European Committee of the Regions backs EU strategy aimed at enabling the accession of Western Balkan countries starting in 2025
Plans to invigorate the European Union's engagement with the Western Balkans were welcomed by the European Committee of the Regions on 22 March, but the EU's assembly for local and regional politicians stressed that the EU must make itself "stronger and more stable" before countries from the region can join the Union.
The call for "a wider strategy to strengthen the EU" is contained in a set of recommendations published today that state that the success of the EU's enlargement to the Western Balkans will heavily depend on local and regional government greater involvement in the EU accession process.
The CoR drew up recommendations at the request of the Bulgarian EU Presidency and ahead of a debate on enlargement at the EU summit in May, and adopted the proposals after a debate on 22 March with Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations. The European Commission's strategy and action plan set out on 6 February aims to "create a completely new dynamic that will see Serbia and Montenegro meet the membership criteria by 2025" and should encourage other countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – to accelerate reforms. During the debate the Commissioner underlined, however, that the pace of accession negotiations will depend on the implementation of reforms, in particular in the rule-of-law area. The strategy is scheduled for adoption by EU member states this June.
Karl-Heinz Lambertz , President of the European Committee of the Regions, said: "The EU should always be open to welcome in new members if and when they are ready. Currently, this means significantly stepping up progress on local-government reform in candidate countries so that cities and regions are given substantially greater powers and capacity. Importantly, they must be fully aligned not only with all EU values, but demonstrate that they are upholding the rule of law and meeting fiscal rules The 2025 accession date for Serbia and Montenegro is ambitious but possible if the pace of reform significantly picks up and if local authorities are given a greater say in the EU accession process."
Commissioner Hahn emphasised that the success of enlargement will depend heavily on the involvement of local and regional authorities. "I am convinced that strengthening capacities at local and regional administration and government levels in the Western Balkans countries has a positive impact on a country’s development as they are essential when it comes to implementing the EU acquis at the local and regional level. Therefore I highly value the work of the Committee of Regions in this regard," he said.
In his opinion , Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP), representative of Salzburg Province, underlined that strengthening local and public administrations will be "absolutely essential" if integration is to be a success. He said: "The European Commission has suggested that 2025 is a plausible target date for Serbia and Montenegro to join the EU. That will require a commitment and speed that we have not seen to date. The volume of EU law is huge, and cities and regions will need to implement about 70% of it. At the moment, they are not ready for that. They need stronger powers, better training, greater transparency, more money, greater dynamism, and a sharper focus on providing services to citizens."
The recommendations highlight the political importance and practical value of cross-border cooperation in the region, and they point to a set of initiatives – many of them established by the EU – that the region's national and sub-national governments should join "without delay". The report notes that local and regional governments have gained powers in most countries in the region, and specifically cites the benefits of reform in Albania and Serbia, anti-corruption measures in Albania and Montenegro, and Serbia's pioneering adoption of the EU's Gender Equality Index. Across the region, there is a "vital" need of funds to increase regional and local administrations' ability to perform their "expanded roles". The report also states that none of the countries "can be regarded as a functioning market economy" and warns that they are currently unable "to cope with the competitive pressure and market forces in the EU". They also remain a significant distance from meeting the EU's values and standards of governance.
· The opinion by the European Committee of the Regions is entitled: " Enlargement: Inclusion of Western Balkans Local and Regional Authorities in the EU's Macro-regional, Cross-border and other Transnational Cooperation Initiatives ". The rapporteur, Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP), represents the province of Salzburg and has been a member of the CoR since 1996. A former governor of the Salzburg province (1996-2004), he is the founder and president of the Institute of the Regions of Europe and in October 2016 he became a special adviser to Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations.
· The CoR's opinions underscores that "regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations" should be "key prerequisites" for admission to the EU, specifically noting the "utmost importance" attached to migration and border management". It calls for more cross-border cooperation, while noting a general improvement and describing the 'Berlin Process' started in 2014 as a "significant step" at the national level. It calls for local and regional governments to increase cross-border activities, to twin themselves with cities abroad, take advantage of the EU's TAIEX technical-support programmes, macro-regional strategies, and cross-border instruments such as Interreg programmes and European Groupings of Territorial Cooperation. The recommendations build on CoR opinions on the value and implementation of macro-regional strategies, ways of strengthening cross-border cooperation , and the EU's strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region .
· The European Committee of the Regions has joint consultative committees with Serbia , Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia . These committees, which have a fixed membership, typically meet twice a year and follow a long-term work programme. The CoR has a working group for the other countries in the Western Balkans – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo – as well as a working group with Turkey. The working groups meet twice annually; the delegations from the Balkans and Turkey are organised ad-hoc.
· On 3-4 May, the European Committee of the Regions will hold its 4th Enlargement Day, one of the annual flagship events on enlargement policy in Brussels, organized this year with the co-operation of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU. The event will bring together delegations from each country currently negotiating entry to the EU, Turkey included. The conference will be preceded by meetings of the joint consultative committees and the working groups. Analyses of the division of power in each country are available on the CoR's website .
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