Regional cooperation needs to include citizens, needs to address citizens and they have to be put into the center.

 Aleksandra Tomanic

The European Fund for the Balkans turns 15 this year and has lived through all the turbulent times of regional cooperation. Thanks to its founders and funders who stayed committed since the beginning, EFB had the flexibility to change, to be innovative, to succeed, to adjust – all with the aim to improve regional togetherness.

Looking at results, the numbers are impressive – 95 supported think tanks, around 180 supported researchers, over 50 advocacy missions, 120 policy papers, far over 130 supported projects, partnerships that have established the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and the Engaged Democracy Initiative (EDI), partnerships that have set-up a regional campaign that managed to reach millions of citizens across the region and raised awareness about air pollution, flagship programmes that have created one of the most important assets of EFB – almost 500 alumni in the BeeEFB network,…

Despite these figures that are our organizational success, looking at the region we call “our”, the picture is less rosy. The region of the “Western Balkans” has not developed into the direction we all had hoped for. “The countries show clear elements of state capture,..” to speak with the words of the European Commission. When on the national level implementation of laws is lacking, parliamentary procedures are annulled, elections postponed for years or early elections become a normality… how have we believed that reginal promises will be kept? That regional agreements will be fulfilled? States across the region are captures and so is regional cooperation.

The main question for regional cooperation probably is – how much have we really moved in substance in past decades? After most high-level meetings, the family picture was the most concrete outcome of those meetings. Currently we are not even sure we have this outcome saved. Even in purely economic initiatives, like the Common Regional Market (CRM), “progress is very limited”. Other areas, that cover so called painful reforms for nationalists and autocrats, perform even worse. Even initiatives like the joint history books written by dozens of prominent history teachers of the region, such projects (although history but crucial for the future) were welcomed, but support remained pure lip service, mainly in front of EU counterparts.

Regional cooperation should above all serve citizens of the region. Once citizens start feeling results or benefits of that cooperation, it will be completely irrelevant under which format these benefits have materialized. A lot of time and energy went into discussing forms, instead of delivering substance.

Regional cooperation needs to include citizens, needs to address citizens and they have to be put into the center. Most of the problems faced daily are shared among all citizens of the region. Many 21st century problems can be addressed only on an (at least) regional level – starting from adaptation to climate change, energy transition, migration, … we altogether have to demand that problems of the 21st century start being addressed seriously instead of taking up the problems of the 19th century political leaders put in front of us.

Regional cooperation is a tool. Regional solidarity a necessity.


Aleksandra Tomanic, Executive Director of European Fund for the Balkans