Access to money and how much power should be given to give to local government were the central themes when local leaders from the European Union and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia met in Skopje on 11 September, against the backdrop of a renewed drive by the country to join the European Union.
Voters in the country will on 30 September decide whether to accept a change in the country's name agreed by the government and the government of Greece, a change that would significantly ease efforts by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – the name used by the country in international forums – to join the EU and NATO military alliance.
As the country continues its integration with the EU, "local and regional authorities will find themselves at the forefront of applying complex EU laws and norms", warned Jasna Gabrič, who chaired the meeting on behalf of members of the European Committee of the Regions. It is "imperative" that local governments have the power and the funds to respond adequately to these demands, she told members of the joint consultative committee, which is made up of CoR members and local leaders from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The CoR established the committee, which has a fixed membership and an annual work programme, in part as a means of sharing the experiences of local and regional administrations that have gone through the same process of accession to the EU. In recognition of her work in her community of Trbovlje in Slovenia, Ms Gabrič has been nominated for the World Mayor Prize 2018.
While there is no "one-size-fits-all answer to what is needed in order to make fiscal decentralisation work", Ms Gabrič said that evidence from the "trend towards increasing fiscal decentralisation across most of the EU" suggested that "fiscal decentralisation should be matched by sub-national governments having the responsibility for financing the expenditures through their own taxes and fees".
A range of speakers from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia highlighted difficulties to finding a balance of powers that satisfies both central and regional government in the on-going decentralisation process. The mayor of Skopje and president of the local-government association ZELS, Petre Shilegov, said that local government was being given more responsibilities but was not receiving a corresponding increase in funds. A particular point of contention is how to maintain spending discipline. Acknowledging that fiscal distribution as a "systemic problem", Suhejl Fazliu, the country's minister for local self-government, emphasised the need to reduce the risk of irresponsible spending by local administration; but ZELS was critical of the central government's decision to block funds to some communities on account of spending by previous mayors.
A representative of the UN Development Programme, Louisa Vinton, identified another problem – "legal incoherence" about who is responsible for what – and called for the national government to provide guidance. She also noted an asymmetry of power at local level, suggesting that local councils might need strengthening at the expense of mayors.
Funding problems extend beyond redistribution from the centre, with speakers identifying problems with calculating and collecting taxes raised at the local level, with valuations of real estate proving particularly difficult.
Politicians from the EU – together with officials and experts who spoke at the meeting – responded by outlining experiences from Italy, Sweden, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland that could hold lessons on how to manage funds and raise taxes locally.
The meeting also took a broader view of ways in which the country's local and regional authorities can ready themselves for EU membership, and how the EU can help them. Lukáš Holub from the EU's delegation in Skopje urged administrations to make full use of the EU's pre-accession funding and to view the process as preparation for using funding for which they will become eligible if and when the country joins the EU. The CoR's rapporteur on enlargement – Franco Iacop (IT/PES),a member of the Regional Council of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region – argued that, in the years ahead, the EU should increase ways of supporting local and regional authorities. At the same time, he called on authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to pool their work and increase contacts with local authorities within the EU through town twinnings and the Technical Assistance and Information Exchange (TAIEX) instrument of the European Commission.
The delegation from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the JCC is led by Blagoj Bochvarski, mayor of Shtip, and includes the mayors of Kumanovo, Veles, Kičevo, Struga, Gevgelija, Debar, Sveti Nikole, Arachinovo, and Gazi Baba.
In addition to Ms Gabrič and Mr Iacop, CoR members who attended the meeting were: Adam Banaszak (ECR/PL) of the Kujawsko-Pomorskie Regional Assembly; Matteo Besozzi (PES/IT), president of the province of Novara; Tony Buchanan (EA/UK) of East Renfrewshire Council; Christian Illedits (PES/AT) of the Burgenland Regional Parliament; Alin-Adrian Nica (EPP/RO), mayor of Dudeștii Noi Timiș County; Ioannis Kourakis (PES/EL) of Heraklion Council; Michael Murphy (IE/EPP) of Tipperary County Council; József Ribányi (EPP/HU) of Tolna Megye County Council; and Spyros Spyridon (EPP/EL) of Poros Council.