Eastern Partnership viewed as a cornerstone of EU relations with the region at a moment when war, pandemic, and economic transitions are testing cities' and regions' resilience and decentralisation processes.
Local and regional governments in the Black Sea region and Caucasus need additional support as they try to cope with war and instability across the region, local and regional leaders said on 7 September at the annual meeting of the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP). The meeting, which was held in Batumi, Georgia, resulted in two sets of recommendations for actions to bolster economic and political reforms in the Eastern Partnership and support the region's development and stability.
The meeting brought together politicians from the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and from the Eastern Partnership countries at a point when the war in Ukraine has transformed the geopolitics of the region and when the possible expansion of the EU is rising up the political agenda. The European Commission will next month present its annual progress reports on countries seeking to join the European Union, including Ukraine and Moldova, which were officially recognised as EU candidate countries in 2022, and Georgia, which was offered the same "European perspective" if it completes further reforms. On 7-8 September, Josep Borrell is making his first visit to Georgia in his capacity as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission.
Pavel Branda, (CZ/ECR), deputy mayor of Rádlo in Czechia, who co-chaired the CORLEAP meeting on behalf of the EU members, said: "This is moment when the EU needs to boost support for the region, including local and regional administrations. Russia's attempt to conquer and subjugate Ukraine is destabilising the region and complicating efforts to strengthen democratic institutions. If they are given adequate political and financial powers, local and regional authorities can be an important source of resilience in the region, as well as accelerators of the transition to greener and more digitally based economies. The impact of decentralised e-governance in Georgia is a very hopeful sign."
Zurab Abashidze, CORLEAP co-chair and vice-president of Tbilisi City Assembly, said: "We remain firmly committed to the Eastern Partnership and believe that it continues to have the potential to serve as a common policy framework for our region."
Dirk Schuebel, EU Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership, said that the Eastern Partnership would remain a structuring element of the EU's relationship with the region, regardless of individual countries' progress towards membership of the EU.
Speakers from the national and EU level joined local and regional politicians in emphasising that cooperation between the EU and the Eastern Partnership region must not be a top-down process. "Cities and regions remain highly committed to the Eastern Partnership. More needs to be done to boost resilience in the region, and it starts at the local level," Ambassador Schuebel said, while Ina Coşeru, co-president of EuroNest Parliamentary Assembly and a member of the Moldovan parliament, emphasised that "the Eastern Partnership is about the transformation and democratisation of the countries in the region, also at the local level".
The war in Ukraine was highlighted repeatedly by speakers, who emphasised that the war and its effects – including on energy and the cost of living – is testing the resilience of local and regional authorities across Europe. Harald Sondregger, President of the Chamber of Regions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, said that "the war in Ukraine has long-lasting economic, social and environmental effects on the entire continent" and that, as in the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and regions have found themselves "on the front lines" of managing the effects of an international crisis.
The importance of ensuring that regions and cities have adequate powers and funds was underscored by Patrick Molinoz (FR/PES), vice-president of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, who said that fiscal decentralisation should be a priority for CORLEAP over the next year. Mr Molinoz chairs the CoR's Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs (CIVEX).
Two reports were adopted at the meeting. Mr Abashidze drafted a report, entitled "E-services for citizens at the local level: what good came out from the COVID-19 pandemic?", that compared the expansion of e-governance in four Eastern Partnership countries – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – and concluded that, across the region, more efforts are needed to bridge the digital divide, enhance digital literacy, and improve infrastructure, especially in rural areas. Georgia's experience, however, highlights that a decentralised approach, with local and regional administrations to the fore, can accelerate the rollout of e-services.
The second report adopted at the meeting – by Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), mayor of Gdańsk, and entitled "What can we do together with our partners?" – argues that it is more important than ever for the EU to provide technical, financial and political support for local and regional governance, as regional conflicts and challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and rising food and energy prices have slowed or halted progress towards providing local and regional authorities in EaP countries with the powers and funds they need to meet local needs. Robust local and regional authorities with solid financial foundations are a pre-condition for functioning in accordance with the values of the EU, the report states.
A day after the CORLEAP meeting, on 8 September, Mr Abashidze and Archil Chikovani, mayor of Batumi, are hosting a conference on the role of municipalities in the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy, featuring the mayors of Rustavi, Poti and Ozurgeti from Georgia, experts, and civil-society representatives, as well as three members of the EU delegation to CORLEAP: Mr Branda, Radim Sršeň (CZ/EPP), mayor of Dolní Studénky and deputy minister of regional development of the Czech Republic, and Andres Jaadla (EE/Renew Europe), member of Rakvere City Council.
- Over the coming year, based on an action plan adopted on 7 September, CORLEAP will advocate for fiscal decentralisation, deeper cooperation between the EU and countries in the Eastern Partnership, and for more measures to continue the post-COVID recovery. CORLEAP will lend particular support to two recent innovations – the 'green city' award for municipalities in the Eastern Partnership that are aligning their policies with the European Green Deal, and the Eastern Partnership Academy for Public Administration, which aims to promote expertise in local and regional government.
- Ukraine will take over the co-chairmanship of CORLEAP from Georgia as of 1 October. Sergii Chernov, member of the Kharkiv Regional Council and president of the Ukrainian Association of District and Regional Councils, will co-chair the Conference on behalf of the Eastern Partnership members in 2023-24.
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