Though their efforts are often overlooked, from cultural exchange to capacity building, local players are a key part of the European integration of Western Balkan and Eastern European countries and need more support.
The Preili municipality in south-eastern Latvia has been developing their cooperation with partners in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood since 2014.
From youth art competitions to online webinars on sustainable development, it continues to build ties with Nizhyn city in northern Ukraine and the Ozurgeti district in Western Georgia.
“The main goal of these projects were to inform local people in Preili, Latvia about the Eastern Partnership countries Ukraine and Georgia and to raise public awareness of development cooperation and education issues, to involve children and young people more actively in these processes,” Elita Jermolajeva, head of development department at the municipality told EURACTIV, speaking in her personal capacity.
While Preili receives a lot of regional development support from the EU budget, as well as aid for cross-border projects in Belarus and Russia, the processes are long and complex.
In contrast, more support is needed for local authorities to cooperate with their counterparts in Eastern Partnership, both for regular physical visits and further development of cooperation, according to Jermolajeva.
At the same time, the Latvian municipality sees cooperation as a way to reciprocate support Eastern Europe received from the West after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“With Eastern Partnership countries – we need to exchange information, transfer our experience, [and] provide assistance (moral, advisory, financial, etc.) to Ukraine and Georgia at the present time, as Denmark, the Netherlands and other Western countries did in Latvia after the restoration of independence in the early 90s,” she said.
The Lithuanian Panevėžys district municipality also focuses on cooperation with the post-Soviet countries of Moldova and Georgia.
Their cooperation includes improving public health through innovative solutions in civil protection and health promotion as well as with the Ialoveni municipality close to Moldova’s capital Chișinău, and the Akhmeta municipality in northeastern Georgia.
Such local-to-local cooperation can also play a key role in increasing capacity of local administrations in partner countries, since municipalities that are already part of the EU club and have gone through the accession process can assist in project writing and implementation, a tall order even for communities inside the bloc.
“Undoubtedly, the great added value is the new contacts between specialists from different fields of our countries, which helps to receive consultations and advices on issues, opportunities or challenges that municipalities face,” Miglė Bražėnienėshe at Panevėžys’s department of investment and foreign relations told this website.
Local authorities can also exchange knowledge and increase their lobbying sway through supranational associations.
NALAS, for example, is a network of associations of local authorities of south-east Europe made up of 14 national or regional local government associations from 12 countries, representing more than 5000 local governments offices.
The network helps share expertise and cross-border analysis in fields ranging from urban planning, solid waste and water management, to energy efficiency and fiscal decentralisation.
One of their strategies to keep the reforms going is to create benchmarks, which in turn put pressure on national governments lagging behind in public administration reform.
“At the end of the day, no one wants to be at the end of the track,” NALAS fiscal decentralisation expert Elton Stafa said.
NALAS is also involved in EU-funded projects, despite the complexity of implementation.
Giving the example of the bloc’s research programme Horizon 2020, NALAS EU officer Joachim Roth said the application procedure “is killing you.”
“I mean, as far as administrative burden is concerned, it’s very time consuming,” he said.
Similar calls for simplification are echoed by local and regional authorities within the EU, who frequently ask for the reduction of administrative burden in implementing regional funding.
Joachim also highlighted the issue of the greenhouse effect of the Brussels bubble.
“We had a lot of cases of MEPs, for example, having a local government background or regional background, coming to Brussels, and then they tend to forget where they come from and where they actually stem from,” he said.
At the same time, even though local governance reform is touted as a prerequisite for accession, there is more focus from the Commission on national sectoral reforms.
“In social protection, in healthcare, also in other sectors for example there’s much more pressure at the national level [from the Commission], whereas the local government level is not considered as a main priority, despite the fact that all these sectoral policies and strategies then are implemented at the local level,” Stafa said.
Joachim agreed but pointed out that the real issue is the Council, representing EU governments.
“Behind closed doors they don’t necessarily make the point for the local governments, for subsidiarity or reaching out to the local level as far as reform process [in neighbouring countries] is concerned,” he said.
However, “if you don’t involve the local government level then kiss goodbye to your reform process because it won’t reach, it won’t get down,” Joachim warned.
Nevertheless, associations like NALAS can help lobby EU institutions and keep local cooperation on the agenda.
For instance, NALAS sees the creation of a working group on local government within the Commission’s department for enlargement and neighbourhood as “a milestone” for their efforts to change the EU executive’s perception of sub-national governance.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]