Ukraine and the skills challenges in countries seeking membership of the European Union were centre-stage at the annual Enlargement Day conference organised by the European Committee of the Regions, following a year that has seen the EU recognise Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina as candidates for membership and start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
The focus on skills reflected the EU's decision to designate 2023 as the European Year of Skills, but the choice of theme was also a recognition that local and regional administrations and labour forces and in countries seeking EU membership face significant skills challenges.
Speaking in the conference's plenary session on 5 May, Klas Klaas of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that experience of a 30-year-old initiative of the EU and the OECD – the Support for Improvement in Government and Management (SIGMA) programme – has shown that administrative success is highest where administrative systems are open, tolerant, and merit-based and where corruption is limited. Several speakers drew particular attention to women. Systemic support and programmes to help women to assume managerial posts are needed, Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova of the Regional School of Public Administration (ReSPA) based in Montenegro, arguing that "sustainable growth is not possible without harnessing the potential of half the population". Niina Ratilainen (FI/Greens), a member of Turku City Council, said that the transition to a decarbonised economy should be embraced in part as an opportunity for women, noting that "more women work in green industries than in the fossil-fuel industry".
The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) is currently drafting an opinion on the European Commission's annual review of progress on reforms associated with EU accession. The CoR's rapporteur, Anna Magyar (HU/ECR),member of the Council of Csongrád Megye, said her opinion would reaffirm "the EU's local and regional authorities' commitment to a merit-based accession, which contributes to peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability in Europe".
Recordings of the country-specific meetings and the plenary session – as well as details of the agendas and speakers – can be found on the webpage for the Enlargement Day conference.
The CoR's Working Group Ukraine discussed how to boost the capacity of local and regional administrations in preparation for EU accession – and immediately after the meeting the City of Lviv demonstrated its commitment to readying itself by becoming the first Ukrainian city or region to open a representative office in Brussels.
Serhiy Kiral, the city's deputy mayor, said that the city's representation – hosted in the offices of the European Committee of the Regions – will serve as a "front office" for other Ukrainian sub-national authorities as well. Lviv was the seventh most populous city in Ukraine before the war and it is now home to many people displaced by fighting in other parts of the country.
Deputy Mayor Kiral made the introductory remarks at the WG Ukraine, the first time that Ukrainian representatives have been invited to the Enlargement Day conference. Other speakers included Vitaliy Maletskiy, mayor of Kremenchuh, a city that has been heavily targeted by Russian forces, and by Jan Olbrycht (PL/EPP), a member of the European Parliament, who emphasised Ukrainian local administrations' long track record and the need for the EU to find fresh money to fund its support for Ukraine.
Niina Ratilainen (FI/Greens), member of Turku City Council, who chaired the WG Ukraine meeting, said: "As we continue to support our Ukrainian partners, it is important to recognise the progress that has been made towards accession to the EU. This meeting marks a step forward on Ukraine's accession path, as it takes place for the first time in the framework of the annual Enlargement Day. I am pleased that the implementation of all the steps in the CoR '10-point support package for Ukraine' are well underway, and we opened a new office space for the Lviv representation to Brussels. Just two weeks ago, during a CoR visit to Kyiv, our message was clear: EU local leaders will continue to do everything in their power to support their Ukrainian partners."
The Working Group Türkiye focused on cooperation between local authorities on civil protection, crisis management and reconstruction process following the earthquakes that hit the south-east of the country in February 2023. Faruk Kaymakci, Türkiye's ambassador to the EU, was among the speakers.
Antje Grotheer (DE/PES), vice-president of Bremen City Parliament and co-chair of the Working Group Türkiye, said: "The humanitarian efforts after the devastating earthquake might be an opportunity to revitalise the EU-Türkiye relations."
Türkiye has opened 16 chapters of the 35 necessary to complete the accession process. It has closed one of these chapters, on science and research.
WG Western Balkans
Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022 received the status of candidate for EU membership, and Nikola Dobroslavić (HR/EPP), Prefect of Dubrovnik-Neretva County and co-chair of the WG Western Balkans, said: "Local and regional representatives from all states and cantons of Bosnia and Herzegovina will always be welcome at the CoR. The CoR has been and will continue to be a strong supporter of the BiH's European aspirations and will provide assistance and support wherever it can in order to facilitate this."
Politicians from Bosnia and Herzegovina who were at the meeting included Zlatan Klokić, the Republika Srpska's minister for European Integration and International Cooperation, Benjamina Karić, mayor of Sarajevo, and Stjepan Bošković, mayor of Stolac.
The WG Western Balkans also discussed challenges facing the local and regional level in Kosovo*, with contributors including Agim Aliu, president of the Association of Kosovo Municipalities (AKM).
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution UNSCR 1244/1999 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
Serbia's progress towards EU accession, its alignment with EU foreign policy, its internal political dialogue and reforms – including at the local and regional level – were topics touched on in a political debate at the JCC meeting that included contributions by Čedomir Rakić, State Secretary from the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government, Ana Hrustanović, Serbia's ambassador to the EU, and Vladimír Bilčík (SK/EPP), the European Parliament's rapporteur on Serbia. A second debate focused capacity-building in local and regional administrations, looking at public-private partnerships, with contributors including Vladan Vasić, mayor of Pirot, and Andrijana Jovanović from the Serbian government's Commission for Public-Private Partnership.
Serbia first applied to join the European Union in 2009, became a candidate state in 2012, and opened negotiations on EU membership with the European Commission in January 2014. It has so far opened talks on 22 of the 35 'chapters' of EU law that candidate countries must adopt and implement to become an EU member state.
Dragana Sotirovski, mayor of Niš, chaired the meeting with Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP), representative of the State Parliament of Salzburg. Mr Schausberger said: "Local and regional authorities of Serbia must have the opportunity to be actively involved in the integration process because the Copenhagen criteria require robust local institutions and financing systems. In order to reach good governance and trust of citizens in politics, it is necessary that not only national but also regional and local political authorities get assigned with competencies and enough financial resources so they can fulfil their responsibilities."
JCC North Macedonia
North Macedonia began negotiations on EU membership with the European Commission in July 2022, and the two sides have been going through the screening process on three of the six clusters of EU law that future members need to adopt.
After a review of progress by Zulfi Ismaili, head of the Permanent Mission of North Macedonia to the EU, and other speakers, the meeting considered skills that municipalities in North Macedonia particularly need at this point in a debate led by Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova, director of the Regional School for Public Administration (ReSPA), headquartered in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, and Blagoja Mirčevski, a consultant from Croatia.
The meeting was co-chaired by Danela Arsovska, mayor of Skopje, and by Jasna Gabrič (SI/RE), mayor of the municipality of Trbovlje. Ms Gabrič said: "The JCC North Macedonia has come a long way. It would really be a pity to endanger the continuation of its work now for a lack of political will, when North Macedonia has finally started its accession negotiations, when EU enlargement is back in focus, and the European Commission has started recognizing the role of local and regional authorities in the EU integration process. Let me reassure the representatives from North Macedonia again that your country, its municipalities and mayors have our full support to become an EU member state."
During a debate on economic development in disadvantaged local communities and regions in the plenary session, Ms Gabrič, who leads a former mining town, said that the "main thing is that we have to cooperate – the city, the economic sector", adding that "the quality of services come from the quality of people there, who are chosen there not based on their political affiliation".
The Enlargement Day conference was held four weeks after Montenegro held elections that resulted in Jakov Milatović becoming president. The joint statement by the EU's High Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi highlighted the need to build consensus on priority actions that are key to the country's EU accession progress and to focus on rule-of-law reforms. The same issues, political volatility, and the functioning of Montenegrin institutions were touched on during the political debate in the JCC Montenegro meeting at the Enlargement Day conference. Contributors included Anđelka Rogač, Deputy Head of the Permanent Mission of Montenegro to the EU, and Vanja Starovlah, Deputy Secretary-General of the Union of Municipalities of Montenegro.
Dušan Bošković, a member of the Governing Board of the Centre for Professional Education of Montenegro, and Elena Donazzan, Regional Minister for education, training, work, and equal opportunities for the Region of Veneto, spoke about skills that are needed in the Montenegrin labour market, in part to stem a 'brain drain' from the country.
Roberto Ciambetti (IT/ECR), President of the Veneto Regional Council, who co-chaired the meeting with Dušan Raičević, mayor of Bar, also addressed the out-migration, stating: "We need to invest in skills that will contribute to the development of local communities in Montenegro, whilst ensuring that young people do not have to migrate to other countries. This will help combat the phenomenon of brain drain and negative demographic trends in the region."
Ciambetti added: "I hope we will soon see the beginning of an era of
political and social stability in Montenegro. An essential part of it should be
a broad public dialogue on all crucial issues, both at local and national
level, and a national consensus on the implementation of European rules to
accelerate the process of European integration of Montenegro. In all of this,
local political leaders, who are closest to the citizens, who know them and
their problems well, have a crucial role to play. We appreciate Montenegro's
continued constructive engagement in further developing regional cooperation
and promoting good neighbourly relations in the Western Balkan region."