EU's new approach is generating "new momentum" and boosting hopes of local government being able to contribute to a green investment drive, but rule-of-law issues will determine progress to membership.
There are early signs that changes aimed at making the process of accession to the European Union more dynamic and predictable are yielding results, with local and regional leaders, Serbia's EU ambassador and the European Commission detecting a "new momentum" in the past year.
The European Commission set out its revised approach in
and followed up, in October 2020, by presenting an
Economic Investment Plan
that – it hopes – will trigger €9 billion in investment for the Western
Balkans region, spur the region's long-term recovery and green and digital
economic transition, foster economic cooperation, and support reforms. The
10 June meeting
Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) Serbia
, which brings together members of the European Committee of the Regions
and local and regional politicians from Serbia, was also the first
between the European Parliament and EU member states on a new Instrument
for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III) totalling more than €14 bn for
(AT/EPP), who co-chairs the JCC and represents the State Parliament of
Salzburg, said: "The new method reveals a new momentum in the negotiations.
There has been significant progress in several important areas. We were
pleased to see that the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities
plays an important role in the preparations for the accession negotiations
and that the ideas of the municipalities can be incorporated in this way.
It will be crucial that the necessary investments to cope with the corona
crisis can also be reconciled with the principles of the Green Deal for a
sustainable environmental policy. The EU funding is of great importance for
, Head of Mission of the Republic of Serbia to the European Union, stated
that Serbia had managed to achieve "very concrete results in the rule of
law." Speaking of the EU's Economic Investment Plan, she said the
associated initiatives, programmes and projects "could be of huge relevance
to our local communities".
(SK/EPP), the European Parliament's rapporteur for Serbia, identified three
EU-related issues that are of particular importance at the local and
regional level in Serbia. Describing the local regional level as "crucial
for any flourishing democracy", he hoped the EU could "encourage positive
developments ahead of local elections". Secondly, the Economic Investment
Plan is a "potentially huge boost" and would, he hoped, "help engage local
and regional actors" and prove to be "a good tool" to improve public
opinion about the EU in Serbia. Thirdly, he emphasised that the Green Deal
must be a priority. "Any way we can help, also in cooperation with local
authorities, to encourage future-oriented green investment would be very
Catherine Wendt of the European Commission said: "We have seen new
momentum", with Serbia making progress "in some areas". However, she noted
that "there are delays in others" and emphasised that "the overall pace" of
Serbia's accession talks with the EU "will depend on Serbia's progress
including on the rule of law and relations on Kosovo".
Ms Wendt, who noted the "huge role" of local government in public
investment, said that the EU will "encourage the central authorities to
engage in a genuine dialogue with local authorities" in Serbia. The EU
itself – which provides support to local administrations in Serbia in ways
that range from funding water and waste infrastructure to supporting their
administrative capacity – has recently reinforced its collaboration at the
local level, by extending its
Technical Assistance and Information Exchange
(TAIEX) instrument to local and regional administrations in the Western
Balkans. The JCC Serbia and the CoR had been calling for such a decision.
Members also discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Ambassador
Hrustanović, who described tensions between Serbia and the EU early in the
pandemic as "misunderstandings", asked the EU to recognise Serbia's
'digital certificate' of vaccination, so that vaccinated Serbs can travel
to the EU. Serbia, she said, has progressed faster with vaccination than
other countries in the region and faster than many countries in the EU.
Members approved a work programme that, through to 2025, will see the JCC
focus its collaboration and discussions on: local democracy, good
governance, the rule of law and fundamental rights; environmental
protection, climate action and energy; local economic development;
demographic and social issues; cross-border cooperation; and the UN's
Sustainable Development Goals.