Two weeks before the European Commission unveils its long-term funding proposals for the European Union's foreign policy, local and regional leaders from the EU and from the six Eastern Partnership countries underlined at a meeting on 29 May that they wish to see a budget that provides adequate financial and administrative support for local and regional authorities and for efforts to stimulate local-level democracy.
National leaders made a commitment in November 2017 to develop a more results-focused relationship and to pay greater attention to local and regional authorities, and the 29 May meeting of the bureau of the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP) heard that a new city-level initiative by the EU has already generated "outstanding" interest.
Mathieu Bousquet of the European Commission said that communities in the Eastern Partnership countries have been very active in the Covenant of Mayors – a European, and now global, initiative launched by the Commission in 2008 in which communities receive technical support from the EU if they pledge to surpass EU climate targets – and that that positive experience had prompted the Commission to offer a similar framework to encourage economic development at the municipal level. Since the launch of the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative this January, 250 communities have signed up, a result that Mr Bousquet described as "outstanding". Sixteen pilot projects have now been launched.
Nils Jansons of the European External Action Service suggested that the results of the Eastern Partnership summit in November will have tangible benefits for citizens, cities and regions, and that accompanying changes to how the partnership functions would result in the earlier involvement of local communities in policy-making consultations. "The answer to how to manage the complexity" of very different national wishes from the Partnership "is in a more participatory preparation process," he said.
Anne Quart (DE/PES), the state secretary for Europe from the Land of Brandenburg, voiced concern that the needs of the Eastern Partnership countries might be neglected in the EU's funding plans for foreign policy are unveiled on 12 June, with the "bulk" of money going to countries in Africa and the EU's southern neighbourhood. She also urged the European Commission to revive the discontinued Local Administration Facility, saying that in her work in 2016 as the CoR's rapporteur on the EU's neighbourhood policy "most people I spoke to called for the Local Administration Facility to be returned and extended to Eastern Partnership countries, with stricter rules than in the past".
Delivering change in cities and regions
The European Committee of the Regions (CoR), which created CORLEAP in 2010, adopted detailed recommendations to national leaders ahead of the November summit, which were partially reflected in conclusions supporting the "inclusive engagement of all parts of society" and the work of CORLEAP, as well as in the plan for '20 deliverables by 2020'. The CoR's recommendations drew on CORLEAP reports on boosting civic participation by Paweł Adamowicz, mayor of Gdańsk, and on energy efficiency, by Emin Yeritsyan, head of Armenia's Union of Communities. This year, the focus of CORLEAP's work is on implementation, and discussions at the bureau meeting on 29 May will feed into two new sets of recommendations – one on 'Facilitating sustainable municipal development through bilateral municipal cooperation', to be drafted by Andris Jaunlenis (LV/ALDE), and the other on 'Economic cooperation and economic development at local level', to be prepared by Mr Yeritsyan.
Mr Jaunslenis, a former head of Latvia's local-government association, said that "bilateral cooperation is efficient and appreciated by the public, more so than any other cooperation", because "it is a partnership based on practical examples, based on trust". We must learn from others and borrow from their experiences, he argued, saying that "we are not good at learning from others' mistakes" but that bilateral cooperation "allows learning, because there is mutual trust".
Mr Yeritsyan stressed the need for decentralisation as a means to promote economic development, arguing in part that strengthening local and regional authorities is a means of reinforcing local democracy, building civil society, and therefore increasing the leverage for reforms. In Armenia, he noted, "the local government budget is just 8% of the public budget".
Encouraging participatory democracy
In an extended debate with external experts and with Marc Cools of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, members of the CORLEAP bureau also discussed how to make municipalities more effective in the Eastern Partnership and how to nurture local democracy, reflecting a conviction, expressed by Antonella Valmorbida, head of the European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA), that "in a complex society like ours we need to have a constant dialogue with our constituency".
The potency of greater public engagement in politics was described by Mr Yeritsyan, who argued that the change in government in Armenia in April showed that the "whole society decided to start from scratch", though he hesitated to call it a "revolution" yet. Speakers also gave numerous examples of participatory democracy across the region, as well as of city-to-city cooperation, such as twinning, which Mr Bousquet of the European Commission said was particularly popular in Azerbaijan.
However, increasing participation in local democracy remains a peripheral issue for politicians, donors, and also for parts of the electorate. Oleksiy Orlovsky of the International Renaissance Foundation said that, in Ukraine, legislation relating to participatory democracy is either obsolete or lacking, understanding of the subject is weak, and support from international donors is limited. Alexandra Kirby of the European Endowment for Democracy said that, in Armenia, "many people still don't think they have a right to take part in local decision-making and to attend council meetings", and that "the challenge" in the region as a whole "is to encourage people to invest in long-term change".
While "what is important for us is not necessarily important in the national and EU agenda," Ms Valmorbida, said, "we have to continue the fight because this is so important. This is what the people need and how they are going to renegotiate their trust with public institutions. This is where trust between citizens and institutions start."
The speakers identified a variety of ways to promote a pro-active approach to democracy, including decentralisation. Sylvia Ivanova, head of the Council of Europe's decentralisation and local-government reform programme for Ukraine, said that "lesson from Europe is that decentralisation is not an administrative task; it is about mind-set change, cultural change, very careful institutional change, changes in attitudes towards citizens." Balázs Jarábik of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that "decentralisation is absolutely necessary, but it should happen with care", with the objectives of a "better balance" in decision-making and "a clear mandate of responsibility".
Mr Jarabik said that in Slovakia and Hungary civil society had played "a critical role, especially in Slovakia", but warned that "in both countries, civil society is very urban-connected", a problem made graver by the urban-rural divide and by political polarisation.
At the individual level, Ms Valmorbida of ALDA warned that a "search for leadership drives us in the wrong direction because we are looking for the man or woman with particular capacities", suggesting that we should "divert some of our work from building leadership, to building animators of community". That view was echoed by Ms Kirby of the EED, who, citing the example of a factory worker in Dnipropetrovsk, said that the people who emerge as initiators of local action are not "the people we would expect". Mr Orlovsky said that experience in Ukraine suggests that participation is highest when there is one specific objective with a restricted number of tools used and with the engagement of non-governmental organisations.
CORLEAP plenary in Kyiv
The full membership of CORLEAP will meet in Kyiv in September, when the reports on city-to-city cooperation by Mr Jaunsleinis and on local economic development by Mr Yeritsyan are scheduled for approval. The European Commission indicated that early lessons from the pilot projects being run by the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative might be evident by then. CORLEAP's co-chairs, Karl-Heinz Lambertz of the CoR and Volodymyr Prokopiv, head of Kyiv City Council, indicated that issues related to Chernobyl might be addressed at the meeting, heeding a request from Belarus. Aleksandr Popkov, chairman of the committee on regional policy in the Council of the Republic of Belarus, told fellow bureau members that Belarus is witnessing "a new wave of diseases" linked to the nuclear disaster of 1986.
The meeting of CORLEAP will be held back-to-back with a meeting of the CoR's Ukraine Task-Force, which was created in 2015. The Task-Force's most recent meeting, held in Brussels in March, led to the creation of five city-to-city or region-to-region partnerships, managed by the German development agency GIZ and funded by the European Commission's 'ULEAD with Europe' programme for Ukraine.
CORLEAP members who attended the bureau meeting on 29 May included six members of the CoR and five representatives from Eastern Partnership countries. CoR members were: Karl-Heinz Lambertz (BE/PES), president of the CoR and co-chairman of CORLEAP; Paweł Adamowicz (PL/EPP), mayor of Gdańsk; Pavel Branda (CZ/ECR) from Rádlo council; Andris Jaunsleinis (LV/ALDE) from Ventspils council; Anne Quart (DE/PES), state secretary for Europe from the Land of Brandenburg; and Dariusz Wróbel (PL/EA) from Opole council. From the Eastern Partnership, the participants were: Volodymyr Prokopiv, head of Kyiv City Council and CORLEAP co-chairman; Alexandru Botnari, mayor of Hîncești in Moldova; Anar Ibrahimov of the Nakhchivan parliament in Azerbaijan; Aleksandr Popkov, chairman of parliamentary committee on regional policy from the Council of the Republic of Belarus; and Emin Yeritsyan, president of the Union of Communities of Armenia.
You can find the pictures and the presentations of the 12th CORLEAP bureau meeting here.