With the European elections just months away, the mayors and political leaders of cities have joined the Belgian Presidency of the EU to sign a new declaration calling for the development of an ambitious European urban policy.
The Brussels Declaration, which was also signed by Eurocities and other city networks, sets out the political issues facing cities, as well as outlining cities’ priorities and recommendations to the European institutions for the next EU mandate.
The new declaration reflects many of the challenges and initiatives for change presented in Eurocities’ own manifesto, A better Europe start in cities, launched in December last year, which calls for an alliance between mayors and the EU to ensure a green, just and prosperous future for local people.
In the Brussels Declaration, several priorities for cities are presented, including the need to promote the right to affordable, quality and sustainable housing, to combat social and gender inequalities, to tackle climate change and restore biodiversity, and to develop safe, inclusive and sustainable mobility.
The new declaration also contains a number of recommendations from cities to the EU, including the need for local governments to have greater involvement in EU decision making, for urban issues to be better integrated at European level, and for more city-friendly European regulations and funding.
The declaration was signed by 40 city leaders on 24 January at the event ‘A European urban policy fit for the future,’ organised by the Belgian Presidency in Brussel’s prestigious Egmont Palace.
It is now possible for other city leaders to sign the Brussels Declaration, by clicking on this link.
“I am convinced that a strengthened dialogue and partnership between the EU and its cities will help us to meet our common challenges and objectives in terms of economic, social and territorial cohesion, climate, innovation and housing,” said Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels Region.
Supporting this position, Burkhard Jung, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Leipzig, stated: “It is clear that a better Europe starts in cities. With the European elections mere months away, this declaration signed by mayors and the Belgian Presidency underscores cities’ commitment to create an alliance with our partners at EU level to develop strong urban policies that will ensure a green, just and prosperous future for millions of people.”
Building on Eurocities’ strategic agenda
Many of the priorities outlined in the Brussels Declaration are in line with those presented in the Eurocities manifesto for a better Europe. As the build up to the European elections gathers pace, the Eurocities manifesto presents a strategic agenda for the EU, emphasising the increasing significance of urban areas in shaping the continent’s future.
With 75% of people now living in cities, the manifesto is a message from Eurocities’ network of over 200 cities to the next European Commission that it must tap into the underutilised strength of urban areas, and engage with local leaders as real partners.
Recognising the issues that are important for city leaders, Eurocities has also developed several proposals for strengthening Europe. This includes demands for an ambitious Green Deal, social policies that benefit local people, the appointment of an EU Urban Envoy, more direct access to EU funding, and support to tackle Europe’s digital divide.
Both the Eurocities manifesto and the Brussels Declaration add to the political messages outlined in the Barcelona Declaration, launched in November 2023, which calls for cities to play a key role in the shaping and application of European policies, as well as urging Member States and the European Council to give increased recognition to EU urban policy.
Speaking at the Brussels event, Mathias De Clercq, Eurocities Vice-President and Mayor of Ghent, explained that all three documents clearly show that cities are a strong ally of the EU.
“However, the work is not finished,” said Mayor De Clerq. “The partnership between cities, the Member States and the European institutions can still be improved. We must listen to each other even better, seek synergy and remove barriers.
He added: “A better and more democratic Europe starts in the cities. And for this to happen, cities need to be at the heart of the European decision-making process. Why not give cities a seat at the European table, separate from the national level. I call on all our mayors to support the Eurocities Manifesto and the Brussels Declaration.”
Belgian Presidency vows to make cities voices heard
From its side, the Belgian Presidency of the EU has stated that the newly signed Brussels Declaration is a key element of its urban policy work, which is being led by the Brussels Capital Region. With a large number of European policies having a direct impact on cities, the Presidency says it is imperative that the urban dimension is more fully integrated at European level.
The Brussels Region says it will continue to be an “EU presidency that cares about cities” and ensures urban priorities and city leaders are recognised at EU level. In the coming weeks and months, Brussels will be encouraging more European cities to sign the declaration.
The declaration’s priorities and recommendations will be taken to other meetings held by cities during the Presidency, such as the Summit of Cities and Regions organised by the Committee of the Regions in Mons in March. Other key events in the coming months will include a conference for local leaders on translating the European Green Deal into local action and a meeting of housing ministers in Liège.
An important moment during this EU presidency. Urban priorities such as affordable housing, social and gender equality, restoring biodiversity and developing safe, sustainable mobility are now enshrined in the Brussels Declaration.#EU2024BE #EuropeInBrussels🇧🇪🇪🇺
— Ans Persoons (@AnsPersoons) January 24, 2024
Commenting on the importance of the declaration, Ans Persoons, Brussels Secretary of State for Urban Planning and European & International Relations, said: “Cities are at the heart of the European project. With almost three out of four Europeans living in urban areas, cities are on the front line when it comes to meeting the challenges of the future, such as climate change, resilient public spaces, quality affordable housing, education and infrastructure, prosperity, social and health protection and access to culture.”
“Thanks to the Brussels dimension of the Belgian Presidency of the EU, the voice of cities is now being heard. Together, with the 40 mayors who have signed this Declaration, we are putting the future of cities back at the heart of the debate.”
Adding to this position, Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, stated: “European cities count! They play a major role in making European policies a reality on the ground, from the digital transition to the green economy.”
Commissioner Ferreira added: “Local leaders have a key role to play in shaping policy, and we must ensure that the voice of cities and mayors is heard to enable cities of all sizes to develop their full potential.”
Leading the debate: Involving cities in EU decision making
Along with the signing of the declaration, the event in Brussels also provided the opportunity for city leaders and representatives of European and internal institutions to take part in key discussions on the future of the urban agenda at EU level.
Eurocities organised a debate on how to better involve cities in the EU decision making process, which was led by André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities. This important debate involved local leaders from Barcelona, Braga, Espoo, Toulouse and Cork, as well as input from the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions.
A great start for an important and challenging year!
Mayors and city networks agree on key asks for a strategic alliance between cities and the EU institutions.
Together, we can create a better Europe to the benefit of the citizens of cities and of rural areas!#EU2024BE https://t.co/3giqBV1RgE
— André Sobczak (@andresobczak) January 24, 2024
Discussion focused on how to ensure dialogue and consultation between the European institutions and cities.
Speaking during the debate, André Sobczak, explained that cities and metropolitan areas play a pivotal role in achieving the various EU objectives related to vital transitions in climate and biodiversity, as well as economic and social models. However, their involvement in EU decision making process remains limited.
With the European elections fast approaching, he stressed that now is the time for “an important debate on how the EU and cities can work better together to develop better policies.”
Citing the importance of Eurocities’ manifesto and the Brussels Declaration, the Eurocities Secretary General, stated: “First and foremost, we call for the development of a long-term vision for cities in the EU. This should build on the Urban Agenda for the EU and the New Leipzig Charter, but go a step further. We need a much clearer direction, vision, and coordination for this renewed collaboration to succeed.”
Laia Bonet, Deputy-Mayor of Barcelona, echoed these sentiments, declaring that cities are the “beating heart of Europe, and we are ready to be key allies for EU institutions to achieve their commitments.”
She highlighted the importance of the Barcelona declaration, led by her own city council, and stressed that cities must be involved in a binding way in EU policy-making. “I think appointing specific representatives or creating specific committees for urban matters within EU institutions would help make this a reality,” added the Deputy Mayor.
Adding to the discussions, Ricardo Rio, Mayor of Braga, explained the importance of a strong Cohesion policy for territorial cohesion and prosperity in urban areas across Europe. The Mayor said: “It is very important that this EU policy continues to support investments in cities, but also to support the capacity of our cities to deliver on the many challenges ahead.
Mervi Heinaro, Deputy Mayor of Espoo, stressed that cities are ready to work with the EU to overcome the challenges it faced. “Therefore, cities should be better integrated in EU decision making on all levels, building a systematic and structured dialogue,” explained the Deputy Mayor.
She added: “Cities are closest to European citizens, cities are where democracy thrives in Europe, and we are cradles for innovation and change. We want to be part of the solution.”
As a result of the debate, several key messages emerged, which were presented to the representatives in attendance from the European institutions. These included the need to make sure that cities are recognised as key allies of the EU from the digital transformation and in the implementation of the Green Deal, as well as the need for the EU to develop policies that will tackle the issues facing people living in local communities, such as the housing crisis and economic disparity.
Local leaders involved in the debate also called for more direct EU funding and support to help them bring about change.
Read the full text of the Brussels Declaration, signed in Brussels on 24 January 2024 by 40 European mayors, the Belgian Presidency and city networks, including Eurocities. It is now possible for other city leaders to sign the Brussels Declaration, by clicking on this link.
You can also read Eurocities manifesto – A better Europe starts in cities – published in December 2023.
And you can read the Declaration of European Cities for European Policy-Making and Democracy – signed at the European Mayors’ Summit, in Barcelona on 08 November 2023.
More information on the Belgian Presidency of the EU on urban policy is available here: www.perspective.brussels
Photos used in this article have been provided by the Belgian Presidency to the EU and are © Danny Gys /MR.