More attention to local democracy and deeper rule-of-law reforms are needed.
The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) has endorsed the European Commission's mixed assessment of reform progress in the western Balkans and Türkiye in 2022, adding requests for the EU to continue to sharpen its attention to the workings of local and regional authorities in countries seeking to join the EU. The CoR adopted the recommendations on 6 July at a plenary session addressed by the European commissioner in charge of enlargement policy, Olivér Várhelyi.
The opinion on the so-called 2022 enlargement package – the European Commission's annual assessment of progress on the package of reforms needed by future EU members – does not assess reforms in Ukraine and Moldova, which became candidates for membership in mid-2022, or in Georgia, which also wishes to join the Union. The opinion, however, makes clear that the EU's regions and cities believe that the quality of local governance and local democracy should be priority concerns of EU policy in all countries, and that the EU should invest greater time and effort in support for local administrations, civil society, and local economies.
The rapporteur, Anna Magyar (HU/ECR), member of the Council of Csongrád-Csanád, said: "Enlargement policy is one of the most successful policies of the European Union. Enlargement policy brings countries together and thereby ensures peace, stability and prosperity for the EU and our immediate neighbourhood. It also solidifies democratic governance in our partner countries at the local level. That is why I would like to stress that a successful enlargement policy is as much in the EU's interest as it is for those countries that see their future as part of our common project. The added value of enlargement policy is even more apparent in the current changing geopolitical context. Europe's resilience can be demonstrated by the fact, that even in times of hardships, we are moving forward together. To this end, enlargement will once more become one of the EU's top priorities in the years to come."
Speaking about the role of local and regional authorities in the accession process, Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Enlargement and the Neighbourhood Policy, said: "They have a major role in overcoming crucial shortcomings and difficulties faced by the accession countries. We cannot discuss enlargement without considering the local dimension, as local communities, cities and regions are key players in European integration. In particular, local and regional governments play an important role as an anchor of stability, by promoting socio-economic development and facilitating cross-border cooperation. Local and regional authorities are real actors for change as they implement a substantial part of the EU legislation. Moreover, their increased involvement in the accession process is crucial for greater transparency and accountability and for bringing enlargement closer to the citizens."
About two-thirds of EU laws that need to be adopted by candidates for EU countries require action by regions and cities. Greater cooperation between central governments and local and regional authorities is, the CoR opinion says, particularly needed in the areas of economic and investment development, public administration reform, agriculture and food security, climate policy and green transition, public procurement and social policy.
The European Commission's reports on the progress of reforms in 2022 underscore that problems with the rule of law – including the independence of the judiciary, corruption, and organised crime – remain key concerns. The CoR opinion reaches similar conclusions, while highlighting progress in Albania and North Macedonia.
The opinion urges a re-doubling of efforts to address political difficulties related to Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo and highlights the particular challenges for local politicians in Türkiye because of the "continued practice of forcibly dismissing elected mayors and replacing them with government-appointed officials, as well as the arrests of other local representatives".
During the debate members of the CoR voiced a mix of support and anxiety about current political crises in Bosnia-Herzegovina and between Kosovo and Serbia. MEP Andreas Schieder (AT/S&D), chairman of the European Parliament's delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, said it had been "extremely important" that the European Commission in 2019 put enlargement "at the top of the agenda", but said: "If we ask ourselves what is the result of these four years, are we better off after four years than we had been before? I think we can look at the glass half full or half empty."
Patrick Molinoz (FR/PES), vice-president of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region and chairman of the CoR policy commission covering enlargement, said: "I wish to reiterate our support for a pragmatic approach towards enlargement. Decentralisation in the accession countries is a sine qua non, as a guarantee of a participatory accession process and of fewer territorial divides. We are aware of the new dynamics of the enlargement process in the current geopolitical context and stress the need for candidate and potential candidate countries to fully embrace the fundamental values of the EU and align with its Common Foreign and Security Policy on their path towards accession."
The opinion includes an assessment of progress in individual countries (full details here).
The debate can be watched here.
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