EU funds are ‘huge opportunity’ for municipalities in the Western Balkans

(Source: European Committee of Regions)

Economic Investment Plan is part of a ‘new momentum’ emerging in EU’s relations with national and sub-national governments in the Western Balkans.​​​Countries in the Western Balkans should use significant new financial support from the European Union to make their economies greener and more digital and to advance their case for EU membership, local and regional leaders heard at the Enlargement Day conference held by the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) on 13 July. The conference – which was addressed by the Slovenian presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European Commission’s Acting Director-General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations – also identified the post-pandemic recovery as a major milestone in the history of regions’ and cities’ involvement in the EU accession process. 

Over the past 18 months, the EU has revised its approach to enlargement and launched an Economic and Investment Plan that it hopes will provide €9 billion in funding focused on green and digital transition investments, transport links, sustainable energy, digital infrastructure, and business sector development and human capital, including youth. The Plan forms part of a €14 billion package of support for enlargement countries for 2021-27 agreed by the European Parliament and EU member states on 2 June. Over the same period, most recently at a summit of national leaders on 5 July, countries in the region has been taking steps to promote regional cooperation and European integration.

Gašper Dovžan, State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representing Slovenia in its role as president of the Council of the European Union, said: “During our Presidency, we will continue to support all candidate countries and our Western Balkans partners on their European path. I believe we should not treat the enlargement policy as an item that slips off the agenda whenever the EU faces a crisis. Enlargement policy contributes to the strengthening of peace, democracy and stability in Europe and should be the strategic response of the EU to potential future crises.”

Maciej Popowski, Acting Director-General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations of the European Commission, said: “The Western Balkans play a key role in our plans for a more prosperous, better connected, greener and more resilient Europe. Therefore, we must speed up the integration of the region into the EU. The Commission will continue investing heavily into closing the socio-economic gap with the EU and assisting with post-COVID recovery.”

Speaking on behalf of the CoR, Nikola Dobroslavić (HR/EPP), Prefect of Dubrovnik-Neretva County, CoR rapporteur on the Enlargement Package 2020, emphasised the CoR’s position that the EU should start membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania as the European Commission is satisfied that they have met the EU’s pre-conditions.

Mr Dobroslavić, who also chairs the CoR’s Working Group with the Western Balkans, continued: “The economic and investment plan for the Western Balkans is the key instrument of support for the economic and social recovery and development of the region. Local government should be involved in the programming, implementation and follow-up of the plan. The success of the plan – and of the EU enlargement process – will depend heavily on work at the local level, so we also call for the EU to support capacity-building in any local administration that handles EU funds, particularly in areas such as transport and environment protection. The European Commission’s decision to open the TAIEX instrument for technical assistance to authorities in the enlargement countries to local and regional authorities is a welcome step in the right direction. All Western Balkans countries should become members of the EU, but only if they meet democratic pre-conditions. In every Western Balkan country, work is needed to address problems of democracy and rule of law not just at the national, but also the regional level.”

Mark Speich (DE/EPP), Secretary of State for Federal, European and International Affairs of North Rhine-Westphalia and chairman of the CoR commission responsible for external affairs, said: “People live and work now, regardless of when the accession will actually happen. Now, they need kindergartens and schools, a running and efficient public transport, thriving local businesses, especially small and medium ones. Now, they need functioning local democracy, lively civil society, free and reliable local media, fair and transparent public procurement, efficient and politically neutral local and regional public administration. In all these fields, it is our interest that citizens – regardless whether they belong to EU Member States or enlargement countries – exchange their experiences and views. This is necessary to reach the best results for all of us already today.”

The event included panels devoted to the role of local and regional authorities in the accession process and to their potential contribution to the transition towards a green and digital economy in the Western Balkans.

Notes for Editors

In addition to representatives from the EU institutions, speakers included: Erwan Fouéré, former EU Special Representative for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and currently of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS); Milena Lazarević from the Belgrade office of the European Policy Centre (EPC); Tanja Miščević, Deputy Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC); Antonio Ratković, first Vice-President of the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS); Dragana Sotirovski , Mayor of Niš; Tunç Soyer, Mayor of İzmir Metropolitan Municipality; Anuela Ristani , Vice Mayor of Tirana; and Satu Haapanen (FI/Greens) from the City of Oulu.

North Macedonia and Albania are currently awaiting the approval of EU member states in order to be able to start accession talks. Serbia and Montenegro have already begun negotiations. At present, Turkey’s accession talks are at a standstill, while the European Commission in May 2019 identified 14 priorities for Bosnia and Herzegovina to fulfil before membership talks could begin. The EU is currently mediating between Belgrade and Prishtina in the hopes of brokering a comprehensive normalisation agreement that could advance the European perspective for Serbs and Kosovars.

Owing to Covid-19 restrictions, the Enlargement Day meeting was this year held online and shortened to one day. Country-specific meetings between members of the European Committee of the Regions and local and regional politicians from the Western Balkans and Turkey were instead held in June. A meeting of the Joint Consultative Committee North Macedonia revealed that the significance of local and regional government in the EU enlargement process is gaining recognition in North Macedonia, while the meeting of the Working Group Western Balkans – this year focused on Albania – highlighted a step-change in the engagement of Albanian municipalities in implementing EU-related and a continuing imbalance between their responsibilities and funding. A meeting of the Joint Consultative Committee Montenegro brought to the fore the need for a transformation of the country’s tourism industry as well as concerns about a loss of EU expertise and continued rule-of-law failings. At the Joint Consultative Committee Serbia , speakers spoke of a “new momentum” in EU-related reforms. At a meeting of the Working Group Turkey , the Turkish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs called for cooperation with the CoR to be upgraded, by creating a Joint Consultative Committee, while EU representatives spoke of a new, more positive tone in recent Turkish statements about the EU, but suggested that Turkey’s Customs Union with the EU is the only dossier that could realistically be advanced at the moment.

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