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Eastern Partnership and media freedom opinions win early backing  
CIVEX commission approves recommendations on the future of the Eastern Partnership and European Media Freedom Act, and starts work on Enlargement Package. 

Two sets of recommendations – on the future of the Eastern Partnership and media freedom – won preliminary support from members of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) on 1 February. Both opinions secured strong backing at a meeting of the Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs (CIVEX) and are now poised for adoption at the CoR's plenary on 15-16 March.

​The meeting also featured an exchange of views on the European Commission's assessment of the enlargement process, and a debate on how to involve local and regional authorities more deeply into the European democratic process.

Future of the Eastern Partnership

The opinion on the future of the Eastern Partnership (EaP)– created by the EU in 2009 to strengthen and structure relations with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – is being drafted by the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) on its own initiative and focuses on local and regional aspects of cooperation. It reflects, however, a broader discussion about how to adjust the EU's cooperation within the Partnership's structure in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February and the role of the Partnership now that two members – Ukraine and Moldova – are candidates for membership of the EU.

Rapporteur Alin-Adrian Nica (RO/EPP), president of Timiş County Council, said: "The most powerful European response to the Russian invasion will be the support for free, democratic states in eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and beyond, with strong regional and local authorities, economically and culturally vibrant cities and societies committed to European values. The Eastern Partnership needs to change and respond proactively to the new realities by supporting all partner countries in their aspirations. In the draft text we favour more flexibility and differentiation in both the EaP's bilateral and multilateral approaches in order to match the different priorities of each partner; as well as promote stronger involvement of regional and local authorities when designing cooperation priorities with territorial impact."

Speakers at the meeting included Christina Johannesson, Sweden's ambassador for the Eastern Partnership, and Lawrence Meredith, a director in the European Commission's Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. Sweden currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union and was one of the prime movers behind the creation of the Eastern Partnership.

European Media Freedom Act

The European Commission presented proposals for a European Media Freedom Act in September 2022, aiming to protect media pluralism and independence with proposals that include increased transparency of ownership and advertising, more stable funding for public-service media, and measures to protect media content.

The rapporteur is Mark Speich (DE/EPP), North Rhine-Westphalia's Secretary of State for Federal, European and International Affairs and a former chair of the CIVEX committee. He said: "Democratic societies are built on media freedom and pluralism. The CoR is united to protect these principles and to bring together diverging perspectives on how to secure them in an appropriate way. I am convinced that the European Media Freedom Act on EU level should not replace but support the Member States’ responsibility to safeguard the freedom and plurality of the media. The common goal must be consistently anchored in the internal market, while the need to ensure diversity at the regional and local level has to be taken into account. During the drafting process I have also considered the concerns of the relevant media players and the concerns of local and regional authorities. As rapporteur I am keen to achieve the objective of freedom and plurality of the media within the internal market in the best possible way, while respecting the Union's order of competences also in the interests of its cultural diversity."

The chair of the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) of the European Parliament, MEP Sabine Verheyen (DE/EPP), emphasised that when the CULT committee starts work on the Act it will be mindful to ensure that the EU does not "over-extend its competences" and that "with these rules we are addressing the real problems." Problems she highlighted included media pluralism, "fair and transparent funding", and independent oversight.

Thematic debate on "Active subsidiarity and greater involvement of local and regional authorities to strengthen European Democracy"

CoR members held an exchange of views with Gabriele Bischoff (DE/S&D), Vice-Chair of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) of the European Parliament, on how to collaborate on the follow-up of the Conference on the Future of Europe. As the European Parliament is working on possible provisions for Treaty changes in order to implement the citizens' recommendations, local and regional politicians could contribute with the experiences from the group, notably through deliberative democracy actions. On behalf of the CoR, Karl-Heinz Lambertz (BE/PES), Chair of the CoR's Better Regulation and Active Subsidiarity Steering Group, member of the Parliament of the German-speaking Community, and former president of the CoR, expressed the wish that local and regional authorities work with the European Parliament in order to come up with concrete proposals on how to involve the local and regional level more deeply in the EU legislative process.

Enlargement Package 2022

The next meeting of CIVEX will be held on 18 April, at which commission members will discuss and vote on an opinion on enlargement currently being drafted by Anna Magyar (HU/ECR), member of the County Council of Csongrád Megye. To provide an early steer for the rapporteur, Ms Magyar and commission members exchanged views on the topic at their meeting on 1 February. The opinion will look specifically at the 2022 Enlargement Package, in which the European Commission provided a detailed assessment of the progress made by countries in the Western Balkans and by Türkiye in reforms to pave the way for EU membership. The package did not consider Ukraine or Moldova, which both gained candidate status in June 2022.

Matters raised by regions and cities

CoR meetings frequently set aside time for councillors from regions and cities to bring a local concern with an EU dimension to the attention of their counterparts. Vincenzo Bianco (IT/PES), member of Catania Municipal Council and chair of the CIVEX committee, said there was a need for the CoR to turn its attention once again to migration and emphasised the need for legal pathways for migration. "We need to facilitate legal migration flows and make migrants an active part of the social fabric, empowering them to be economically active and autonomous. At the same time, there is an urgent need for greater public awareness initiatives about the values of solidarity, tolerance, and the richness offered by cultural diversity, to help our communities be more cohesive," he said.

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