The Conference „The Road To EU Integration – Removing barriers, unlocking our potential” held on 25 September 2013 in the Croatian Cultural Dome on Sušak, Rijeka, launched the largest municipal event for South-East Europe, NEXPO 2013 International Municipal Fair. Over 450 Mayors, Deputy Mayors, Presidents of City Councils and Local Government Association Managers took part in the Conference, confirming that local governments could provide a significant contribution in the EU integration process.
The Conference showed that only progress towards the goal of enhanced integration with and within the EU, together with regional cooperation, can enable South-East Europe to develop and solve economic and social problems the region is facing. In that sense, Croatia’s membership in the EU is an important achievement and gives particular insight to other candidates and potential candidates as well as lessons to be learnt.
In his welcoming speech, Mr. Vojko Obersnel, the Mayor of Rijeka said: “Rijeka is often called Europe in small, due to its cultural diversity. We have the pleasure to welcome 16 European countries to NEXPO 2013. This conference will open very important topics, and provide valuable answers to many of them. Croatia, as the newest EU member has rich experiences that will be shared during this Conference and the three days of NEXPO 2013. But, we also want to hear about your experiences and learn from you. We have tried to be good hosts and to give you the possibility to feel our city and the Region”.
From the perspective of the European Union, the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mr. Oldřich Vlasák, stated “I would like to share with you two thoughts. EU reality is quite complex. Being in Europe is not only receiving European funds, but also obeying to EU regulations, which impact our lives. By my Czech experience, local governments are the most affected by the EU regulations. Therefore, they must to be actively involved in creating policies on national and EU level. The second thought I would like to share, is about the common responsibility for a better world. We all have to engage for better European Union”.
Mr. Gerhard Schumann-Hitzler, Director, IPA Strategy, European Commission, emphasized “All your countries that tend to join the European Union have to develop strategies for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, in line with the EU2020 Strategy. Local authorities have a very important role to play in this process and NALAS has rightly been selected as one of the coordinators in the development of the SEE2020 Strategy. I would like to thank you already now for your engagement”.
The representative of the Committee of the Regions, Mr. Luc Van Den Brande said “I don’t like the term enlargement, I want to speak about re-unification. The role of local authorities should not be limited to implementation of decisions at local level or dissemination of information about the EU policies. We, the local and regional authorities, are responsible partners in this process”.
The discussion from the perspective of South East Europe regional institutions revealed that the intraregional cooperation is the imperative for successful EU integration. In that light, the Strategy South East Europe 2020 is a crucial document which sets the path for an organized effort of the countries and local governments of South East Europe.
The local government perspective was in particular expressed in the Mayors’ Roundtable discussion. It was dedicated to the challenges and potentials of SEE local governments. The President of NALAS, Mr. Anton Peršak stressed “Although after the economic crisis EU is undergoing difficult times, both from economic and social perspective, it remains an important, unavoidable goal for the region. Local governments have to play a vital role in this process. All over the SEE region, local governments use this momentum, their voices become heard more and more and their Associations take the lead in many important initiatives. The role of local governments in EU integration has to be appropriately addressed by the EU, but also by national governments, as life of citizens happens in local communities”.