If Juncker wants a stronger, more united Europe, he should listen to its cities

EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivering his state of the union address. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”