Just hours after the European Commission adopted ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’, the European Committee of the Regions held a debate on how to better include local and regional authorities from Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the EU’s existing macro-regional, cross-border and other transnational cooperation initiatives during a meeting of its Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs (CIVEX). Following a request to draw up an opinion from the Bulgarian Presidency, the CoR will propose that decentralisation must be a strong pillar for democratic reform.
Opening the debate on his opinion as the rapporteur-general, Franz Schausberger underlined the European Commission has today presented “a very ambitions and credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkan Countries combined with the very clear statement that the Western Balkan countries cannot join the EU in the condition they are in today and they have to meet all the membership criteria without any exceptions“. Under these preconditions and with strong political, he noted that Serbia and Montenegro could potentially be ready for membership by 2025. Accession negotiations could be opened with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on the basis of totally fulfilled conditions. With sustained effort and engagement, Bosnia and Herzegovina could become a candidate-State and Kosovo could advance on its European path. Summarising his position, the rapporteur stressed:
Decentralisation is a pillar of the democratic reform process in the Western Balkan and regional and local governments in Western Balkan should be an integral part of the regular negotiations in the frame of the EU accession process.
In addition to the lessons learned from existing macro-regional strategies, the CoR points out that people-to-people and small-scale projects in cross-border cooperation programmes could play a significant role in reconciliation along the problematic borders in the Western Balkans. “It is in the cross-border interactions of people and in working together with your neighbours where the benefit of European integration is most strongly felt. These projects supported by the EU can help regenerate enthusiasm about Europe and set the Western Balkans on the right path” Franz Schausberger added.
Despite the long term planning presented by the European Commission, the urgency of adoption of this opinion is generated by the EU-Western Balkans Summit on 17 May 2018, in Sofia, organised by the Bulgarian Presidency and where the CoR has been invited to make a strong input. The opinion, drawn up by Franz Schausberger, is due for adoption at the CoR Plenary on 22-23 March.