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Eastern Partnership would benefit from going local  

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Small cross-border projects and administrative training could have significant impact at low cost, local and regional politicians argue.

The European Union should deepen relations with neighbours on its eastern borders through more localised and targeted engagement, local and regional leaders from the EU and its partner countries have said. In two separate reports adopted on 12 September, they advised the EU to increase its support for small cross-border projects designed to increase community contacts and to establish a public-administration academy for local and regional civil servants from the six Eastern Partnership countries: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. 

The idea of the Conference for the Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP) to create an academy is one of a set of recommendations that seek to ensure that national, regional and local governments in the Eastern Partnership and the EU provide adequate training for civil servants. The separate call for more funding for people-to-people projects is one element in proposals that would see the EU move away from supporting a few, relatively sizeable and centrally run projects towards helping the development of a larger number of relatively small and locally driven projects in areas such as culture, education and sports.

These and other recommendations discussed by CORLEAP at a meeting in Turku, Finland, will be sent to the European Commission and the European External Action Service, to feed into a structured consultation process on the future of the Eastern Partnership. .

Karl-Heinz Lambertz , President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), said: "In its first decade, the Eastern Partnership has moved beyond trust-building to providing deliverables in many areas of life – such as easing trade, improving international transport, lifting visas, and offering an international education. The achievements are significant and measureable. The EU should now step up its collaboration with local and regional authorities. Cities and regions are critically important agents for change and they will play a major role in advancing an agenda we all share – to meet the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, particularly to create inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable communities."

Sergii Chernov, Chairman of Kharkiv Regional Council and President of the Ukrainian Association of Local and Regional Authorities, said about his recommendations on boosting administrative capacity in the region: "Taken as a whole, the countries of the Eastern Partnership are slowly transferring more responsibilities to local and regional authorities. But preparing civil servants in our municipalities to take on these responsibilities – and, more generally, for a shift to e-governance – is not easy. At this point, the EU can best help the development of cities' and regions' administrative capacity by supporting training and development programmes, including through study visits. Individual countries – such as Poland – are helping, but we should move from bilateral to multilateral support. I am a strong believer in the value of creating an Eastern Partnership Academy of Public Administration. Face-to-face collaboration and teaching would be best, so we would like this academy to have a particular base, though a 'virtual' academy would also help."

The recommendation to increase the EU's funding for small cross-border projects came from Pavel Branda (CZ/ECR), Deputy Mayor of Rádlo, near the Czech Republic's borders with Germany and Poland. He said: "The Eastern Partnership is about results – it is working on '20 deliverables by 2020' – and about building up relations. In my experience, good cross-border relations and strong economic ties can be built up very effectively through local projects, often at very little cost. The budget for the EU's current cross-border programme in these six countries is very modest – just €17.5 million – and most of that goes to relatively large projects. The EU should increase its budget, simplify processes, and introduce people-to-people projects with a lower minimum project size and with lower co-financing rates, thereby supporting a larger number of small projects. This would encourage the participation of smaller applicants, such as small municipalities and civil-society organisations. This could also help the emergence of more permanent, bottom-up forms of cooperation, such as the Euroregions."

The EU created the Eastern Partnership in 2009, and in 2011 the European Committee of the Regions established CORLEAP to ensure that all levels of government could have an opportunity to share their experience.

The European Commission and the European External Action Service is currently inviting contributions on the future of the Eastern Partnership, with a deadline for online contributions set for 31 October. The CoR itself is drafting an opinion that will also consolidate previous work done by it and by CORLEAP. The Partnership's future was also the centrepiece of debate at the meeting in Turku, with officials from the EU and the Sweden's ambassador to the Eastern Partnership, Anna Westerholm, joining CORLEAP members and the CoR's rapporteur-general on the topic, Tadeuš Andžejevski (LT/ECR), a member of Vilnius municipal council, to discuss the possible contribution of local and regional authorities.

Among other opinions produced by CORLEAP are recommendations focused on municipal-level relations with civil society, by the late mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, and on the energy transition and on local economic development, both by Emin Yeritsyan, president of the Union of Communities of Armenia and co-chairman of CORLEAP.

CORLEAP has already argued that the Eastern Partnership should strengthen regional and local initiatives that positively affect the implementation of democratisation and reform processes; adapt budgeting to the needs of local and regional stakeholders, by, for instance, supporting small-scale projects; reflect performance on issues of decentralisation, local democracy and good governance at the sub-national level when allocating funds; and help counter disinformation at the local and regional level.

The meeting in Turku came two days after the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen , published mission statements for incoming commissioners, including László Trócsányi , who, subject to approval by the European Parliament, could become commissioner for the EU's neighbourhood and enlargement in late 2019. 

In an innovation piloted in 2018 and 2019, the CoR created a project linking five cities and regions in Ukraine with local and regional authorities in the EU, focused on issues identified by the Ukrainian partners. As a result, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn has now asked the CoR to join a peer-to-peer project with Ukrainian cities to reduce corruption at the local level.