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Enlargement: Representatives from EU candidate countries will now join the work of the EESC

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Today, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) officially launched its initiative to welcome civil society representatives from EU candidate countries. A total of 131 ‘Enlargement Candidate Members‘ (ECM) were selected to make up the pool of civil society experts who will be participating in the Committee’s work, thus making the EESC the first institution to open its doors to EU candidate countries. The initiative, a political priority of EESC President Oliver Röpke, sets new standards for involving candidate countries in EU activities, facilitating their progressive and tangible integration into the EU.

The initiative was warmly welcomed by European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milojko Spajić, and the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, who were attending today’s inauguration, held during the EESC’s Plenary Session. They were joined by civil society representatives from nine EU candidate countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Türkiye and Ukraine) and by other ECMs online, all of whom were participating in EESC Plenary debates for the first time.

On this landmark occasion, EESC President Oliver Röpke stressed: “We cannot keep candidate countries in the waiting room any longer. We need to start working together now – exchanging views, building connections, and fostering a strong and healthy civil society. This is why, the EESC decided to open its doors to candidate countries and involve their representatives – the ‘Enlargement Candidate Members’ – in our work. Enlargement is one of the most critical and strategic choices for the future of the European Union and this continent. Europe cannot afford to be less ambitious.”

The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milojko Spajić, said: We highly value these aspects of gradual integration. We do not see this as a substitute for membership, but a way of preparing both the countries of the Western Balkan Region (in line with a merit-based approach-regatta principle), and the EU for integration.

The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, underlined: I strongly believe that it is now time for the EU to realise that the candidate countries from the Western Balkans are in a situation where they deserve to be embraced and brought closer, without necessarily being members with full rights, which is actually the ultimate objective of this entire process. I strongly believe that what is happening here should also happen in the EU Parliament, it should happen in the European Commission and in the European Council. This is the only way to soothe all spirits and inject a very concrete energy.

The European Commissioner Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, said: Enlargement is our mutual interest. It remains a geo-strategic investment for the Union. It is a two-way street with benefits for the candidate countries, but also for the EU and its Member States. Our goal is that all candidate countries progressively move closer to the EU and get increasingly more integrated with the EU as the negotiations advance. This is why we support the launch of today’s initiative, and all others, that help our partner countries succeed with reform efforts that lead to better economy and stronger democracy.

As a civil society gateway, the EESC is determined to support and empower civil society, not only in the EU but also in candidate countries on their way to freedom, democracy, economic and social prosperity and – ultimately – closer integration. Traditionally, the EESC has been an integral part of the enlargement process, providing civil society from candidate countries with the necessary support to upgrade their socio-economic and democratic systems and to meet the EU standards of the Single Market, the Green Deal and the European Pillar of Social Rights. As the enlargement momentum picked up in 2023, it was crucial to take this cooperation one step further by appointing Enlargement Candidate Members’ (ECMs).

On the ‘Enlargement Candidate Members’ (ECM) initiative

The ECM is a pilot project that allows representatives from civil society organisations in EU candidate countries (employers, trade unionists and representatives of civil society organisations at large) to participate in the advisory work of the EESC. This means that these representatives will contribute to the drafting process of selected EESC opinions and participate in the relevant study groups, section meetings and selected EESC Plenary Sessions.

In practical terms, there will be a total of three ECMs per candidate country participating in the preparation of an opinion. It will be up to the EESC sections to decide which opinions will be prepared with the participation of ECMs. Their input will be particularly valuable in opinions that relate to enlargement, issues of pan-European and global importance, and flagship EESC opinions. During the application procedure, 131 ECMs were selected for the general pool. ECMs assigned to a particular opinion will be called upon from that pool, based on the experience and knowledge they have that would be the most valuable for drafting the opinion concerned. Work on the first opinions with these participants will start in the next few months.

The timeline of the project will be as follows:

  • April / May 2024 – Start of ECMs’ work on selected opinions
  • September 2024 – EESC Plenary on enlargement
  • December 2024 – Assessment of the project

Background

The initiative to involve members from EU candidate countries in the work of the Committee was proposed by EESC President Oliver Röpke in his political manifesto upon his election as EESC president in April 2023.

In September 2023, the EESC took a landmark decision and officially adopted the initiative, turning a political priority into reality. On 4 January 2024, the EESC launched a call for expressions of interest from civil society representatives in EU candidate countries to join the work of the EESC and become “enlargement candidate members”. The EESC received 567 applications, out of which 131 were accepted for the pool of  ECMs (of which Albania – 13; Bosnia and Herzegovina – 9; Georgia – 15; Moldova – 16; Montenegro – 14; North Macedonia – 14; Serbia – 13; Türkiye – 15; and Ukraine – 22). The full list of ECMs selected for the pool is available on this website.

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