More funding and deeper collaboration needed if cities and regions are to make 'decisive' contribution to Eastern Partnership, European Committee of the Regions says.
The European Union's hopes of working more closely with countries on its eastern borders risk being undermined by inadequate funding, the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) argues in a report that expresses "concern" that the European Commission has not set aside "more funding for new instruments" in its proposals for the 2021–27 budget.
The warning, which notes that the Commission wants to increase the EU's overall external-relations budget, is contained in recommendations in which the CoR's principal focus is on the years to 2020 – the date by which the Eastern Partnership aims to have delivered 20 significant benefits for Ukraine, Belarus, the Republic of Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The CoR, which brings together local and regional politicians from across the EU, emphasised that cities and regions could play a "decisive role" in achieving the 2020 objectives. However, the CoR's recommendations highlight areas in which more grassroots work is needed and identifies specific tools that would help.
Sören Herbst (DE/EPP), a member of Magdeburg City Council and the rapporteur for the CoR's opinion on 'Eastern Partnership deliverables for 2020: The contribution of local and regional authorities', said: "We want partnerships – at the EU, national and sub-national levels – that develop the economic and social ecosystem by supporting reform processes in the six countries. The plan agreed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November – '20 deliverables by 2020' – can still be improved by deeper, wider and more intensive collaboration with cities and regions. At the moment, most money goes to regions around a capital, only three of the six countries make real use of EU funding for small and medium-sized enterprises, and the EU's planned contribution to developing a culture of debate is too limited. Overall, a wider perspective, a few new initiatives, and a modest increase in funds could improve the climate for government, business and civil society outside national capitals."
He continued: "Our proposals range from calling for a job-shadowing programme for administrative staff at local and regional authority level to encouraging the introduction of audits and participatory budgeting at the local level in Eastern Partnership countries. EU cities and regions can help develop relations with the region not just by offering job-shadowing but also through long-term partnerships and by helping to set up local chambers of commerce. Such help would be much easier with dedicated EU funding and some technical support. In short, the EU can do more to promote a bottom-up approach and it could usefully apply in the Eastern Partnership the same 'think small first' principle that it uses to support small businesses in the EU."
He concluded: "The EU is rightly promoting different measures in different countries. That is also what should be done at the local level. We are keen, for example, for a renewed push to encourage small businesses in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to tap EU funds. We also support the cross-cutting measures promoted by the EU. Efforts to help women, improve statistics and develop research would be particularly beneficial."
The report specifically calls for support for city diplomacy, through the creation of a Local Administration Facility to channel funding towards cities and regions and argues for the creation of a "non-bureaucratic programme to help EU cities work together".
Such hopes have been dealt a blow, CoR members said at the plenary session, by the modesty of the European Commission's proposals for the budget for 2021-27, which foresee no increase in funds for the Eastern Partnership.
The president of the CoR, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, attended the Eastern Partnership summit in November 2017, where he welcomed the plan for '20 Deliverables for 2020' as a "demonstration of commitment" and said that "the Eastern Partnership is gradually becoming a true partnership between all levels of government". He praised, for example, an initiative – Mayors for Economic Growth – in which the EU is helping local authorities draft economic-development strategies.
The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009, and in 2010 the CoR established a forum – the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP) – to provide political and practical support to sub-national authorities in the region. In 2015, the CoR also established a special task-force with Ukrainian authorities to help the county's political decentralisation, and, in March 2018, it launched five city-to-city and region-to-region partnerships with Ukraine. The partnerships, which are funded by the European Commission's ULEAD programme and managed by GIZ, the German development agency, are in their pilot phase.
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