The newly-established Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) between the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and Icelandic local authorities held its inaugural meeting today in Reykjavík, Iceland. The JCC, which brings together local and regional representatives from the EU Member States and Iceland, aims to ensure that Iceland's municipalities are fully engaged in the country's EU accession process. The meeting was an opportunity to assess the role of Iceland’s local authorities in the enlargement process, whilst also discussing the issue of Increasing the absorption capacity of EU Pre-Accession funds and the future use of Structural Funds at the local level.
In her opening address Mercedes Bresso (IT/PES), the JCC’s co-chair and CoR First Vice-President, underlined the long-standing tradition of local democracy in Iceland. She also emphasised the core objective of the new consultative body, "Our aim is to work efficiently together in order to contribute to the negotiation process, making sure that the concerns and the experiences of local and regional authorities are taken into consideration for the accession talks. I am convinced that in this way we can ensure that citizens and/or their representatives both in Iceland and in the EU Member States can take an informed decision at the end of the negotiations".
Halldór Halldórsson, President of the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities and JCC co-chair, stressed the importance of the JCC’s first meeting adding that, “It is a significant milestone for Icelandic local governments to have finally established formal relations with the Committee of Regions. The Icelandic municipalities have been affected by European legislation since 1994 when the EEA agreement entered into force. European legislation affects Iceland in many similar ways as their counterparts in the EU countries but the surroundings of the Icelandic municipalities are in many ways quite different and therefore it is very important for Icelandic municipalities to have an alliance with the voice of the regional and local level inside EU”.
Iceland’s Chief EU Negotiator, Stefan H. Jóhannesson, backed this point noting that, "The EU-Iceland Joint Consultative Committee is an important platform for cooperation between local authorities in EU and Iceland. Union policies need to be coordinated and implemented at all levels of government and the expertise and experience of Local government make them indispensable in the accession process. This venue will strengthen the dialogue with our partners in the EU and will help us to our preparations."
During his speech, the Mayor of Reykjavik, Mr Jón Gnarr, also said that, “I am very interested in improving democratic debate and I want the citizens to participate in decision-making. It is my opinion that municipalities play an important role because they are the authority which is closest to the people. Municipalities can therefore provide citizens with opportunities for discussion and participation in direct democracy”.
As CoR rapporteur on the enlargement strategy for 2012-2013, Luc Van den Brande (BE/EPP) presented the CoR’s consultation work on EU enlargement. Whilst acknowledging the high-quality of Iceland's local self‑government, the rapporteur welcomed some of the proposals to reform local government including the adoption of measures enhancing consultation between the government and municipalities and strengthening local government finances.
As one of the JCC’s key priorities the need to increase the absorption capacity of EU Pre-Accession funds at Iceland's local level and prepare for the use of Structural Funds were among the main topics of the meeting. Morten Jung, Head of Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enlargement, updated the group on the Pre-accession Funds for Iceland, and the national IPA (Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance) Coordinator, Kristján Andri Stefánsson, presented the pre-accession instruments targeted at the local level. The Polish Region of Mazovia also provided examples of best practices on the role of the region in the implementation of EU Structural Funds.
JCC members adopted the Committee's work programme for the next two years which has an overriding objective of helping implement the EU acquis at local level. It will focus on developing administrative capacity building, in particular under the Local Administration Facility programme of the European Commission, making use of pre-accession funds, driving forward progress in decentralisation and local self-government, and promoting territorial and cross-border cooperation.
The JCC is composed of six CoR members and an equal number of local representatives from Iceland. It is due to meet twice a year.