High Level Conference on Economic and Social Cohesion in the Western Balkans, 15/05/2018, Sofia

On occasion of the EU-Western Balkans Summit, to be held on May 17, 2018, a “High-level conference on economic and social cohesion in the Western Balkans” was held in Sofia on May 15, 2018, organized by the European Economic and Social Committee and TAIEX with the support of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU and the Economic and Social Council of the Republic of Bulgaria. On behalf of the civil society of the Western Balkans, the opening speech was given by the Secretary General of the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro, Srđa Keković, who addressed the gathering with the following speech:

“Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Dear participants of the Conference on Economic and Social Cohesion in the Western Balkans,

I am honored to have the opportunity to greet you on behalf of the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro and all other organizations of the civil society of Western Balkans and to thank the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU and the European Economic and Social Committee for the organization of this high level Conference that gives us the opportunity to express our commitment to the European integration process and to jointly send a message to the Summit of Heads of State of the European Union and the Western Balkans on our expectations in this process.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I think that I will not make a mistake if I say that citizens, trade unions and the rest of civil society of the Western Balkan countries have strongly and vastly supported the process of European integration, just as it has been the case in Montenegro. Besides the fact that we naturally belong to the European Union, because we live and work on the same continent, the European Union gives us Europe without borders, gives us Europe of peace and prosperity, because “Peace is not ALL, and without peace ALL IS NOTHING”.

In the process of European intergration, as a process that currently has no alternative for the Western Balkans countries, the civil sector is one of the key elements for the promotion of democracy and as such must be an unavoidable actor in the overall process, in particular the process of preparing, adopting and implementing policies that create governments of the Western Balkan countries on their way to the EU. Continuous cooperation and open communication between state and local institutions with the civil sector is a prerequisite for the real progress of a society in all segments and the achievement of all the values of the developed democratic European countries. The process of European integration in the Western Balkans has opened up a range of opportunities for the civil sector. In Montenegro, this is, in particular, reflected through the involvement of the civil sector in working groups for the preparation of the negotiation process, which in a way made the process more transparent. However, I believe that a strong message should be sent from this place to further valorize the participation of the civil sector and social partners in this process, which is the process of all of us. This is because there is still a huge space for our participation in the process to be real, not formal.

When the governments of the Western Balkan countries view the criticism of the civil sector as a realistic wish for essential, but not fingered changes in the system, we will only then be able to speak about the full integration into the community of developed European societies. In the end, the governments of the Western Balkan countries must be guided in this process by the principle of quality, and that principle must be in before the speed of the process itself, on which the civil sector is constantly insisting. According to the European Commission’s Strategy for “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”, Montenegro and Serbia have received a clear timeframe of accession in 2025. This year is taken as a guide to all social actors, however, I believe that only a clear commitment to the realization of the full rule of law and the real fight against corruption, together with meeting all other criteria, can define the real deadline for our full integration. In this respect, the civil sector must be seen by decision-makers solely as a partner, and not as a brake on the integration process.

However, as the process of European integration progresses, it seems that this support is falling. Why is it so? What benefits have we expected and still expect from the European integration process?

Primarily it is the fight against corruption and crime and the rule of law – which implies equality before the law and respect for basic human rights. After that, those are dignified living and working conditions, that is, modern working relationships based on the concept of developed social dialogue between workers’ representatives and employers, and on the concept of flexicurity. But in practice, there are no such benefits. Nothing moves from the dead end. Everything is reduced to mere transposition of European directives and recommendations into national legislation, for which our governments receive praise from EU institutions through regular annual reports, with just few remarks in a wrapped and hardly understandable “diplomatic language form”. On the other hand, our societies are rapidly getting divided. Social wealth, through corruption and crime, shifts into the hands of a small number of individuals, while the rest of society is becoming increasingly poor. There is no longer a middle-class social group on which every developed and prosperous society is based. In our country, educational workers, health workers, and civil servants have entered the poverty zone a long ago. Instead of developing the concept of decent work, in our country the concept of neoliberal labor legislation is developing. We have more and more precarious contracts. Workers are forced to work more than 40 hours a week, and for this overtime they are mostly not paid. Most often, they do not have the right to a full weekend and vacation, on a day off on holidays. Most of them receive indecent earnings, which are on or slightly above the poverty line. The Western Balkans countries face high unemployment, especially of young people, which reults in leaving the country and braindrain. Generally, employers dismiss older and more expensive labor force and hire younger and cheaper one. A worker over 35 to 40 years of age who is left out of work in a crowded labor market cannot find a new job, and social assistance provided by the state is time limited and below existential minimum. Until when and how can we achieve European values ​​at such a pace?

So, the picture is gloomy, but this picture can be quickly corrected. How can it be changed?

It is necessary that our governments pass from writing laws to their implementation. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for the institutions of the European Union to stop with the language of diplomacy and to set up clear and concrete goals in the process of monitoring European integrations for our countries, the fulfillment of which will be visible to all citizens. Therefore, progress depends on the implementation of the law, that is, on the rule of law. The concept of a “welfare state” is not elusive, because there is money, it only needs to be properly reallocated and redirect cash flows from tycoons to citizens, and it is necessary to establish the rule of law and fight corruption and crime.

I take this opportunity to look at the role of trade unions as social partners. Although the social dialogue is the foundation on which the European Union is based, in our countries, this social dialogue is most often fingered, that is, we are kind of all about social dialogue, but in practice governments do everything in a way they want. The role of national economic and social councils in creating economic policy and the overall social environment is negligible. Trade unions have been brought into an unenviable situation because, due to the effects of neoliberal legislation and anti-union discrimination against trade union activists, the rate of trade unionism is continually decreasing. On the other hand, it means that the trade unions will prove representativeness increasingly difficult, and without representative trade unions, social dialogue itself is questionable. The European Union institutions must insist on the actions by which our governments will show that they are honestly, and not only declaratively, committed to social dialogue. The institutions of the European Union should not be silent when laws, especially in the field of labor and social legislation, are adopted by short procedure and without social dialogue. And they are silent. Also, the institutions of the European Union must not be silent on the most drastic retribution and anti-union discrimination committed against trade union activists just because they are fighting for the labor and social rights of their members. In order for trade unions to be able to respond to all these challenges in a qualitative manner, they need unambiguous and concrete support from EU institutions, which should strengthen the position of trade unions as social partners.

At the very end of this presentation, I especially want to emphasize the role of joint consultative committees of the European Union and candidate countries in the integration process. Practice and experience passed on by trade union leaders from countries that have completed integration processes have shown that joint consultative committees can play an important role in the dynamics and quality of the integration processes of our countries. In this sense, it is necessary for the European Union institutions to give greater importance to the declarations and recommendations which are the product of the joint consultative committees’ work and also that governments give more importance to their implementation.

Thank you for your attention.”