The European Committee of the Region annual conference on enlargement, held in Brussels on 4 May, was marked by a new sense of momentum about the prospects of Western Balkan countries joining the European Union – and also by repeated calls for long-standing challenges in the region to be addressed with the support of local and regional authorities.
The conference, whose keynote speaker was Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, was the first Enlargement Day since a major step-change in the European Union's policy that saw the European Commission announce, in February 2018, that Serbia and Montenegro have a realistic hope of joining the Union in 2025. The size of the step-change was evident in a number of comments, with Goran Svilanović of secretary-general of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), an inter-governmental cooperation mechanism for south-east Europe, describing the conference as "one of the few meetings" in which it is allowed "to use the E word" – enlargement – while Vessela Tcherneva, of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told an audience of 150 people that "a meeting about the Balkans a year ago would get 30 people".
The new level of commitment by the EU was underscored by Commissioner Hahn and Lilyana Pavlova, Minister for the Bulgarian presidency of the European Council, who said that the next EU presidencies – beginning with Austria, in July – are determined to maintain the momentum. Bulgaria's commitment to reinvigorating the accession process was praised repeatedly by speakers.
The conference produced a sober picture of the situation in the region. Commissioner Hahn, who was presenting the Commission's annual progress reports on the region for the first time to at an Enlargement Day conference, noted progress, but also itemised difficulties, while a set of think-tankers raised questions about the adequacy of the EU's policy.
Commissioner Hahn said that enlargement "will not be successful if our efforts are not translated into concrete actions on the local and regional level", describing local and regional governments as "an anchor of stability, promoting socio-economic development and facilitating cross-border cooperation". "We will only stay on the surface, if we are only dealing with the national level," he continued.
Darko Fras, president of the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS), urged the EU to engage more with local-government associations "as a point of principle and a matter of political strategy", saying that "since local government are both policymakers and service providers, a more inclusive process at all stages of planning and decision-making on issues affect local government is required".
"If the EU strives to be close to its future citizens, then it has to go local", he continued, arguing for a "bottom-up approach" built on "effective coordination and cooperation between local and central government level", and emphasising that the promotion of local democracy is a critical contributor to reconciliation and stabilisation in the region and its EU integration.
In a speech that emphasised that the lion's share of EU legislation requires action by cities and regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the president of the CoR, suggested that the EU should establish a Local Administration Facility to help sub-national levels to work together with their EU peers and that it should bolster well-established activities such as cross-border cooperation, macro-regional strategies, and municipal networks.
Mr Svilanović said that "there is a lot that we can share with the local authorities and a lot of room that they can find in engaging in actions already agreed by the central authorities" at the end of a speech in which he noted important recent progress by national governments on reaching regional agreements on roaming charges, on the recognition of diplomas, and on identifying policies for harmonisation.
A new window of opportunity
The conference included a session in which think-tankers provided geopolitical, political, socio-economic and institutional perspectives on the relationships between countries in the Western Balkans and the EU.
Erwan Fouéré of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a former EU special representative in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, was critical of the EU because its "prescriptions have not worked" and "for several years it took the Balkan for granted and the vacuum was taken advantage of by other actors, such as Russia, China and Turkey, as well as populist voices in the EU who denigrated enlargement". Similar sentiments were expressed by Dušan Reljić of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), who said that "the region is still extremely fragmented even though it has become surrounded by EU and NATO members".
For Mr Reljić, the region's economic problems are long-standing and suggest that its economic prospects will remain poor, with major implications for democracy, unless there is serious investment by the EU. "The EBRD has recently calculated that if the region continues to grow at 2-3% rate, as it is now, it would need 200 years to catch up with the EU average," he said, warning that "in poverty, institutions don't function and in the region at the moment between one-third and one-half of the population is imperilled by poverty". The EU, he suggested, should gradually increase the money available to would-be member states to levels equivalent to the same sums they would receive from the EU's structural funds after accession.
Mr Fouéré called on the EU "to strengthen its capacity to act in a more hands-on manner" and – because "these are all post-conflict societies" – to focus on reconciliation, through cross-border cooperation, education and practices developed through its engagement, for example, in securing peace in Northern Ireland. He particularly emphasised the need for "a much more comprehensive discussion with local and regional authorities and with civil society", saying that "the EU has the tendency to limit the dialogue with the political establishment and forgets the role of opening a space" and that, as they are "at the grassroots", local authorities "understand the problems" and "they can offer the solutions".
The need for a sense of urgency was underlined by Vessela Tcherneva, of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), who said that politicians in the region should "do their utmost" to seize the opportunities offered by the EU, warning that the EU's revived interest in enlargement is "a chance that also has an expiry date". She said that 2025 – the target date for accession by Serbia and Montenegro – "is a date at which the EU can turn around and say that there may be other forms of engaging." Similarly, Srđan Majstorović, from the European Policy Centre (CEP) in Belgrade, urged Western Balkan states to press ahead "without any hesitation", because "this opportunity might not appear again soon" in the context of a relationship with the EU that is "marked by a lack of self-confidence on both sides".
The Enlargement Day conference was preceded on 3 May by a set of country-specific meetings between local and regional politicians, addressing the progress and implications of reforms and other political developments at the municipal and regional levels. Each of the meetings also focused on a particular practical challenge identified by cities and regions in the would-be member states, reflecting the purpose of the CoR's engagement with the countries in the Western Balkans – to work with peers in the region to help them prepare for the challenges of joining the EU. Since 2006, the CoR has developed structured work programmes with Serbia, Montenegro and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – through joint consultative committees – and less structured dialogues with other Balkan countries and with Turkey.
- Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Local authorities had identified waste management as a central challenge, because of a proliferation of illegal landfill sites and inadequate waste-management infrastructure. Examples of possible strategies and specific measures were provided by the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities, the non-governmental organisation Zero Waste Europe, and Kata Tüttő (HU/PES), the CoR's rapporteur on waste-to-energy in the circular economy.
- Montenegro: Efforts to prevent corruption dominated debate in the joint consultative committee with Montenegro, with committee members quizzing Refik Bojadžić, a member of the Rule of Law Council of Montenegro, and Mladen Tomović from the Montenegrin Agency for the Prevention of Corruption on recent government initiatives.
- Serbia: 2018 is the European Year of Cultural Heritage and Serbia's local authorities chose the protection of cultural heritage as the central theme for debate at their joint consultative committee meeting with the CoR. Two of Serbia's most historic municipalities – Sremski Karlovci and Knjaževac – set out how they believe culture can help stimulate their regions' development, while Europa Nostra, co-hosts of the first Europe Cultural Heritage Summit, to be held in Berlin in mid-June provided a broader European perspective.
- Western Balkans: The CoR's Western Balkans working group includes representatives from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. The European Commission's assessment that Kosovo's progress is mixed was the subject of a debate with the mayor of Prishtina, while discussion about Bosnia's challenges was distilled into a discussion about the democratic problems in Mostar, which has had no local elections in ten years. Digitisation in the three territories was discussed with speakers from the Regional Co-operation Council and the city of Tirana.
- Turkey: The working group on Turkey reviewed a difficult year in EU-Turkey relations and – at the suggestion of Turkish members – discussed the possibilities for increasing the number of city-to-city partnerships.
Some Balkan cities and regions also took the opportunity to raise their profile with the European public by putting up stands at the CoR's Open Day on 5 May. In all, 2,900 members of the general public visited the European Committee of the Regions, and they all had the opportunity to find out more about Brčko District in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Vojvodina in Serbia and regions and cities from Albania, Kosovo, and Turkey.
You can find the pictures and the presentations of the 4th Enlargement Day here.