Across the Balkans, the EU needs to focus on the long term, by supporting bottom-up change.
The European Union should do much more to support the consolidation of effective and independent public administrations in municipalities and regions in the Balkans and Turkey. This would, the European Committee of the Regions argues in an opinion adopted on 12 February, help counter the "increasingly hostile environment for civil society" in some countries, help drive economic growth and, more broadly, advance sustainable development.
The recommendations from the European Committee of the Regions come days after the European Commission outlined new proposals on enlargement and four days before Balkan leaders informally meet the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.
The rapporteur is Jaroslav Hlinka (SK/PES), Mayor of Košice-South. He said: "The EU needs to be credible, and credibility means keeping your promises. The EU therefore needs to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, as recommended by the European Commission – and it should urgently liberalise visas for Kosovars. But credibility also requires more convincing ideas to help the rest of the Balkans and Turkey to progress – which, in turn, means confronting the reality that many leaders at the national level lack political will and are exerting pressure on local politicians, civil society, and independent media. This trend must be stopped and reversed. We need to invest more in the sustainable bottom-up development of local communities and their core building blocks: civil society, the independent media, and local government. Without that, local democracy will continue to weaken, and countries will not be able to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in 2030 – or to make a real success of eventual EU membership."
Over 60% of EU law requires action at the local level, one-third of the EU's budget is spent on regional development, and 65% of the targets in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals involve regions and cities.
The CoR's opinion – the latest in an annual series of reviews of the EU's enlargement policy – places a greater emphasis than in the past on broader, longer-term objectives for the region, by including a specific section related to the role of local and regional governments in the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It particularly emphasises climate action, including the benefits for cities and regions of joining the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a bottom-up movement that benefits from the technical and political support of the EU.
In country-specific comments focused on local politics, the report highlights failures to meet not only EU standards but also pan-European standards. The failure to hold local elections in Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is described as an "unprecedented violation of the principles enshrined in Article 3 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government", while a series of actions in Turkey – the Supreme Election Council's order to re-run local elections in İstanbul, the removal of democratically elected mayors in Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van, and "further acts of repression against municipal council members and employees" – are "incompatible with the spirit and the principles of the European Charter of Local Self- Government".
The CoR is also concerned that neither Serbia nor Montenegro is showing determination to reduce the polarisation of their political scenes, and, in particular, it urges the Commission to press Serbia on "allegations of intimidation" of democratically elected officials belonging to opposition parties, notably in the municipalities of Paraćin, Šabac and Čajetina. Both Serbia and Montenegro have already started accession talks.
Among specific actions that the CoR would like taken by the EU is the creation of a specific line in the EU's long-term budget reserved for local and regional authorities. The proposal is backed by the European Parliament. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, hopes to conclude the budget negotiations at a summit starting on 20 February.
The CoR highlights a number of existing programmes and mechanisms – such as SIGMA, TAIEX, and Twinning – that could be extended to sub-national administrations in the region, to support improvements in local governance and management, to fund training, peer-to-peer cooperation. However, it would also like the Commission to outline fresh ideas – for policies, tools and instruments – to help local and regional governments.
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