Members of CoR delegation back Albanian accession to EU, but stress need for sustained improvements.
Widespread political support for reform of local government in Albania is being undermined by concerns that the transfer of responsibilities is not being matched by a transfer of funds and by question marks over adherence to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, members of the European Committee of the Regions heard during a visit to Tirana on 12-13 November.
Albanian politicians – including Erion Veliaj, mayor of Tirana, Deputy Prime Minister Senida Mesi and Deputy Interior Minister Romina Kuko – told the CoR delegation, which was led by Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP) from the province of Salzburg, that there was political consensus that the old system led to fragmented government and hampered strategic investments in areas such as water management. They also pointed to a range of improvements made over past four years, which has seen the amalgamation of hundreds of local administrations, reducing the number of municipalities from 381 to 61, as well as the delegation of some powers in areas such as health, education and agriculture. Progress cited included better lines of communication with central government, training for mayors (supported with Swiss funding), the establishment – with the EU's help – of a network of EU desks in each municipality, and greater community outreach.
However, opposition politicians said that too little money is available to local government, with funding not following responsibilities, and complained that the new system forces local administrations to compete with each other for funding from central government, often with strings attached.
Some of their concerns were echoed by Marsida Ismaili of the University of Durres, who noted that the amount of funding available to sub-national government – equivalent to 1% of GDP – is low by Balkan standards and that Albania is following a regional pattern that has encouraged the emergence of strong mayors but which has limited local administration's fiscal discretion.
The CoR delegation voiced support for Albania's bid for EU membership, but its members emphasised the scale of the reform challenge by pointing that that roughly 70% of EU legislation that affects local and regional governments.
Mr Schausberger, who also serves as a special adviser to Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, said: "Albania has full support in its direction to the EU, but all the criteria must be fulfilled. It is important to include regions in these processes. The active participation of local and regional self-government will lead to a faster and more successful completion of the accession reforms and, in this way, they will confirm their role and potential in society."
He also highlighted financial support available from the EU for sub-national governments in would-be member states (summarised in a recent study commissioned by the CoR).
Helmut Mödlhammer, former president of the Austrian Association of Municipalities, highlighted a mechanism used in Austria to prevent the imposition of new costs on communes without their consent, noting also that, in a sharp contrast with Albania, local government is the biggest source of public investment.
Søren Serritzlew of the University of Aarhus stressed the challenges of reforms, drawing on evidence gathered over the ten years since reforms of sub-national government in Denmark, which have led to a significant consolidation of local administrations. Staff cuts had been cut, but the consolidation had not helped the provision of all services – as the optimal size of communes varies by service – and reforms may have harmed a sense of local representation.
The meeting of the CoR's Western Balkans working group with Albanian politicians came seven months before Albanian voters go to the polls in local elections on 30 June.
Ahead of the meeting, members of the delegation visited a school in Tirana that, constrained by a small budget, had formed a public-private partnership in order to meet surging demand for school places. It is currently common in Tirana for schools to operate two shifts, the delegation was told.
Other members of the CoR delegation were Jean-François Barnier (FR/ALDE), mayor of Chambon-Feugerolles; Pavel Branda (CZ/ECR), deputy mayor of Rádlo; Nikola Dobroslavić (HR/EPP), prefect of Dubrovnik-Neretva County; Marc Hendrickx (BE/EA) of the Flemish parliament; Jaroslav Hlinka (SK/PES), mayor of Košice-South; Jácint Horváth (HU/PES), of Nagybkanizsa county; Dimitrios Kalogeropoulos (EL/EPP) of Maroussi County Council; Jerry Lundy (IE/ALDE) of Sligo Country Council; Simonetta Saliera (IT/PES), president of Emilia-Regional Regional Assembly; and Stavros Stavrinides (EL/PES) of Strovolos Municipality.
Speakers included: Johann Sattler, Austria's Ambassador to Albania, representing Austria's Presidency of the Council of the European Union; Jorida Hasan Tabaku, member of the Albanian Parliament; Voltana Ademi, president of the Association of Albanian Municipalities and mayor of Shkodra; Adelina Farrici, executive director of the Association for Local Autonomy of Albania; and Mariana Semenyshyn of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme.