitations from the EU. A transversal argument used in the campaign was how the austerity measures imposed to the country were limiting the growth of the country.


Ms. Sabbati was a candidate of a party called +Europa (in coalition with the Democratic Party) and one of the few party with a clear pro-Europe agenda. They argued that these problems could be solved by more Europe and not less. But in the end, they got 2,55%, so the electorate wasn’t convinced by their reasons. Unsurprisingly, the ratio of pro-Europe Italians abroad is much higher. The +Europa have got an overall 8% in the European constituency with peaks of 15% in countries like France and the UK. She pinpoints the economy as the major catalyst for the decline of support vis-à-vis the EU. Eurobarometer surveys has shown that the biggest issues for Italians are first unemployment, second immigration and third comes the economic situation. Arguably the economic situation and unemployment go hand in hand which means that the economy has played a big role in this decline. Politicians have being saying for years that the Eurozone is not working for Italians and therefor is unsurprising that people link the current downturn with the common currency. Same argument goes for immigration where Italians feel left alone bearing the blunt of the crisis even though many migrants continue on to Germany and Sweden. The fact that Europe is blamed for all of this “evils” and Italy is not, of course, explains why Italians feel that Europe is indeed to blame. On the issue of trust of the institutions, historically Italians have not trusted them but still the polls show that they have give more trust to the European rather than the Italian institutions. Furthermore, on the topic of the liberalization of the market, the speaker thinks that it’s still thought as a positive thing that Europe brought to the country. She works with businesses from Italy and they know that the common market is helping the Italian economy as well, especially because Italy is an export-based economy.


Ms. Sabbati finally talks about how Italians have the perception that their voice counts less than others while on the other hand of the spectrum Denmark and Germany’s citizens are more satisfied in their representativeness in the Union.


Our third speaker, Rosa Balfour, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States points out that other countries should recognize how quickly Italy has shifted from being a pro-European country to becoming an Eurosceptic one. The change started during the second Berlusconi government, when they took a clearly stand behind US President George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and questioned their European alignment. It was also the period when all the political parties engaged into a blame game with Brussels, which has really articulated the debate how the EU membership is perceived in national politics.


Ms. Balfour continues with a slightly contradictory point of view, claiming that the Italians feel to be abandoned by Europe in terms of the adaption to the Eurozone and the support for tackling the flux of irregular migrants. The European Union has failed to produce relevant policies that resonate with citizens’ desires. The recent elections can also be considered as a negative assessment of what Europe has done for Italy.



On the other hand, this phenomenon can’t only be related to Italy. In the whole world, there appears to be a very little space for rational choice to assess policy. The Five Star has governed without very much success in several cities, including Rome, but people still voted for the movement again. The Democratic Party has tried to perform an evidence-based campaign, focusing on the achievements. But even if the government has some positive results in the social sphere, nobody cared about, like it happened with the remain campaign proceeding the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. The major lesson for Europe is that it is not sufficient to produce better policies that responds to the voters’ needs and preoccupations. Identity politics matter a way more.


Ms. Balfour calls for watching out for the alliance between the far-right and the center-right. In Italy, this cooperation has existed for a long time. The Forza Italia used to be a populist party, and only considered as a center-right party after these recent elections. The Five Star can be placed with difficulty on the left-right spectrum, but the speaker argues that their policy proposals are closer to the right. The traditional right’s shift to the far-right is a global phenomenon. It is happening in the United States, in Austria and many other countries by making alliances or taking over far-right political agendas.


The forth lesson is about the Five Star. The expert admits that one can debate about the party’s democratic functioning, but they do indeed a lot of on-line polls, which is why they are considered innovative. They have created an on-line system that allows outsiders to participate in politics and bypasses all traditional political communication. The Five Star Movement has captured the people’s desire to participate in the decision-making in a different way and they use technology to do that. So, we can conclude that the crisis of the political participation that empowers these parties.


Ms. Balfour is convinced that Italy has played a very constructive role in the European integration from the beginning as a bridge-builder. In critical moments, it has found solutions to move forward. For the moment, we don’t know what kind of government will emerge. Possibly, it will be very weak and quite likely Eurosceptic, so it won’t play that historically constructive role, which might be difficult in the crucial moment when France and Germany start to work on bringing new ideas about the future of Europe. With the leave of Britain, the participation of other countries becomes even more important. The Member States will have to refocus in their alliances, while neither the Fiver Star, nor the Leage, and not even the Forza Italia are equipped to do this because they have been focusing on other issues and don’t have the necessary connections.


Italy’s positions are also weakened because there isn’t any other European state that would push forward country’s interest in alliance with Roma. Spain is deeply involved with its constitutional crisis, while Poland is getting to be some sort of rough state, while the Northern countries are already put forward proposals that block France’s measures favoring the South, including austerity and rigidity in the way the Eurozone is managed.



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