NEXPO – NALAS International Municipal Fair “Paving the Road to EU Integration”
Rijeka, Croatia, 27 September
Speech by Dubravka Suica, Vice-President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to speak today at the NALAS International Municipal Fair on behalf of the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.
It is a special pleasure, first and foremost, because I am proud that Croatia, my home country, has joined the European Union three months ago! The EU membership opens up new possibilities for national as well as local and regional authorities of this country, but most importantly for Croatian citizens, and I am confident that these possibilities will be used to the fullest extent.
But I am also pleased to be here today because the Congress was at the origin of the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe, and it was during the Congress’ session in Strasbourg that the NALAS statutes were signed in May 2004. Today, we are delighted to see this strong and independent Network playing a crucial role in consolidating local self-government in this region.
One tangible proof of the Network’s success is this Municipal Fair that brings together, every two years, local governments from across South-East Europe. We, in the Congress are convinced that networking at local and regional level is of the outmost importance for building the future of this region, and it is not surprising that cross-border co-operation within the framework of inter-regional actions has been identified as one of the main components of the EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance.
It is also our firm conviction that there is a need for a stronger involvement of local and regional authorities in the integration process to ensure its success. It is essential that, together with their associations, local and regional authorities remain part and parcel of the momentum of reform and improvement of governance in their own country and in the region. In this regard, we strongly support the local governments’ participation in the “governance for growth” pillar of the South-East Europe 2020 Strategy, geared toward building up public administration.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are here today because, with Croatia’s accession to the EU, European integration for South-East Europe, and the Western Balkans in particular – something that was just a dream some ten-fifteen years ago – is clearly becoming a reality. There is no alternative to European integration for this region, which has made a tremendous progress, compared to where it started twenty years ago.
As we are discussing ways to overcome the remaining obstacles to the integration process as a whole and, more specifically, to better governance at local level, and I would like to stress three points in particular: decentralisation, dialogue, and financial assistance. I am pleased that these points are also raised and emphasised in this Fair’s Declaration.
In the Congress, we are concerned with a slowdown of decentralisation processes and even some recentralisation trends in Europe today, with the economic crisis being used as an excuse. In fact, research and practical evidence show that decentralised economies are more resilient to the crisis because they adapt better to changing economic circumstances. What we need today is more decision-making power at local level, not less.
We also need more dialogue between national and sub-national authorities, not least to ensure the coherence of policy responses and measures to be taken. To be consulted on matters of direct concern to local authorities is their right guaranteed under the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and one of our priorities in the Congress today is to make sure that this right is fully exercised across the continent. Such dialogue is especially important to coordinate integration efforts.
Last but not least, the question of local finances. Local authorities have suffered a double impact from the crisis – a shrinking revenue base and cuts in intergovernmental transfers, against the background of rising pressure on them to increase social assistance and investment in better governance. This has brought to the fore the need for revising governmental financing of the local level, the need for fiscal devolution, greater local tax authority and greater control over local resources. In this regard, we agree that ways should be found to allow for direct access by local and regional authorities to the Instrument of Pre-Accession Assistance.
I should stress that all these issues – competences through decentralisation, dialogue through consultations and local financial resources matching the tasks at hand – these issues are among the central points of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. The principles laid down in the Charter are the foundation upon which we can build good governance, and we, in the Congress, are calling for a more dynamic dialogue between local, regional and national levels of government to make sure that these principles are fully respected and applied. Today, in preparing the countries’ for EU accession, we should not lose sight of the fundamental requirement to have a strong and sound legal base for local democracy, provided by the Charter.
Monitoring the Charter’s implementation is the core mission of the Congress, and the results of this monitoring highlight exactly the three points that I have just mentioned as recurrent problematic issues. We call them three C’s: competences, consultations and concomitant finances.
The Congress continues to improve the effectiveness of its monitoring and election observation, and has added new dimensions to its work:
post-monitoring and post-election observation dialogue with national as well as local and regional authorities, aiming to address the existing problems and to help with the implementation of our recommendations; and, where and when necessary, co-operation activities based on the results of our monitoring and post-monitoring dialogue, to achieve concrete results on the ground.
Our focus today is on creating a “virtuous circle” of monitoring – post-monitoring – co-operation activities. In South-East Europe, we are currently pursuing post-monitoring political dialogue with the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, seeking to draw up a “road map” for implementing the Congress’ recommendations. We are also carrying out a co-operation project in Albania, and have recently launched the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion – co-financed by the European Commission – which will focus on the issues related to Roma populations also in South-East Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We remain convinced that cross-border co-operation and networking is indispensable for sharing good practices and improving territorial cohesion in this region, and we are delighted to see such examples of good practices as the NEXPO 2013. This co-operation is important for local government capacity building, and for addressing specific needs for training, skills transfer and project management. It is the vocation of associations and networks such as NALAS to play a key role in this process. I would like to thank this Network for organising the International Municipal Fair, and to wish NALAS further success in its efforts. I can reassure here today NALAS with the political support of the Congress in its endeavour.
I am sure that the discussions we had during this Fair, and its Declaration will provide a valuable input to paving the road to EU integration for South-East Europe and moving this region further along the integration path.