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Report on "Empowering Rural Stakeholders in the Western Balkans" "We are not a burden for you, we are Europeans"

The formal launch of a report published by DG AGRI of the EU Commission on "Empowering Rural Stakeholders in the Western Balkans" was well attended on 6 October at the European Parliament, including speeches of Commissioner Dacian Ciolos, the President of the EP's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development Czeslaw Siekierski, and Ministers and State secretaries from the Western Balkan region and members of Parliament. Commissioner Ciolos said that "empowering local communities and stakeholders is an imperative in Europe today. We need to find and test new methods of societal engagement to put together stakeholders and political leaders." He also warmly endorsed the recommendations gathered in the report and expressed confidence that they would be very useful for any policy initiative applicable at EU level, notably in future accession negotiations and neighbourhood policies.

The report is the record of a very unusual "reality check" of rural development initiatives and policies in the region, with better understanding and trust emerging between civil society, national governments and European institutions. Nearly 100 people from all levels of responsibilities, including local initiatives and municipalities, regional administrations, national ministries and European Institutions, had travelled together earlier this year through Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro including participants from neighbouring countries - Kosovo*, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania and Turkey.

The initiative for these "travelling workshops" came from PREPARE, a network of national rural civil society movements and SWG, the inter-governmental cooperation of the Western Balkan Ministries for Agriculture and Rural development. They were financially and logistically supported by TAIEX, the Commissions technical services and DG AGRI, and carried out by National Rural Development Networks and numerous local projects which hosted numerous visits on the land, meetings at municipalities and final concluding conferences at national level.

Boban Ilic, Secretary General of SWG, acting as moderator of Western Balkan ministries for area-based coordination of pre-accession measures, called for more open minds in the EU towards the Western Balkan region. "As you have discovered in our countries, we have some new ideas and positive energy to offer to the European Union. We are not an additional burden for you, we are Europeans like you!"

Commissioner Ciolos especially thanked Michael Dower, former coordinator of PREPARE for writing the report and urged the organisers and partners of the Western Balkan initiative to continue their engagement in the region but to also share their methods and knowledge with civil society and governments in the context of the EU's enlargement and neighbourhood policy. "I hope, he said, that colleagues in the Commission and national governments will know how to best use this report and to encourage the people behind it in the near future".

By Hannes Lorenzen Chair of PREPARE Organizing group

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.