CoR says more attention needs to be paid to preparing cities and regions in the Western Balkans for EU membership.
The European Committee of the Regions on 6 December welcomed the European Commission's "renewed commitment" to expansion of the European Union in the Western Balkans and called for central governments in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*1, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia to step up their collaboration with local and regional governments.
Adoption of the opinion, a response to the European Commission's enlargement reports presented in April, sends a message from the EU's local and regional leaders that the next leaders of the EU's decision-making bodies, who are due to take office next year, should continue to treat the enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans as a priority.
Franco Iacop (IT/PES), a member of the Regional Council of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region and the CoR's rapporteur on enlargement, said: "The prospect of joining the European Union is bringing positive and important changes to the Western Balkans, albeit too slowly and only in some places. We need faster, wider, and deeper change that works for citizens, who should be the final beneficiaries of the whole process. At the CoR, we are very conscious that the next enlargement may be just six years away, in 2025, and that inadequate attention is still being paid to two levels of government – local and regional administration – that will be affected by around two-thirds of EU legislation. The EU is providing valuable support at the sub-national level – we welcome, for example, the new impetus that the Commission is giving to cross-border cooperation – and Balkan states are increasingly aware that local and regional government will be responsible for implementing much of the change required by membership of the EU club. However, for example, there is no specific chapter in the accession talks that addresses the decentralisation process, the EU has deactivated some valuable programmes used in previous enlargements, and states in the region may be decentralising responsibilities but they are not decentralising enough financing."
Mr Iacop, who also co-chairs the CoR's joint consultative committee with Serbia, continued: "Air pollution is killing people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, waste management is a priority problem for cities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and tourism is a major source of economic hope for Serbia and Montenegro. These are examples of issues that affect people's daily life and in which local and regional authorities have a critical role to play. Experience shows that citizens will judge the EU by progress in such areas, so it makes practical and political sense for the EU to work closely with local and regional politicians in the Balkans well before their countries join the EU."
The CoR's opinion stipulates that the rule of law, justice, fundamental rights and respect for and the protection of minorities "must remain at the core of the process".
The CoR also assessed the progress towards EU membership made by individual countries, from the perspective of local and regional governance. The CoR recognised "significant results" since Montenegro began membership talks in 2012, and agreed with the EU's member states that talks with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia should start in mid-2019. CoR members said that, to join the EU by the target date of 2025, Serbia would need to show "extraordinary commitment and effort". CoR members noted some advances in Kosovo, including the holding of "fair local elections", but "no significant progress" in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, the opinion notes that the "prospects for EU accession are now diverging between the Western Balkans and Turkey", whose accession talks, which began in 2005, are de facto at a standstill, despite its support for refugees from Syria. The CoR called for the EU to earmark allocate "a sufficient part" of its funds to cities and regions "directly involved in managing displaced persons and refugees".
The opinion calls for the next progress reports to analyse the situation for local and regional authorities and identifies ways in which the European Commission could quickly incorporate cities and regions. It suggests, for instance, that the Commission include decentralisation and local-government reforms in "all bilateral meetings", adopt "ad hoc operational methods" so that twinning and Technical Assistance and Information Exchange (TAIEX) mechanisms can be used by cities and regions, and give local and regional governments access to a programme (SIGMA) focused on good governance. In the medium term, the CoR would like to see the Commission reactivate the Local Administration Facility and the Regional Training Programme. The opinion stresses the value of partnerships as a means of generating momentum for change, noting the potential of closer collaboration with organisations working at the sub-national level such as NALAS (Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South East Europe), ALDA (European Association for Local Democracy), the CEI (Central European Initiative) and the RCC (Regional Cooperation Council).
CoR members and their partners in the western Balkans had already discussed the European Commission's enlargement reports with Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, at the CoR's Enlargement Day in May. Since then, CoR members have met counterparts in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia and Turkey, as part of their work programmes. Each meeting has focused on practical problems identified as priorities by cities and regions in the region. The next Enlargement Day will take place in Brussels on 18-19 June 2019, just before EU leaders are due to decide whether to open negotiations with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The CoR's opinion complements a reappraisal by the CoR in March 2018 of ways to integrate local and regional authorities in the western Balkans into the EU's macro-regional, cross-border and other transnational cooperation initiatives.
*1 This designation is without prejudice to positions on the status of Kosovo, and is in line with UNSC Resolution 1244 (1999) and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.
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