Experimenting “Bottom-up Europeanization”: EU’s support to civil society development in Enlargement countries

The democratic deficit  and inefficiency of public policy making are  common issues in the global level, which has been widely addressed over time, and that the participation of civil society in policy processes represents the solution to overcome such problems. Civil society as a concept constitutes an important place in the European political and normative debate as well. The role of civil society organizations has come to the forefront of this debate, signified as a remedy to solve the democratic deficit issue. The EU has shown increasing interest in civil society; in 2005- 2006, the EU referred to civil society in respect of the dialogue between societies of enlargement countries and European societies and institutions, enhancing enthusiasm and support for the EU membership in respective states. By 2008, when the Civil Society Facility was launched, the EU had directed its attention to “build civil societies” in enlargement countries, raising their engagement in the intensive reform process. Within this approach, civil society was given the role of strengthening the democratization processes in their states, transformed by the rules, norms and ideas produced at the EU level. As a result, in its political support civil society area is being evaluated within the political criteria through the annual country progress reports for enlargement countries to make legislation more conducive for civil society. The Commission’s financial assistance is composed of diverse funding instruments to respond to different types of CSOs, needs in diverse country contexts.

It is also evident that the EU has increasingly pursued sophisticated approaches to activate participation of the civil societies of enlargement countries. DG Enlargement issued – the Guidelines for EU Support to which sets the agenda for achieving enabling environment for civil society development in enlargement countries for 2014- 2020 (EU Guidelines). This document should be regarded as “soft policy document” since there is no acquis in relation to the civil society development. EU guidelines primarily highlights that accession states should achieve appropriate legal, judicial and administrative environment for exercising the freedoms of expression, assembly and association to ensure enabling environment for civil society development. Conducive environment includes indicators, methods of verifications for the objective of achieving “an enabling legal and policy environment, for the exercise of the rights of freedom, expression, assembly and association” as well as “an enabling financial environment which supports sustainability of CSOs.” It also aim is to serve as the key monitoring, reporting and programming EU orientation/streamlining document for matters related to the CSOs located in the Western Balkans and Turkey.

The kick-off conference to promote the Civil Society Guidelines was held in May 2014 brought close to 100 participants, relevant key representatives from public institutions and CSOs from the Western Balkans and Turkey. Nicola Bertolini, Head of Sector DG for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations, indicated that “EC will not be in position to push governments to adopt measures of the guideline with top-down approaches and added contrary to such approach national targets for Civil Society guidelines should be shared and assumed by governments.” After this conference was held, the national consultations in each country were launched to determine national targets in accordance to the guidelines. For instance in Turkey, with the leadership of TACSO Turkey the EU Guidelines working group in the national level that was participated by government representatives from different Ministries and CSO representatives get together occasionally to set national targets, discuss possible intervention areas and cooperation possibilities between different public institutions to achieve enabling environment for civil society development in Turkey. The cooperation among key stakeholders around EU Guidelines in Turkey led to an important output that is publication of national register of associations:  Ministry of Interior Department of Associations gave access to public to database of all associations (over 100.000) in Turkey on their website. Following this process, TACSO Turkey organized a CSO consultation workshop to identifying the national targets for 2020 on the Results Framework within the scope of the guidelines for EU support to civil society in enlargement countries during 2014-2020. Recently, a regional conference “Monitoring of the EU Guidelines for the Support to Civil Society in the Enlargement Countries 2014-2020 – Year 1” was held on 28-30 April 2015 in Belgrade to evaluate the progress achieved in previous year. During the Conference participants had the opportunity to discuss the national targets set in country levels and possible modifications to be made in the guidelines itself in accordance to the consultations made previously.

What should be the next steps for enhancing Enabling environment for Civil Society development in Turkey?

The EU’s external influence is not merely a one-way interaction or imposition of rules and norms, but rather a transformative potential that is subject to conditions in the national level. With the guidance of the Copenhagen criteria, the EU held the objective of transforming the political environment to ensure freedom of expression, association and assembly. Following a series of reforms, in relative terms, Turkey was able to better provide political space and enable mobilization of civil society with the reforms made in the legislation throughout the 2000s. Despite these steps, problems still exist both in the context and implementation of primary legislation and related secondary legislation. This is also due to the fact that except a few minor improvements of relevant laws, no major improvements have been made since the 2004 and 2008 reform packages. Taking into consideration the uncertainty of the EU’s institutional make-up and the halted enlargement process until 2020, the external pressure and the leverage of EU political conditionality have become almost insignificant in the region. On the other hand, despite Gezi Protests in Turkey brought a momentum for growing civil society activism, yet the government responded demands of citizens for further democratization with restrictive legislative measures. Such as, Internal Security Reform Package passed recently in April 2015 curbs the freedom of assembly. Another indicator is, despite the positive trend in adopting strategic documents for cooperation in Western Balkans, an overreaching national strategic document creating mechanisms for CSO-Government cooperation is still missing in Turkey. Turkey’s National Action Plan for the EU Accession (Phase- I November 2014 – June 2015) published in November 2014, includes actions to amend Law on Associations, Civil Code (related articles), Law on Collection of Aid, and Law on Foundations. The results of the elections of 2015 will have a decisive influence over the political environment in the foreseeable future.

In particular, it is crucial to continue the EU support to facilitate both CSOs and state representatives to engage in local matters and to cooperate in policy formulation.  The ongoing Civil Society Guidelines process brought windows of opportunities CSOs work together with public officials to determine objectives in a collaborative way and   to monitor, programming and progress reporting of reform process of legislation concerning civil society enabling environment in Turkey. Development of civil society is a complex area involving many interrelated policy issues (from tax benefits to volunteering law, freedom to association and assembly etc.) and strong political will is needed for legal reforms. As a whole, “Bottom-up Europeanization process” which allows formulation of tailor-made national targets to be achieved in each country enhances the cooperation among government officials, CSO representatives and EU officials. Contrary to top- down Europeanization process, such working model facilitates to determine national targets in participatory manner and increases possibilities of further legal changes in near future. Yet, in order to reinforce strong political will and achieve successful legal reforms, it is also significant to mainstream national targets for Civil Society Guidelines formulated in national level with EU progress reporting mechanism as part of the EU political acquis. The EU’s formulation of “civil society acquis” on the basis of Civil Society Guidelines is a perquisite to institutionalize and strengthen civil society approaches of the EU in enlargement countries.