Increasingly the key issues of the day are played out in our cities, and it is to our cities that national and European leaders must turn in times of crisis. Over the past few years, we have demonstrated our agility and central role when tackling global challenges such as the Covid pandemic and the repercussions of the Russian war in Ukraine, while taking measures to sure up Europe’s energy and food security. We set up vaccination centres and dispersed information, welcomed migrants and sent aid, and encouraged local renewable energy production while enabling new links with rural communities.
To tackle these challenges at their roots, we have to engage internationally, and outside our administrative borders, because working alone would create a patchwork response on matters of wider strategic and geopolitical importance. Consequently, we engage with other mayors via city networks; and, as mayors from big European cities, we expect to have a say on issues once considered the sole remit of national states, though this is met with varying degrees of success.
Cities have been at the forefront of implementing the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, working with industry and civil society to keep us within a 1.5C future. The same goes for the fight against inequalities or the digital transition. It is in cities that many of the major challenges of our day come together and are made tangible for people.
Yet, this relationship is too often taken for granted. Ahead of next year’s European parliamentary elections, for example, we already see a weakening of resolve on climate and environmental action with many national and some European politicians lowering their rhetoric and ambition. Meanwhile, at city level, our commitment remains high.
Cities need a seat at the table
Sub-national authorities hold the responsibility for implementing over 70% of EU legislation. Moreover, as the closest level of government to people and business, we as city leaders enjoy a high level of trust from the public, and understand their varied needs in more detail, making us critical to the EU’s long-term goals for a climate neutral Europe by 2050.
We also have a responsibility and commitment to engage people in public policies, as well as other local and regional partners, including through territorial cooperation with our surrounding rural areas.
At EU level there are several examples of where creating a closer relationship between cities and the EU can work well.
Cohesion Policy remains instrumental to the promotion of sustainable urban development. In the past programming period, funding worth close to €15billion directly benefitted cities and urban dwellers, enabling novel approaches to deliver urban investments and contributing to the development of 1,000 sustainable urban development strategies.
The EU’s 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities Mission is another positive step, which offers a bold approach towards climate neutrality, by taking into account how cities work in practice. Most recently, the European Urban Initiative was launched, bringing together and boosting tools and funding for cities under many different programmes. Other models include the partnership approach of the Urban Agenda for the EU, and the New Leipzig Charter agreed by EU ministers in 2020, which lays the groundwork for a real partnership with local authorities.
Nonetheless, around 50% of mayors responding to the recent Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey 2023 feel that the EU institutions and policies tend not to take into account their specific needs and the potential that cities offer.
There are several explanations for this. A growing number of EU initiatives aimed at cities show a genuine willingness to work with cities. However, this can also create competition between these initiatives, and a tension between newer and more mature initiatives. For local authorities it can then be cumbersome both to sign up to multiple initiatives, and to focus on multiple specific targets, often without additional financial means.
Creating structures and international dialogues that include city representatives at the policy planning stage is fundamental to ensure engagement between levels of government. As mayors, we want to move beyond occasional speaking slots in European and international fora, towards an ongoing dialogue with our national governments and the European institutions, so that input into international processes and frameworks represents the national and subnational perspectives together. Only then can we develop successful solutions to global challenges.
At global level, the Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for many cities in their long-term strategies and planning. And as leaders of national networks of cities, we are all part of the Urban7 group. We advocate for a continuous dialogue between the G7 nations and local governments represented by national associations and supported by international city networks.
Bringing the EU closer to cities and people
We need a new dialogue and clear long-term vision for cities at EU level that should recognise the role of cities in shaping a green and just Europe, and forging partnerships around the world. This vision should be developed with cities, to frame and guide all EU initiatives related to and affecting cities and urban developments.
We need cities to have a seat at the table. Why not set up an annual summit of EU mayors and heads of local executive bodies, all EU Commissioners, and national ministers dealing with urban challenges?
Why not follow in the footsteps of the US, which appointed a special representative for city diplomacy? Why not create a Vice-President in the European Commission with a mandate to join up engagement with, initiatives and policies for cities?
This growing power and engagement of cities should be reflected in the next mandate of the EU. In turbulent times that’s how we can ensure better policy for the well-being of all people in our local and global communities
Jeanne Barseghian, Mayor of Strasbourg, Co-President of the Committee for European Affairs of France urbaine;
Bev Craig, Leader of Manchester City Council, Vice Chair of Core Cities UK;
Antonio Decaro, Mayor of Bari, President of Associazione Nazionale Comuni Italiani;
Burkhard Jung, Mayor of Leipzig, Vice-President of the Deutscher Städtetag, President of Eurocities;
Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim, Member of the Board of the Deutscher Städtetag;
Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence, President of the Committee for Metropolitan Areas of Associazione Nazionale Comuni Italiani and former President of Eurocities;
Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, Chair of Core Cities UK;
Johanna Rolland, Mayor of Nantes, President of France urbaine.