raise awareness about the phenomenon called "local state capture" in the six countries of the Western Balkans
draw attention of the European Commission and other EU institutions that much more attention should be paid to the real situation on the ground (in particular as regards rule of law, democracy, fundamental rights, and fight against corruption), i. e. at local and regional level in the EU accession negotiations of the countries of the Western Balkans and the EU relations with them in general
include local politicians and civil society (including private business sector, trade unions and civil society organisations) much more actively in communication with the CoR and other EU institutions, as a way of combating local state capture
The opinion was discussed and adopted when the lockdowns and travel restrictions caused by COVID pandemic were at the highest point. That made physical travel and in-person meetings almost impossible, both in the EU and in the Western Balkans. Nevertheless, the opinion was widely shared throughout the EU and the Western Balkans after its adoption. The rapporteur was also able to present the opinion at the meetings of JCC Montenegro and JCC North Macedonia, also at the Enlargment Day 2020, and in a number of other online events, held not only by the CoR, but also EESC and other institutions.
Since its main topic, somewhat "hidden" in the title, is adressing the burning and highly controversial issue of local state capture in the Western Balkans, the opinion made quite an impact among the local politicians and civil society in the Western Balkans.
THE EUROPEAN COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS
- commends the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU for setting this opinion in motion;
- welcomes the continued engagement of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU vis-à-vis the Western Balkan countries; reaffirms its position that enlargement is in the political, economic and security interest of the EU; underlines that all candidate countries need to satisfy all of the membership criteria;
- notes with regret that the European Commission has not generally tended to pay sufficient attention to local democracy, the rule of law and good governance at local level in its relations with the Western Balkan partner countries;
- is concerned by the poor progress in terms of fighting corruption and protecting human rights, media freedom and the judiciary;
- recalls that local democracy in the Western Balkans is facing several challenges, exacerbated by a number of factors that do not exist or are less of an issue in the EU, such as: the legacy of previous armed conflicts; unresolved disputes over sovereignty and territory; lack of media freedom; lack of acknowledgement of genocide and war crimes; expansionist aspirations; hate speech; unresolved constitutional issues; unequal status between different peoples and unconstitutional electoral laws; insufficient good governance; authoritarian inclinations of incumbents and governing parties at all levels of government; relatively low levels of socio-economic development; largely negative demographic trends, and an underdeveloped civil society with a weak political and democratic culture;
- among the various challenges to local democracy, stresses in particular the emergence of "local state capture", which is understood as a local governance system that is fully or partially usurped by powerful individuals or groups to the benefit of their own particular interests;
- perceives the main aspects of local state capture as follows: manipulated and sometimes illegal public procurement; undeserved appointments, recruitment and promotion of civil servants, as well as of managers and employees of public-sector companies; pressure on the judiciary; non-transparent support from local authorities to civil society organisations; non-transparent activities by local authorities and public administration, which often go hand in hand with control of local media; misuse of political parties for personal enrichment; keeping local communities in a state of "capture" by maintaining patronage networks; underlines that these aspects often contribute to disillusionment among citizens and lead to low voters' turnout in local elections;
- is convinced that the three European Committee of the Regions' Joint Consultative Committees, with Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, and its Working Group on the Western Balkans are key tools for engagement, and that their use should be maintained to support positive developments in local democracy in the Western Balkans;
- recommends that the European Commission, in close cooperation with the European Committee of the Regions and the European Parliament, actively encourages efforts to tackle the problem of local state capture in the Western Balkans;
- suggests that the EU institutions provide additional support to stakeholders working to promote local democracy and the rule of law, such as independent, non-profit organisations that monitor respect for human rights, transparency and/or corruption in public authorities;
- points out that when setting the criteria to relations with the Western Balkans, the EU should take into account the reality at national and local level, and not only monitor formal fulfilment of the criteria, which mainly aims to align national legislation with the EU acquis.