Building a stronger social Europe: The power of partnerships and urban innovation

18 June 2024

As anticipated, populist and Eurosceptic parties gained traction in the European elections that took place a few days ago. At the Social Affairs Forum, held last week in Vantaa, city representatives raised concerns about the potential marginalisation of the social agenda amid a renewed emphasis on defence and competitiveness by conservative forces.

Baile Annette Christie, Deputy Mayor of Glasgow City Council and Chair of the Social Affairs Forum. Photo by City of Vantaa

“We must see less inequalities and poverty. We must never forget about social rights and protection,” said Baile Annette Christie, Deputy Mayor of Glasgow City Council and Chair of the Social Affairs Forum. “Until we ensure nobody is left behind, there is no fair green and digital transition.”

As a 50-year-old city, Vantaa is a very young city (more than half of the population is under 40 years old) and very international (27% of its residents have a migrant background, which means they speak other than Finnish or Swedish as their first language). Despite its youth and thanks to its innovative initiatives, Vantaa has become the city others look up to.

“The moment is now to discuss the social agenda as everything may change with the new EU institutions,” said Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Vantaa. Indeed, discussions underscored the necessity of a robust social agenda within the next EU mandate, emphasising the crucial role of social policy and investments in enhancing societal resilience and competitiveness. Cities, it was argued, should be strategic partners in this endeavour.

The main compass of the European social agenda is the European Pillar of Social Rights, as Denis Genton, Director responsible for the European Pillar of Social Rights Strategy at the European Commission, reminded the audience. “The main task ahead of us is the review of the social compass, and we need to talk with governments about that,” he added.

Photo by City of Vantaa

Since its inception in 2017, the EPSR has served as a guiding framework for strengthening social rights and inclusion at the city level. However, the world has changed significantly in the past seven years. As such, cities argued that the EPSR’s upcoming review must address the unique challenges faced by urban areas, considering factors like climate change, digital transformation, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The review must ensure the EPSR remains relevant during these “perma-crisis” times and is supported by robust funding linked with EU programmes such as ESF+.

However, Europe is experiencing changes and will continue to do so these weeks after the elections. Indeed, according to Renaud Payre, Vice President of Lyon Metropole, “Stronger inequalities will only lead to far-right raising,” he concluded.

The consensus was clear among city leaders – social investment, protection, and inclusion should not be pitted against other perceived urgent priorities. Strengthening Europe’s competitiveness hinges on investing in children, and schools, and addressing the ageing population.

Photo by City of Vantaa

Directors of Social Services emphasised the importance of involving local authorities in planning and executing social investments. Participants argued that social spending in childcare, education, and job integration should be viewed as productive investments rather than costs. Demonstrating the returns on social investments, both at micro and macro levels, was deemed crucial, alongside balancing investment priorities to ensure adequate social spending.

For Francesco Corti, Advisor to the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Social Affairs and Health, and Associate Research Fellow at CEPS, and Vicky Ferhan, Deputy Mayor for Youth, Schools and Democracy at the City of Leipzig, social services can not be traded off for defence. Moreover, “we, cities, need concrete and direct funding” to keep those services running, added the latter.

Panel debate at the Social Affairs Forum. Photo by City of Vantaa

Additionally, cities’ representatives’ discussions during these three days have confirmed the message of Timonen that by fostering collaboration and cooperation across sectors and stakeholders, local governments can harness collective intelligence and resources to address social challenges. “The significance of cities is growing,” said Timonen. “We are committed, we work together as cities. Sometimes we’re limited but we’re doing it anyway.”

By working together, European cities and institutions can create a fairer, more inclusive, and open Europe.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer