Local and regional politicians from Serbia on 17 October told members of the European Committee of the Regions that they are working hard to ensure that their administrations are fully prepared to meet European Union standards by the time their country joins the EU. They were speaking at a meeting in Niš at which the EU side voiced continuing concerns about the quality of the rule of law and degree of media freedom in Serbia.
Branko Ruzić, Serbia's minister of public administration and local self-government, set out the key elements of the country's public-administration reforms and said that his ministry consistently stresses the need for municipalities to prepare for membership of the EU – which Serbia hopes to achieve by 2025 – since around two-thirds of EU legislation requires action by cities and regions. Dušanka Golubović, mayor of Sombor and president of Standing Conference of Cities and Municipalities of Republic of Serbia, said that EU laws held clear implications in policy areas ranging from public procurement to gender rights and energy efficiency. Mateja Norčič, head of the political section of the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Serbia, noted that Serbia still faces a long path of reforms before it reaches the doors of the EU and encouraged the Serbian government to make the accession process its top priority.
The head of the CoR's delegation, Franco Iacop (IT/PES), member of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Regional Council and co-chairman of the joint consultative committee as well as the CoR's rapporteur on the EU's enlargement negotiations, called for further work to strengthen local and regional authorities in Serbia, and suggested that Serbia's cities and regions create twinning projects with communities in the EU. He also emphasised that the CoR fully supports the accession of countries from the Western Balkans, and urged for the process to be bottom-up, enabling citizens to feel directly the benefits of moving toward the EU.
Alin-Adrian Nica (RO/EPP), mayor of Dudeştii Noi Timiş County, urged Serbia to learn from the experience of Romania, which, he said, had consulted its local authorities too little ahead of accession into the EU. Failure to do so would be all the more costly in Serbia and other countries in the western Balkans, because, he said, they had already lost the equivalent of a generation's worth of economic progress because of the conflicts of the 1990s.
Mr Nica and other CoR members emphasised that there is no one model for local government in Europe, but also spoke of the need and value of abiding by the European Charter of Local Self-Government adopted in 1985. Valter Flego (HR/ALDE), prefect of Istria County, underlined the challenge of finding the right balance between levels of government, saying that his country – Croatia – remains too centralised, with 90% of taxes being retained by central government.
A recurrent concern – about the degree of political and media freedoms in Serbia – was brought sharply into focus by Declan McDonnell (IE/EA) of Galway City Council, who said that the Serbian authorities needed to work closely with local administrations to ensure there is no repeat of the failings that he has seen as an election observer in Serbia.
The meeting of the joint consultative committee also focused on one particular topic of interest identified by Serbian local authorities – tourism. The host-city, Niš, is the birthplace of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, and Marija Labović from Serbia's tourism agency and Jelena Trifunović, major of Svrljig, highlighted efforts being made to increase the number of domestic and international tourists. Some of the effects have been dramatic, with Ms Labović noting a 17% increase in tourist numbers in 2017. Still, as Steffen Hudolin of the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Serbia noted, the average foreign tourist spends just two nights in Serbia. Mr Flego shared experiences from Istria on the Croatian coast, while Arnold Hatch (UK/ECR), member of Craigavon Borough Council and leader of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, highlighted ways in which Northern Irish administrations have increased tourism to Belfast, the Giant's Causeway and to Country Armagh.
Other CoR members of the JCC present were: Anna Magyar (HU/EPP), vice-president of Csongrád Megye County Council; and Konstantinos Simitsis (EL/PES) from Kavala municipal council.
The committee was co-chaired by Dejan Jovanović, mayor of Niška Banja, and hosted by Darko Bulatović, mayor of Niš.
Other Serbian members attending were: Ognjen Bjelić, the secretary for regional development for the Province of Vojvodina; Saša Djordjević, mayor of Fadžin Han; Vladica Dimitrov, mayor of Dimitrovgrad; Sabina Dizdarević of Tutin municipality; Robert Fejstamer, mayor of Kanjiža; Lidija Ivanović of Knjaževac municipality; Mirjana Mitrović of Vračar municipality in Belgrade; and Nikola Naumović from the city of Čačak.