Cities and regions in the EU’s Western Balkans acknowledge progress but also highlight ongoing challenges

by Cristian Florescu

The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) has expressed its support for the European Commission’s assessment of reform progress in the western Balkans and Türkiye in 2022 and has kindly requested that the EU pays closer attention to the functioning of local and regional authorities in countries aspiring to join the EU. These recommendations were approved by the CoR on 6 July during a plenary session where they had the honor of hosting Olivér Várhelyi, the European commissioner responsible for enlargement policy

The opinion on the 2022 enlargement package, which is the European Commission’s annual assessment of progress on the necessary reforms for future EU members, does not evaluate the reforms in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, who have expressed their desire to join the Union. However, it is emphasized the opinion that the EU’s regions and cities consider the quality of local governance and local democracy as vital concerns for EU policy in all countries. It is also suggested that the EU should dedicate more time and effort to supporting local administrations, civil society, and local economies.

The rapporteur, Anna Magyar (HU/ECR), who is a member of the Council of Csongrád-Csanád, expressed her view that the enlargement policy of the European Union has been remarkably successful. She believes that this policy brings countries closer together and fosters peace, stability, and prosperity for both the EU and our neighboring regions. Additionally, she highlights the positive impact of enlargement policy on the establishment of democratic governance at the local level in our partner countries. Therefore, she emphasizes the importance of a successful enlargement policy for both the EU and the countries aspiring to be part of our collective project. In the current evolving geopolitical landscape, the added value of enlargement policy becomes even more evident. It is a testament to Europe’s resilience that we continue to progress together even during challenging times. As a result, enlargement will regain its status as one of the EU’s primary objectives in the coming years.

When discussing the role of local and regional authorities in the accession process, Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Enlargement and the Neighbourhood Policy, emphasized their significant contribution in addressing challenges faced by countries seeking accession. Recognizing the importance of the local dimension, he highlighted the pivotal role played by local communities, cities, and regions in European integration. Specifically, local and regional governments provide stability by promoting socio-economic development and facilitating cross-border cooperation. Their involvement in implementing EU legislation makes them key agents for change. Furthermore, their increased participation in the accession process is vital for enhancing transparency, accountability, and bringing the idea of enlargement closer to the citizens.

Approximately two-thirds of EU laws that need to be adopted by candidates for EU countries necessitate involvement from regions and cities. Enhanced collaboration between central governments and local and regional authorities is deemed crucial, according to the CoR opinion. This is especially necessary in the domains of economic and investment development, public administration reform, agriculture and food security, climate policy and green transition, public procurement, and social policy.

The reports of the European Commission in 2022 emphasize that there are still significant concerns regarding the rule of law, including the independence of the judiciary, corruption, and organized crime. The opinion of the CoR also draws similar conclusions, while acknowledging the progress made in Albania and North Macedonia.

The opinion suggests that it would be beneficial to intensify efforts in order to effectively address the political challenges concerning Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo. It also emphasizes the unique obstacles faced by local politicians in Türkiye due to the ongoing practice of forcefully removing elected mayors and appointing government officials, as well as the arrests of other local representatives.

During the debate, members of the CoR expressed a combination of support and concern regarding the current political crises in Bosnia-Herzegovina and between Kosovo and Serbia. MEP Andreas Schieder (AT/S&D), chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, emphasized the significance of the European Commission prioritizing enlargement in 2019. However, he also questioned the outcome of these past four years and whether we have truly made progress.

Patrick Molinoz, vice-president of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region and chairman of the CoR policy commission on enlargement, expressed his desire to emphasize our support for a practical approach to enlargement. It is essential that decentralization is implemented in the accession countries to ensure a participatory accession process and minimize territorial disparities. We acknowledge the evolving dynamics of the enlargement process in the current geopolitical climate and emphasize the importance of candidate and potential candidate countries fully embracing the EU’s fundamental values and aligning with its Common Foreign and Security Policy as they progress towards accession.

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