(Source: European Committee of Regions)
EU’s new approach is generating “new momentum” and boosting hopes of local government being able to contribute to a green investment drive, but rule-of-law issues will determine progress to membership.
There are early signs that changes aimed at making the process of accession to the European Union more dynamic and predictable are yielding results, with local and regional leaders, Serbia’s EU ambassador and the European Commission detecting a “new momentum” in the past year.
The European Commission set out its revised approach in February 2020 and followed up, in October 2020, by presenting an Economic Investment Plan that – it hopes – will trigger €9 billion in investment for the Western Balkans region, spur the region’s long-term recovery and green and digital economic transition, foster economic cooperation, and support reforms. The 10 June meeting of the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) Serbia , which brings together members of the European Committee of the Regions and local and regional politicians from Serbia, was also the first following a political agreement between the European Parliament and EU member states on a new Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III) totalling more than €14 bn for 2021-27.
Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP), who co-chairs the JCC and represents the State Parliament of Salzburg, said: “The new method reveals a new momentum in the negotiations. There has been significant progress in several important areas. We were pleased to see that the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities plays an important role in the preparations for the accession negotiations and that the ideas of the municipalities can be incorporated in this way. It will be crucial that the necessary investments to cope with the corona crisis can also be reconciled with the principles of the Green Deal for a sustainable environmental policy. The EU funding is of great importance for this.”
Ambassador Ana Hrustanović , Head of Mission of the Republic of Serbia to the European Union, stated that Serbia had managed to achieve “very concrete results in the rule of law.” Speaking of the EU’s Economic Investment Plan, she said the associated initiatives, programmes and projects “could be of huge relevance to our local communities”.
Vladimír Bilčík (SK/EPP), the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Serbia, identified three EU-related issues that are of particular importance at the local and regional level in Serbia. Describing the local regional level as “crucial for any flourishing democracy”, he hoped the EU could “encourage positive developments ahead of local elections”. Secondly, the Economic Investment Plan is a “potentially huge boost” and would, he hoped, “help engage local and regional actors” and prove to be “a good tool” to improve public opinion about the EU in Serbia. Thirdly, he emphasised that the Green Deal must be a priority. “Any way we can help, also in cooperation with local authorities, to encourage future-oriented green investment would be very helpful.”
Catherine Wendt of the European Commission said: “We have seen new momentum”, with Serbia making progress “in some areas”. However, she noted that “there are delays in others” and emphasised that “the overall pace” of Serbia’s accession talks with the EU “will depend on Serbia’s progress including on the rule of law and relations on Kosovo”.
Ms Wendt, who noted the “huge role” of local government in public investment, said that the EU will “encourage the central authorities to engage in a genuine dialogue with local authorities” in Serbia. The EU itself – which provides support to local administrations in Serbia in ways that range from funding water and waste infrastructure to supporting their administrative capacity – has recently reinforced its collaboration at the local level, by extending its Technical Assistance and Information Exchange (TAIEX) instrument to local and regional administrations in the Western Balkans. The JCC Serbia and the CoR had been calling for such a decision.
Members also discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Ambassador Hrustanović, who described tensions between Serbia and the EU early in the pandemic as “misunderstandings”, asked the EU to recognise Serbia’s ‘digital certificate’ of vaccination, so that vaccinated Serbs can travel to the EU. Serbia, she said, has progressed faster with vaccination than other countries in the region and faster than many countries in the EU.
Members approved a work programme that, through to 2025, will see the JCC focus its collaboration and discussions on: local democracy, good governance, the rule of law and fundamental rights; environmental protection, climate action and energy; local economic development; demographic and social issues; cross-border cooperation; and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.