With the next European parliamentary elections just around the corner, European Commission president Juncker used his annual state of the union address to call for a more united and stronger Europe.
Of course, he is right to do so, and he laid out a vision of how he hopes to get there. But a plan that focuses on external threats and the global picture must also recognise that these challenges are connected to people, and the places, the cities where they live.
One might say that Mr Juncker’s mandate at the European Commission has been ‘hijacked’ by any number of turbulent events: terrorist attacks, an unprecedented flow of refugees into the EU, potential assaults on the rule of law and trends towards nationalism, and, of course, Brexit. But many of these European challenges are concentrated in our cities. And cities have repeatedly shown leadership, and a desire to act, without an adequate recognition of their role and contribution.
Take climate change. The Covenant of Mayors is proof positive that cities can think ‘big on big things’, and are increasingly prepared to work together on global challenges. More than 6,000 local climate and energy action plans have been adopted across Europe, with an agreed average CO2 reduction of around 27 per cent expected by 2020. In other areas – such as providing cleaner air, establishing cleaner water and tackling waste – cities are at the forefront of global change.
On migration, it is cities that have been left to deal with the reception and integration of refugees since the peak ‘crisis’ year in 2015. We are no longer dealing with those kinds of numbers of new arrivals – so rather than focus on securing Europe’s external borders, we should focus on integrating people who are already here, which means providing greater investment at the local level.
Cities are also striving for a more social Europe. Last year EUROCITIES members made a commitment to provide ‘social rights to all’ ahead of the EU’s social summit in Gothenburg, where cities were left out of discussions. Our work this year to localise global and European agendas, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, aims to enable every citizen to participate in society.
We need to strengthen the urban dimension of EU decision making by involving cities as strategic partners on issues from migration and climate change to a more social Europe. I understand Juncker’s sentiment of being more ambitious on these big issues – but ambition must go hand in hand with ensuring impact at the local level. This can be done with the involvement of cities.
Temporary solidarity is not good enough
The Urban Agenda for the EU has demonstrated that different levels of government can work together on common issues. The various commitments made by cities through the urban agenda partnerships, and our work in other areas such as those mentioned above, are testament to cities’ ability to uphold the founding values of European cooperation and solidarity.
Europe won’t be able to stay united and show solidarity if it doesn’t demonstrate results that matter to people. This is why the next EU budget must maintain a strong cohesion policy – the EU’s main source of regional investments – and reflect not only the top goals, but also see cities as strategic partners. This means listening more to citizens. Cities have the experience of working with citizens and ensuring that decisions taken at EU level work on the ground. EUROCITIES’ Cities4Europe campaign is engaging with citizens to find new ways of doing politics – and we look forward to presenting these outcomes to president Juncker and the member states at our second mayors summit on 21 March 2019 in Brussels.
People are calling on the EU to change. Where better to start than at the local level, in our cities, where people are most likely to see results? As Mr Juncker said last year, that is how we will get the wind back in Europe’s sails.
Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES, an umbrella group representing European cities. The network includes 140 of Europe’s largest cities and more than 40 partner cities that between them govern some 130 million citizens across 39 countries.