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City partnerships showing early promise in North Macedonia  

Significance of local and regional government in the EU enlargement process is gaining recognition in North Macedonia.

Municipalities in North Macedonia are showing significant interest in establishing direct partnerships with cities and regions in the European Union and the government of North Macedonia is committed to strengthening local finances, local and regional politicians were told on 2 June.

Speaking on behalf of the EU Delegation to North Macedonia, Karl Giacinti told members of the European Committee of the Regions that a new EU support programme targeting local government was heavily oversubscribed. He was addressing the Joint Consultative Committee North Macedonia, which the European Committee of the Regions created to facilitate political contacts and cooperation with the aim of preparing cities and regions in North Macedonia for the challenges of EU membership. The update on the launch of the new 'EU for Municipalities' programme was welcomed by local and regional politicians from the EU, with a number indicating that the local and regional authorities that they represent would be interested in collaborating with counterparts in North Macedonia.

The meeting was held against the background of an increased EU investment in the Western Balkans, and a renewed effort by the presidency of EU Council of Ministers – currently held by Portugal – to secure the backing of all EU member states for the start of formal accession talks with North Macedonia.

Agneza Rusi-Popovska, North Macedonia's Ambassador to the EU, praised efforts by the Portuguese EU presidency, saying that it had put "a reasonable compromise" that offered a "creative", "win-win solution for all". She described the proposal that would protect the accession process from possible bilateral issues, and "would enable the negotiations to be more focused on the real issues such as rule of law, economic convergence, and aligning of rules".

David Cullen, of the European Commission's directorate for Directorate for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement (DG NEAR), said that the Economic and Investment Plan launched last year by the European Commission, which could potentially generate €9 billion in funding for the Western Balkans, would accelerate the green and digital transition. He described "close cooperation" with local and regional authorities "as a pre-requisite" for the EU, since the list of activities requiring implementation at the local level is "pretty endless", and noted that more than half of the over 700 projects supported by the EU are implemented "outside Skopje".

Goran Milevski, Minister for Local Self-Government of the Republic of North Macedonia, said that the government – with the support of the international community – was pushing ahead with its new strategy for regional development, a new programme for sustainable local development, and a programme of decentralisation. It has also just started efforts to boost the capacity of local authorities to gather taxes and other sources of income and, in response to the pandemic, to bolster the crisis-management capacities of local communities and to accelerate digitalisation. 

Petre Shilegov, Mayor of City of Skopje, Chairman of the Association of Units of Local Self-Government of the Republic of North Macedonia (ZELS), emphasised the high quality of cooperation that North Macedonian municipalities enjoy with municipalities in Western Balkans and the EU, particularly praising collaboration on projects with Bulgarian municipalities.

EU for Municipalities programme

The creation in 2020 of an 'EU for Municipalities' programme for North Macedonia reflects a deepening effort to support local and regional authorities in the country. Mr Giacinti of the EU Delegation to North Macedonia told the forum that about 60 local authorities in North Macedonia had applied to join the programme. The Delegation expects this autumn to draw up a shortlist of municipalities and then to organise a match-making event involving the CoR to assist in identifying local authorities from EU member states that can partner up with counterparts in North Macedonia.  Participating local authorities would benefit from EU funding and from technical support.

Jasna Gabrič (SI/Renew Europe), mayor of Trbovlje and Co-Chair of the JCC North Macedonia, said: "I believe that the peer-to-peer cooperation between the municipalities from North Macedonia and their counterparts in the EU is among the best ways to prepare local authorities in North Macedonia for accession and achieve practical results that the citizens will appreciate." She continued: "Accession of North Macedonia will bring benefits to local communities throughout the EU and I am convinced that we will all benefit from the family expanding."

Her counterpart from North Macedonia – Borjancho Micevski, mayor of Kriva Palanka described the heavy human and economic costs to the country caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and called for solidarity between the local authorities in North Macedonia and the EU help overcome its consequences.

Nikola Dobroslavić (HR/EPP), President of Dubrovnik-Neretva Region and the CoR's rapporteur on the enlargement process, highlighted a range of other ways in which the CoR would like to see local government in North Macedonia bolstered. He noted that there is "no integrated system for monitoring and planning local development", and urged the European Commission to enable EU candidate countries to use mechanisms such as TAIEX (Technical Assistance and Information Exchange). He highlighted his and CoR's support for North Macedonia (and Albania) to open EU accession negotiations soonest.

The JCC North Macedonia adopted its Work Programme for 2021-25, which is built on a set of core topics: local democracy, good governance, rule of law and fundamental rights; environment protection, climate action and energy; local economic development; demographic and social issues; cross-border cooperation; and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a focus on peer-to-peer exchanges between members from the EU and North Macedonian local authorities.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The JCC also discussed the current state of North Macedonia's application to join the EU and the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the local level. At the national level, North Macedonia has one of the highest mortality rates in Europe, and its economy contracted by 4.5% in 2020.

Macedonian members reported widely differing experiences. Sasho Pockov said that Gevgelija, his municipality, which lies on the border with Greece, had been hit severely by the halt to cross-border traffic. By contrast, the mayor of Makedonska Kamenica, Sonja Stamenkova, said that the leading local employer – a lead and zinc mine – had provided support to the community and that the municipality's budget had been unaffected.

More information on the JCC North Macedonia, including its membership, can be found here.