Burkhard Jung, Mayor of Leipzig, has just become the new president of Eurocities. He sat down to speak with us about his vision for harmony and democracy throughout Europe, his mission to eradicate traffic, and his love of volleyball.
What are your vision and priorities as Eurocities newly appointed president?
Firstly, I believe it’s crucial for us to emphasise that Europe represents an incredible unity – a haven of freedom, peace, and harmony without borders. We have a responsibility to make people understand the importance of the coming elections to the European Parliament. Europe is a remarkable result of centuries of warfare, divisions, and nationalism. It’s gratifying that today we can come together from Ireland to Italy, Spain to Hungary, within a single democratic system. That’s the main point.
The coming year will have a high impact on the democratic face of Europe. We have a responsibility in our cities for this wonderful European ideal, for freedom, for democracy, for peace. With creative approaches in involving our youth and activating civil society, for example, our cities’ network will play a crucial role. This is a big responsibility and together we are very powerful. So let’s promote the voting for the European elections.
Cities play a big part in that, and their role within Europe needs to be addressed. With 75% of people living in cities, we’re tasked with spearheading changes in mobility, energy, CO2 emissions, and quality of life for present and future generations.
Even if we have reached better recognition of our network by the European institutions, we need a permanent dialogue and a real, long-term vision for cities at the EU level that should recognise the role of cities in shaping a green and just Europe. We need to have a real seat at the table. The next mandate of the EU cycle should take account of this growing power of cities to ensure that it delivers better policy that is in the interests of all people. We need a vice-president of the European Commission with a mandate to join up initiatives and policies for European Cities.
Our cities also grapple with the challenge of accommodating our residents and refugees alike. We have to be open minded, and to welcome those that need our help. It’s a humanitarian task of utmost importance, and one that needs to be tackled while addressing broader questions of social cohesion, housing, youth and education – issues which affect us all.
Could you tell us more about your city, Leipzig?
Leipzig, the city I come from, was one of the early members of Eurocities. Opening up the city internationally was a strong point in my political agenda. I wanted to make it ready to go for Europe, and to take on our global responsibilities. Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed Leipzig transform from a shrinking city to a rapidly growing one, now housing 624,689 residents. Every challenge major cities face, we face it too. But we’re on the right track to change things.
The energy transition and sustainable mobility are crucial issues for me. At the moment, we live in a dictatorship of cars. I’m determined to disrupt the dominance of cars and create more spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport. This topic sparks intense debates within my city, but I’m resolved to make a significant change in the next four years before I retire. My goal is to return the city to its people.
And what about you, personally?
I’m someone who is burning with a fervour for democracy. However, I’m also friendly, open and optimistic. I am incredibly passionate and engaged on the challenges our cities face.
I have a range of interests that extend from my family, including my six children, to literature and music. I also like to play volleyball and guitar, though not at the same time. I have an insatiable curiosity, and I love learning new things – especially from the examples of other cities.
Personally, it’s a great honour for me to serve as president of this fantastic network. My commitment is to ensure the continued success of our network. I pledge to listen to members’ proposals and strengthen our ties. For me, it’s imperative that the European institutions hear our strong and unified voice.
What do you consider the most important elements of Eurocities?
First of all, it’s a way to learn. It’s so exciting to hear examples and best practices – as well as failed approaches – from Spain to Poland, and from the UK to Italy, on how to manage and run a city. Beyond that, our goal was to establish a strong voice in Brussels. Over the years, we’ve become increasingly influential and have managed to be heard by the EU Commission and contribute to strategies addressing climate change, refugees, social cohesion, and urban planning.
The EU’s urban planning strategy, called the Leipzig Charter, is something I take great pride in. It took us nearly 20 years to be heard, and being recognized and having a say at such a level is a fantastic achievement.
Eurocities has been facilitating city-to-city networking for over three decades. Would you say that this type of networking is as crucial now as it was then?
Absolutely. The global landscape is undergoing a surge of new internationalism, prompting us to look beyond our immediate circumstances and adopt a broader view. Despite the resurgence of nationalism and populism, which we see in the US, Poland, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere, it’s vital to commit to democracy, open borders, international responsibilities, and cooperation. Amidst a growing wave of scepticism towards democracy, it’s a pivotal moment to defend democracy, freedom, cooperation, and stand with the most vulnerable.
How significant is city diplomacy amidst the cascade of crises we face?
City diplomacy is a very human and direct form of diplomacy. It involves citizens meeting citizens, irrespective of their skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation. This form of interaction can occur in arenas like sports and culture and can build bridges over political systems, even during times of war.
The German Ministry for Foreign Affairs has even acknowledged this and urged us to take the opportunity to interact and communicate with people without sparking diplomatic crises. Cities are practical, efficient, and fast in our responses to crises.
My city has had a partnership with Kyiv for more than 60 years. I’m committed to continuing the support of Ukraine, through both reconstruction of Ukrainian cities and support of refugees in our cities.
Do you have any message for Florence, the outgoing president?
I want to extend my deepest gratitude to Mayor Nardella – a gratitude that really comes from my heart. Thank you, Dario, for the amazing job you did, and for leading us through these extremely trying years without losing your cheerful, energetic personality. Under your leadership, Eurocities has further strengthened our relations with, reputation among and influence upon the European institutions. Thank you for handing me the torch – I promise to carry it forward and ever upward to new heights.