By Jeremy Smith – 18th March 2011
On 10th to 11th March 2011, the symbolically-resonant city of Sarajevo was the venue for the biggest-ever gathering of elected mayors, councillors and senior local government officials from across south-east Europe.
Over 1000 people came together for the NEXPO Municipal Fair and conference, organised by NALAS, the network of local government associations of the region. Ai Director Jeremy Smith worked with NALAS in the organisation of the event, in moderating conference sessions, and in drafting the final conclusions, set out in the Sarajevo Declaration.
This is called “Local governments facing the future: good governance, social inclusion and European integration”, and in particular looks at the challenges, opportunities and obstacles facing the municipalities of those countries who are working towards becoming EU member states in future.
Message to the EU
There was a strong feeling that at present, the EU’s institutions “are under-estimating the essential role of the region’s local governments in preparing for EU integration”. The conference therefore called on the EU to
o include the local government dimension in its strategic and operational planning for EU enlargement
o involve local government in consultations and dialogue
o ensure that relevant accession-related financing programmes are available to assist local government prepare for accession
The conference, and the Declaration, also looked at the heavy responsibilities falling on the local governments themselves – “For us, the issues of good governance and EU integration are intertwined – they are two sides of the same coin.”
The challenges for local government
Four main challenges were identified:
o A large proportion of EU laws and rules have to be implemented by local governments, or have a direct impact on them
o The need to build a “European dimension” to local governments’ work, bringing Europe closer to citizens, involving them in big EU issues and providing good information
o The overall quality of local government administrations needs to be enhanced, to meet the standards of good governance, manage resources effectively, deliver good public services, and attract inward investment
o Local development strategies need to be well-planned, participatory, and able to make best use of external funding programmes.
The conference gave its backing to the Council of Europe’s Strategy for Innovation and Good Governance, and – last but far from least – emphasized the need for faster progress in social inclusion, gender equality and involvement of civil society – in particular in relation to the Roma and other minorities who have suffered long-term discrimination and exclusion.
In addition to the conference, the NEXPO hall was full of exhibitor’s stands, with associations, cities, donors and corporations taking space and advertising their “wares”.
Coming together in Sarajevo
But most important of all, perhaps, is that Sarajevo was chosen as the venue to bring such a wide range of peoples together – Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Moldovans and Montenegrins, Macedonians and Albanians… only the Kosovars were absent, due to visa problems…. hopefully this too will soon be resolved. This sense of international cooperation and solidarity was reinforced in the session on twinning and partnerships for development, involving not only European partners, but also the Sister Cities International from the USA, and the Chinese International Friendship Cities Association.
The final session involved the mayor of Sarajevo, Professor Alija Behmen, and also the mayor of Banja Luka, Dr Dragoljub Davidovic – thus representing the two parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been on opposing sides in the murderous conflict of the early 1990s. This highly federal country is still fragile, so let us hope that events like NEXPO can help to create a more peaceful country. And as the conference recalled, the European Union itself was born to put an end to centuries of wars.