On 4 December 2013, six weeks after the publication of the European Commission’s Montenegro Progress Report 2013, which identified significant progress in the accession negotiations and recommended the opening of additional negotiation chapters, debates at the third meeting of the EU-Montenegro Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) focused on the issues of the absorption capacity of EU pre-accession funds at local level and fiscal decentralization.

Opening the meeting, JCC’s co-chair Stanisław Szwabski (PL/EA), Chairman of Gdynia City Council, commended Montenegro’s progress towards enlargement as “both impressive and inspiring”, stressing that “Montenegro’s determination towards EU accession reinforces the credibility of the enlargement process and is an excellent example for the whole Western Balkan region. Both the population and the authorities are embracing the prospect of EU integration with seriousness and enthusiasm and these are important drivers for reforms in view of accession”.

The Montenegrin JCC co-chair Miomir Mugoša, the President of the Governing board of Union of Montenegro Municipalities (UoM) and the Mayor of Podgorica, pointed out that the strengthening of local governments’ administrative capacities requires coordination between all levels of government. “Only competent and well-engaged local governments can implement the necessary reforms that can eventually lead to the improvement of the quality of life of our citizens”, stressed Mugoša.

H.E. Ivan D. Leković, Ambassador and Head of the Mission of the Republic of Montenegro to the EU, expressed his satisfaction as regards the pace of the accession talks and highlighted the current preparation of the country’s Accession Program: “The Montenegrin Government is preparing the Accession Program of Montenegro for the period 2014-2018, which includes harmonization plans with the EU acquis. Municipalities certainly have a role to play in this process, especially in regard to those chapters where their representatives sit on the negotiating teams, namely on fisheries, transport, social policy and employment, as well as regional policy and coordination of structural instruments”.

Among the main focus of the JCC meeting was the adoption of the first Report on “Increasing absorption capacity of EU pre-Accession funds and improving administrative capacity at the local level in Montenegro” jointly prepared by Alexandar Bogdanovic, the President of the UoM’s Assembly and the Mayor of Cetinje, and Witold Stępień (PL/EPP), Marshal of the Łódź voivodship. Emphasizing the need for training and sharing of experiences to improve local administrative capacity, the Report calls on the EU institutions to continue their support and recommends the continuation of the Local Administration Facility (LAF) program. The co-rapporteurs furthermore stressed the positive impact of cooperation mechanisms both between municipalities in Montenegro but also across borders in increasing absorption and administrative capacities. The delivery of the Report will be relevant in the context of the upcoming opening of the negotiations on the chapter of regional policy and structural instruments.

On the issue of fiscal decentralization, discussions centered on the necessity for adequate financing to underpin the decentralization of administrative responsibilities at local level. Participants also pointed out that a right balance has to be found between local governments’ independence in using funds and the needs of public finances. Marija Ćatović, Mayor of Kotor (Montenegro), referred to the gaps in local financing which have led to a rise of debt levels of Montenegrin municipalities. She underlined that effective fiscal decentralization should be linked to a precise definition of the tasks and competences of local governments.

Mr. Vladimir Moskov, a former NALAS President and Mayor of Goce Delcev in Bulgaria, presented NALAS Report “Fiscal Decentralization Indicators for South-East Europe: 2006-2011”. This report provides a reliable snap shot of the structure, functions, and financing of local governments in SEE  today, as well as an overview of how intergovernmental financial relations have evolved over the economically turbulent period 2006-2011. The report has been used by NALAS member associations and other stakeholders in formulating fiscal decentralization policies.

The next JCC meeting will be held on 30 June 2014 in Kotor, Montenegro. This meeting will focus on agriculture and rural development, as well as services of general interest.