Plans to invigorate the European Union’s engagement with the Western Balkans have been welcomed by the European Committee of the Regions today, but the EU’s assembly for local and regional politicians also stressed that the EU must make itself “stronger and more stable” before countries from the region can join the Union in a debate with Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations.

At the request of the Bulgarian EU Presidency and in view of an EU summit in May, the CoR debated and adopted an opinion drafted by Franz Schausberger (AT/EPP), representative of Salzburg Province. Speaking at Plenary, the rapporteur said that the CoR’s opinion underlined that strengthening local and public administrations will be “absolutely essential” if integration is to be a success:

The European Commission has suggested 2025 are a plausible target date for Serbia and Montenegro to join the EU. That will require a commitment and speed that we have not seen to date.  The volume of EU law is huge, and cities and regions will need to implement about 70% of it. At the moment, they are not ready for that. They need stronger powers, better training, greater transparency, more money, greater dynamism, and a sharper focus on providing services to citizens

Commissioner Hahn welcomed the opinion saying “I am convinced that strengthening capacities at local and regional government levels can have a positive impact on a country’s development as they are essential when it comes to implementing the EU acquis at local and regional levels. I highly value the work of the Committee of Regions in this regard.” He also underlined that the criteria for accession remain unchanged; future accession and regional stability will depend fully on the objective merits and concrete results achieved by each country in meeting the necessary conditions, and in particular the full and unconditioned respect of the rule of law. Or as Franz Schausberger put it: “It is above all up to the countries themselves to see whether this perspective can be realized. Serbia and Montenegro can join the EU by 2025, accession negotiations can be opened for Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina can be granted candidate status and Kosovo can make further progress towards the EU. In any case, local and regional representatives should be actively involved in the European integration process from the very beginning.”

Tanya Hristova, Mayor of Gabrovo, took the floor on behalf of the EPP-CoR Group to stress that a European perspective for the Western Balkans has a very significant regional and local dimension. “Peace and prosperity in this area can be only achieved through cross-border and interregional cooperation, both between the Western Balkans countries, and between them and the EU members states, in particular the neighbouring countries.”

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