A Wider European Community: The Role of Local Governance in EU Enlargement

Oct 23, 2023

Good governance

On 19 and 20 October, 2023, ALDA hosted in Skopje the international conference “A Wider European Community: The Importance of Local Governance – Roadmap for the Western Balkans, Moldova, and Ukraine on the Path to EU Accession.”

The two-day event gathered more than sixty participants at the amphitheatre of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia. Government officials, representatives from the international and local organisations, diplomats, professors and experts from the countries in focus shared their insights on the matter.

Ms. Fatmire Isaki, The Deputy Minister of Foreign affairs of North Macedonia welcomed the participants, emphasising the country’s full commitment to regional integration through political, economic and other initiatives. “I believe that we, as a region, must increase our efforts to contribute to internal reforms, as well as to regional cooperation, and increase the frequency of good neighbourly relations and reconciliations”, said Isaki.

Ms. Ivana Holoubková, the Deputy Secretary General of Central European Initiative, continued on the importance of regional cooperation, especially in difficult times marked by the war in Ukraine, pandemics, and similar crises.

Mr. Oriano Otocan, the President of ALDA, welcomed the participants through a video conference, stating that ALDA, in cooperation with the LDAs, is doing precisely what is needed in the enlargement process, referring to the capacities of ALDA to support and manage the EU funds within its international network. 

The Macedonian media took on his statement comparing the EU enlargement throughout the years, in particular in Croatia, where the EU integration process lasted 8 years. “Now we have a gap of 10 years, which is the biggest since the first enlargement of the European Union, but I am afraid that it might be bigger”, he stated.

The Western Balkans, Moldova, and Ukraine – Tackling the challenges on their journey towards EU accession

Despite being at different stages of relations with the EU, from the Stabilisation and Association Process to ongoing accession negotiations, the Western Balkans, Moldova, and Ukraine face similar reforms and share key challenges in rule of law, fundamental rights, economic and social development. These topics turned the conference into a platform of exchange and discussions.

The participants delved into preparations for EU enlargement, highlighting the diverse levels of progress for each country in focus. Recent candidate status grants to Bosnia, Moldova, and Ukraine, along with accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, showcased a collective commitment to stability and growth.

There are tangible lessons to be drawn from the EU enlargement experiences of the neighbouring countries, emphasising the importance of strong, transparent institutions and local democracy. The local level was recognized as the starting point for reforms, fostering economic development and improving access to other levels and services.
Recognizing the need for regional cooperation is a solution for the European perspective, and it can help speed up the long, for some even out of reach, integration process. The EU should support and assist the candidate countries, and build the capacities of local governance.

The first day concluded with a focus on stability and peace, which are now needed more than ever, as the participants identified the conflicts as a common denominator. EU accession is an extremely complex journey for each country, and the collaboration with the civil society sector is crucial in order to align the road to EU.

Tools and experiences for better cooperation – Project Eloge

The conference continued the next day with a good example of citizens’ participation in the process of integration, presenting local and regional initiatives and good practices from the wider European community. The mayors of the Macedonian municipalities described the positive result from the participation in the self-assessment process, sharing their insights and conclusions from the terrain.

ALDA is accredited for the implementation of the EloGE project in North Macedonia, and revealed the plans for a second round of self-assessment with Macedonian Municipalities scheduled for the following year.

30 years of Local Democracy Agencies – Celebrating milestones

To emphasise the importance of local democracy, the event culminated with a celebration marking the three-decade journey of the Local Democracy Agencies (LDAs) in the Western Balkans. This milestone celebration showcased LDAs’ successful transition from post-conflict situations to a path towards Europe.

The conference’s final moments were marked by a documentary screening, created for this occasion by Francesco Zarzana. This documentary vividly depicted the difficult early days of LDAs’ work, supported by ALDA and CoE, and recounted the inspiring origin stories from the LDAs’ delegates.

By focusing on empowering local democracy, the communities can build up to societies of inclusion, progress and peace. Merging the local efforts in national and international joint actions can have a multiplier effect, and the municipalities should be ready to be the drivers of the implementation of the reforms, because they are the closest to the citizens.

The commitment of Southeast European nations to EU integration aligns with the principles upheld by European institutions. Focusing on empowering local democracy helps the nations to lay the foundation for more inclusive and equitable societies. A thriving local democracy is a necessity for local economic development.

ALDA as a global network is always trying to build on the shared values, not letting wars and conflicts be the links between the countries, always promoting peace and reconciliation. Regional stability and conflict resolutions are key priorities in line with the EU perspective. The conference served as an insight of the geopolitical factors for the Western Balkans countries, Ukraine and Moldova. 

One of the fundamental takeaways from the conference is the synergy between local authorities and civil society organisations. This collaboration, characterised by a shared vision, has the potential to bring meaningful changes starting at the local level, in the services of the citizens in their communities.

This conference marked a significant step towards building a wider European community. It serves as a reminder that true progress begins at the local level, where communities and their leaders come together to effect change. In this pursuit, ALDA has been pivotal in encouraging cooperation and a common vision among all regional partners.

The event was organised by ALDA in collaboration with the Local Democracy Agencies (LDAs) in the Western Balkans, Moldova, and Ukraine. It is financially supported by the Central European Initiative, the Council of Europe, and its Center of Expertise for Local Government Reform.