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    • Joint Consultative Committee: Civic Space Has to Be Respected

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    • Date: 23 October 2018

      Concern over the lack of progress in the area of freedom of expression and encouragement for Serbian authorities to redouble efforts to ensure respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights, judicial reform, the fight against corruption and freedom of the press were highlighted in the 7th meeting of the EU-Serbia Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) held on October 23, 2018, in Belgrade.

      The JCC expressed concern about shrinking civic space in Serbia and urged the Serbian authorities to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, anti-corruption organisations and independent journalists. Although civil society platforms do exist in Serbia, according to the JCC they should be used “more efficiently and transparently.” The joint declaration that the meeting resulted in suggests concrete actions for the improvement of the existing legal and institutional framework in order to achieve this goal.

      The Joint report on Civic Space in EU and Serbia was also published following the meeting. The report was authored by Marina Skrabalo, EESC member (Solidarna, Croatia) and Bojana Selakovic, expert (Civic Initiatives, Serbia) and edited by BCSP Director and JCC Member Sonja Stojanovic Gajic.

      “The deterioration of civic space in Serbia took place in the context of a political environment that also influenced the legislative, social and economic environment with regard to people's enjoyment of their civic rights and freedoms and their expressions of interest and concerns. The space for participation in policy-making has shrunk and, following the announcement of changes to some key legislation for civic rights (e.g. freedom of access to information, free legal aid...), the situation is likely to get even worse in the near future. The space for civil society organizations’ (CSOs) participation in public decision-making is getting progressively smaller, with some long-term partnerships between state institutions and CSOs coming to an end,” it was articulated in the joint report.

      Recommendations to the EU Institutions for protecting civic spacemade by the JCC include developing a strategic approach which contains mechanisms for structured dialogue with civil society and monitoring the implementation of the code of conduct on partnership with civil society within the Structural Funds and the Instrument for Pre-accession (IPA).

      JCC calls the European Commission to react promptly when national provisions restrict the access of national CSOs to EU funds and to increase funding for CSOs, especially operating grants and multiannual financing which can reach out to the smallest organisations and the most disadvantaged sectors of society.

      The EU institutions should recognise that violations of civic space can trigger disciplinary mechanisms with respect to a Member State’s compliance with the EU's fundamental values and act upon the European Parliament's proposal of the Pact on Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights which could be used as a source of evidence and analysis for any further oversight and disciplinary measures in cases of serious and systematic degradation of the civic space, the JCC propositions.

      “It is of critical importance that freedom of the media, media pluralism and media literacy be incorporated into all future EU legal and funding actions that help protect European values and civic space from the dissemination of hatred, prejudices, fake news and extremism,” the report specifies.

      JCC’s message to the Government of Serbiais that the attacks on CSOs by representatives of government, parliament and government-funded media must stop and the government must guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, anti-corruption organisations and independent journalists. Perpetrators and those that have commissioned attacks on CSOs need to be brought to justice.

      There is also a need for improvement the legal framework for the workings of civil society. There should be necessary changes in the legislation and policy framework with regard to freedom of association and freedom of assembly, JCC recommended to the Government of Serbia. A new law on volunteering and the accompanying legislation should be adopted in line with best international standards and practices, with "soft" policies to stimulate volunteering. The institutional framework for public funding for CSOs also needs to improve in multiple ways.

      Strengthening mechanisms for cooperation with civil society, creating and adopting common standards for the effective inclusion of CSOs in consultation processes, increasing pressure on public institutions to be efficient in the way they work with input from CSOs and clarifying conditions under which laws could be passed in an urgent procedure should be done in order to improve the institutional framework for participation in decision-making processes, JCC states in the report.

      JCC also recommends that the Government Council for Charities provide urgent support for those who are active in the area of giving and that the institutional framework for giving is improved, especially in the area of tax legislation.

      JCC welcomed the recent positive signals from the EU institutions showing that enlargement policy would be at the centre of the EU’s attention in the coming years and were pleased that Serbia had opened new chapters of the accession negotiations. While welcoming positive economic developments in Serbia, the JCC invited Serbian authorities to concentrate on the implementation of structural reforms that would also bring social progress and social cohesion to Serbian society, in close cooperation with social partners and other CSOs.

      The JCC is one of the bodies set up within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Serbia. It enables civil society organisations from both sides to monitor Serbia’s progress towards EU membership and to adopt recommendations for the attention of the government of Serbia and the EU institutions.
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