Franz Schausberger: No European enlargement without reforms at regional and local level

Weak government, a high degree of politicisation and corruption and a serious lack of public transparency: this is generally true of the regions, cities and municipalities of the countries of south-east Europe and Turkey which are on the path to European integration.

Reports by the European Commission have been flagging this up for years, with no sign of tangible improvements. Without effective regional and municipal administrations, it will be very difficult for Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and especially for Albania, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Kosovo and Turkey to join the EU. It is therefore essential for local and regional representatives to become part of the accession process in good time. If this does not happen, there will be dire consequences, with huge problems especially with the implementation of EU policies and the use of European funds. However, for the 2014-2020 period, EUR 11.7bn of EU funding has been made available for the accession of the aforementioned countries. In order for EU projects to be effective, the regions and municipalities must have the required know-how. This means that the countries concerned must decentralise and regionalise their structures and their municipalities, cities and regions must be granted stronger self-government. In other words, adequate funding for regional and local authorities and better training for their staff.

The view of the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, that the next five years should be a time of consolidation with no further enlargements is reasonable and realistic. However, this should not be a period of stagnation in the enlargement process, but a time for the intensive preparations needed to meet the EU membership criteria. The Committee of the Regions has always been an active supporter of EU enlargement. This is particularly true of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which was granted candidate country status 10 years ago. Since 2009 the European Commission, and in the meantime the European Parliament too, has recommended that accession negotiations be opened with the FYROM. In parallel, a solution must be found to the name issue which is acceptable to all sides. However, it is concerning that politicisation at all levels is on the rise in FYROM, while trust in public institutions is falling.

The European Commission has so far refrained from getting involved in the internal structures of the enlargement countries. The governments of these countries have therefore flouted – illegally – the requirement to introduce more decentralisation and regionalisation. The European Commission should in future exert much more pressure to enforce the subsidiarity principle.

A realistic prospect of EU membership for the candidate and potential candidate countries is a key stabilising factor for the whole of Europe and an important incentive to implement the necessary political and economic reforms in the countries concerned. The European Commission has so far refrained from getting involved in the internal structures of the enlargement countries. The governments of these countries have therefore flouted – illegally – the requirement to introduce more decentralisation and regionalisation. The European Commission should in future exert much more pressure to enforce the subsidiarity principle. This is one of the key demands of my opinion on the 2014/15 EU enlargement strategy at the Committee of the Regions. Otherwise these countries will persist with their centralism, with all its negative aspects such as corruption and allocation of funding along party political lines.

It is therefore absolutely vital that in its future enlargement strategy reports the European Commission goes into much greater detail about local and regional self-government. In most accession countries, democratic institutions such as regional assemblies and governments, municipal councils and mayors and electoral processes, among other things, must be brought up to European standards. Strengthening non-partisan associations of local authorities can also be very helpful in all of these processes.

In Turkey, Kosovo and Albania, for example, local elections are conducted in a highly polarised way and still result in serious irregularities and sometimes violent clashes. Targeted action plans for the reform of regional and local authorities — such as those in Montenegro and Serbia — have been positive. Serbia has to further normalise its relations with Kosovo, while Turkey must strengthen democratic institutions at all levels and play an active role in finding a fair, comprehensive and long-term solution to the Cyprus issue. In addition to other major reforms, the countries concerned still have much to improve at regional and local level before there can be another EU enlargement.

By Prof. Franz Schausberger, President of Institut der Regionen Europas (IRE), Salzburg, Austria