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Montenegro's local authorities enter 2018 in upbeat mood  
Montenegro's local leaders projected optimism about the country's progress towards membership of the European Union in a meeting with the European Committee of the Regions on 8 December, noting that public support for accession to the EU remains strong and expressing confidence that the country's communities will be well prepared to meet EU obligations.

The mood at the mayors, who met in Danilovgrad at the invitation of Mayor Branislav Djuranović, has been lifted by comments in recent months by Jean-Claude Juncker in which the European Commission's president has said that he hopes Montenegro will become a member by 2025, by strong economic growth and by the national government's inclusive approach to the EU negotiations. The government in Podgorica has, they said, sought to ensure that municipalities have a voice in shaping Montenegro's positions in negotiations with the EU, and the country's minister for European affairs, Aleksandar Pejović, spoke at the meeting, answering questions at length.

The mayors were speaking at a meeting of a joint consultative committee created on one side by the European Committee of the Regions, the EU's assembly for local and regional leaders, and, on the other side, by the Union of Municipalities of Montenegro. The joint consultative committee met for the first time in November 2012, with the aim of helping Montenegro's local and regional authorities on issues such as decentralisation, regional and cross-border cooperation, fundamental rights, good governance, and administration. Around 70% of EU legislation requires action by regions and cities.

On this occasion, the committee, which meets twice a year, focused on economic development using Montenegro's local resources and on sustainable tourism. Peter Janech of the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, highlighted lessons from this year's International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, while Christine Chang from Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council spoke about boosting entrepreneurial ecosystems in regions for young entrepreneurs. Members of the CoR shared their approach to regenerating post-industrial regions and to giving small communities a national and international profile.

Mr Pejović said that the government was drawing on experience from the EU's Danube strategy and Adriatic-Ionian macro-region, to boost the capacity of central and local administration in project development and implementation, and suggested that, as another step, courses should be created for local authorities, as part of an effort to equip them with the skills and capacity to apply for the EU's structural funds. He praised the level of cooperation across the region that has been generated by the 'Berlin process', which has concentrated on cross-border infrastructure as part of an effort to encourage economic integration in the western Balkans. He said, however, that the government in Podgorica would like to see more attention paid to business. According to a recent survey, support for EU accession remains at over 70%, with 22% of the population consistently opposed.

Mr Pejović said that Montenegro is looking to spread the benefits of over 3% annual growth in the national economy around the country and, in particular, to develop tourism in a sustainable fashion. Montenegro is one of only a small number of countries with a minister responsible for both sustainable development and tourism, partly reflecting the importance of tourism to the country's economy. Year to year, the sector accounts for between 22% to 25% of gross domestic product.

Jelena Drenjanin (SE/EPP), the committee's co-chairwoman and member of Huddinge Municipal Council, praised the Montenegrin government for helping the professional development of local civil servants and for making changes to the law on the financing of local government, but stressed that more needed to be done to boost local government's self-sufficiency and in the recruitment and training of local officials. The other co-chairman of the committee is Aleksandar Bogdanović, mayor of the Old Royal Capital Cetinje.

Montenegrin mayors in the committee – Slavoljub Stipjepović (Podgorica), Zoran Srzentić (Bar), Aleksandar Žurić (Bijelo Polje), Dejan Medojević (Mojkovac), Veselin Grbović (Nikšić), Mirko Đačić (Pljevlja), Miomir Vujačić (Šavnik), and Veselin Vukićević (Žabljak) in addition to Mr Djuranović and Mr Bogdanović – said that tourism has been important in the economy's expansion, which has resulted in Montenegro becoming a net importer of labour, but the benefits have been unevenly shared, with unemployment high in the north of the country, attributable in part to a change in the fortunes of the region's industries. One possibility is to try to develop winter tourism in the north. At present, tourists currently primarily come to Montenegro in the summer and stay in the south of the country.

Kevin Peel (UK/PES) spoke of efforts by his city, Manchester, to revitalise its economy in the wake of deindustrialisation. Andres Jaadla (EE/ALDE), a member of town council of Rakvere, emphasised the importance of towns and small communities identifying an approach that would distinguish them from others. Rakvere, a town of roughly 16,000 in Estonia, projects itself as 'crazy but smart', coupling a drive towards a green, knowledge-based economy with cultural activities as its Punk Song Festival, its Green Christmas rock festival and the Men Dance Festival.

Thomas Hagleitner from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations stressed the need for Montenegro to continue its reforms, saying that accession in 2025 cannot be taken for granted. The European Commission plans on 6 February to publish a "Strategy for a successful EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro", identifying the critical steps that Montenegro needs to take, notably related to the rule of law, fundamental rights and the fight against corruption. Montenegro has opened 28 of 35 negotiating chapters, and has provisionally closed three of the chapters.

Other members of the CoR's delegation were: Arnoldas Abramavičius (LT/EPP); Matteo Bianchi (IT/NI); Dimitrios Birmpas (EL/PES); Mario D'Attis (IT/EPP); Gillian Ford (UK/European Alliance); and Andreja Potočnik (SL/ALDE).
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