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EU regions and cities could help decarbonisation in the Western Balkans  

​European Commissioner Várhelyi says EU municipalities and regions have role to play in encouraging the economic and energy transition in would-be member states.

The European Union would like to enlist the support of regions and cities to help Western Balkan countries in their preparations for membership of the European Union and in developing relationships with other countries in the EU's neighbourhood.

Speaking at a plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) on 9 December, Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, re-affirmed the European Commission's political and financial support for a four-year-old initiative of the CoR to foster partnerships with Libyan cities. He also said that the Commission is developing ideas for an Eastern Partnership Academy for Public Administration, again as proposed by the CoR.

In addition, he urged called for EU cities and regions to share their experience in decarbonisation – a top priority of the EU – with counterparts as part of the EU's recently announced Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. The Plan is expected to catalyse the release of €9 billion in funding for the region for transport, energy, and the green and digital transition.

Commissioner Várhelyi said: "I believe European regions can play an important role in helping the Western Balkans to implement the Plan, for example by sharing the experience of coal and carbon-intensive regions in transition. Phasing out coal is one of the key elements of the Plan." North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo* and Bosnia-Herzegovina – would, on joining the EU, be committed to contributing to the EU's goal of carbon-neutrality by 2050.

He added that the Commission is "reflecting" on how to provide strategic support to local and regional authorities – initially in the Western Balkans – to build up their capacity "in such key areas as administrative and management capacity, strategic planning, state aid, procurement, and waste-water management". This would develop on a pilot project – TAIEX Strategic support to local authorities – that began in 2018 in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia. "I welcome your continued interest in this matter and your support to peer-learning activities with local authorities," he said.

The CoR works politically with neighbouring countries through the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP), the CoR's Ukraine Task Force, the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM), and through joint consultative committees and working groups with countries that are seeking membership of the EU.

These political dialogues have resulted in a range of recommendations to the EU's institutions, including a call for an Eastern Partnership Academy for Public Administration. Commissioner Várhelyi welcomed the idea, which originated from members of CORLEAP, and said that "we are now developing a proposal on the Eastern Partnership Academy, which we hope to present in 2021".

Separately, the CoR has developed municipal and regional partnerships, matching requests from local and regional authorities in neighbouring countries with interest on the part of EU cities and regions. This included a pilot project with Ukrainian sub-national administrations, with a set of partnerships to cut energy use, help entrepreneurship, boost tourism, strengthen transparency and develop the rural economy.

The most developed collaboration is with Libyan cities, the 'Nicosia initiative' launched in 2016. This recently secured over €4 million in fresh financial support from the European Union. Commissioner Várhelyi said: "I would like to use this opportunity to thank you for your long-standing cooperation with my services on the Nicosia initiative in Libya. Following recent positive developments in the political process, Libya is now at a turning point. It is important to continue working with local authorities to help improve their public service delivery capacities and foster stabilisation in the country. The Commission is committed to further supporting the Initiative."

In their debate with Commissioner Várhelyi, members of the CoR stressed the importance working closely with local and regional authorities on both practical and political issues.

Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP), representing the State Parliament of Salzburg and former special adviser to Commissioner Várhelyi's predecessor, noted the significance of local elections in Mostar due on 20 December, the first in 12 years. The political impasse in the city was broken with the support of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human-rights organisation, with 47 member states. Mr Schausberger represented the CoR in a 'reflection group on Mostar' specifically created in 2017 by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe with the aim of restoring local democracy.

A political impasse within the EU itself was criticised by CoR members, who expressed concern that the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia remains blocked in the Council of Ministers of the European Union. The blockage persists despite voters resolving what had been seen as the most difficult obstacle to membership, by voting to change the country's name in a referendum in 2018. The referendum settled a decades-long dispute with Greece that had led to the country being known as 'the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' in international forums.

Jaroslav Hlinka (SK/PS), mayor of Košice-South and the CoR's rapporteur on the EU's 2019 enlargement package, said: "We cannot expect from our partners to make progress on different reforms and once they have done so, EU member states still block the beginning of negotiations."

József Kóbor (HU/EA), representing the local government of Pécs, emphasised the slow progress in the region: "These days we mark 25 years since the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet, 21 years after the end of the last Yugoslav war and 17 years since the Thessaloniki Summit unequivocally stated that the future of the region is in the EU, out of six Western Balkan countries, two have not yet been recognised as EU candidates and there is very little hope they will any time soon; two are blocked in the Council due to bilateral disputes and other political reasons; and only two have started the long negotiation process. Out of those two frontrunners, Serbia did not open a single chapter in 2020 while Montenegro opened one."

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

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