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EU's investment in Western Balkans should empower local government  

Drive to boost growth in the Western Balkans should also strengthen reforms and role of cities and regions, European Committee of the Regions says.

The European Committee of the Regions has welcomed the European Union's plans to increase investment in the Western Balkans, describing the initiative as a "key tool" to support the region's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. In recommendations adopted on 7 May, the EU's assembly for local and regional leaders also emphasised the need to ensure that local government is fully involved at all stages of the investment process, and the need for investment to be matched with reforms.

The Committee's support for the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, which is expected to catalyse the release of €9 billion in funding for transport, energy, and the green and digital transition, is coupled with a request for "each investment" to be accompanied by "notification of expected reforms at local and regional level".

The opinion, which provides a local and regional perspective on the progress reports drawn up by the European Commission, itemises a wide range of problems at the level of central government. It "expresses concern at the limited progress and numerous challenges related to the lack of political will, the continued existence of certain elements of state capture, limited progress in the area of judicial independence, institutional resistance and the unfavourable environment for independent media activity in most candidate and potential candidate countries".​

Nikola Dobroslavić (HR/EPP), President of Dubrovnik-Neretva Region and rapporteur on the Enlargement Package 2020, said: "All the Western Balkan countries should become EU members and their accession would be good for those countries and also for the EU, but those countries must fulfil all the criteria for membership in the EU. Turkey is yet to convince the EU that they are really ready to adopt European values. The European Commission should support decentralised cooperation of local and regional governments and strengthen their capacities to deal with emergencies. It should also ensure that local government is involved in the programming process and in the monitoring of the Economic and Investment Plan, the key instrument that will support econ recovery of the region."

The European Parliament's rapporteur on enlargement lent his support behind the call for local and regional authorities to be more involved.

Tonino Picula (HR/S&D) said: "Personally, I believe in the importance of the role of local and regional authorities in the accession process. This is why I would particularly emphasise the IPA 3 [Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance]. I call on stronger engagement of local and regional actors regarding pre-accession assistance. It aims to support development while boosting transparency and producing effective results. Particular focus should be placed on institutional and administrative capacity-building and effective good governance on all levels. It is crucial that these countries fully implement the reforms as agreed in pre-accession and accession processes in order to progress towards European Union accession."

MEP Picula stressed the importance of enlargement policy, insisting that "it must not be a side-policy of the EU" and that "it offers the EU a leading role in the region" at a time when "Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf States are competing with each other for economic and political influence in the Western Balkans".

The CoR's opinion, the latest in its annual assessment of the annual assessment of the EU's enlargement policy, highlights a range of ways in which the EU should support regions and cities in the region, in addition to involving them in the planning and implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. These include long-standing requests for a number of existing programmes and mechanisms – such as SIGMA and TAIEX – to be extended to sub-national administrations, and the development of new ways of increasing the administrative capacity of local and regional authorities in the Western Balkans.

The opinion also includes an offer of "concrete support and cooperation" from the European Committee of the Regions to in its efforts to find solutions "regarding the establishment of an association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo".

In country-specific comments, the European Committee of the Regions highlights problems with freedom of expression, media independence, corruption and judicial independence in Serbia and Montenegro, and – in Serbia – regrets "the collapse of political pluralism". The Committee calls the EU's member states to start the process of negotiating EU membership for North Macedonia and Albania. Particular issues that it highlights are the need for reforms to decentralise power in Albania and, in North Macedonia, to improve management of EU funds. In Kosovo*, the Committee calls for a "clear division of powers and funding between central and local governments".

During debate of the recommendations at the CoR's plenary session on 5 May, several members also emphasised their concerns about Turkey's relationship with Greece, Cyprus and the EU. The CoR's opinion condemns Turkey's "anti-EU rhetoric and escalation of relations with Greece and Cyprus" as incompatible with EU values, as well as a further deterioration in the human-rights situation in the country.

Among the progress noted, the opinion welcomes the fact that local elections were finally held in Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after more than twelve years, describing the breakthrough as "a significant contribution to strengthening democratic processes" that responds to calls by the EU and by the courts. The CoR contributed to the breakthrough through its participation in a 'reflection group on Mostar' specifically created in 2017 by the Council of Europe with the aim of restoring local democracy in the city.

* 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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