The below is an abridged version of a speech made by Sedat Arif, Deputy Mayor of Malmo and Chair of Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, during the online event Building Back Better, which was attended by MEPs, European Commission officials, city politicians and representatives and NGOs. The event coincided with the launch of Eurocities policy paper on a stronger social Europe, which makes 15 recommendations to EU and national leaders on how we can face the current unprecedented set of challenges and drive an inclusive recovery.
The past seven months have been very challenging for us as city administrations and for all our citizens. Many people have lost their jobs and their income and some had to close down their business. Many of us have family or friends affected by the virus and some even lost dear ones. And all of us had our lives turned upside down by this virus, whether by teleworking, home schooling or moving most of our social services online.
This is an unprecedented crisis in Europe that is deepening social inequalities and putting our European social model at risk. Pre-existing inequalities, like the digital divide, have now become more visible in our cities. Unemployment is increasing, poverty is rising and new groups are at risk of social exclusion.
But this crisis has taught us lessons to strengthen our social Europe. Cities have stepped up in an unprecedented way with fast and immediate responses to help the most vulnerable. We have all stretched our healthcare and social services, sometimes beyond limits, to get urgent support to all in need. Many cities found more people in need, previously unknown to our social services, who are now coming forward to ask for help. They may be students, young people, freelance professionals, or undocumented migrants who are now at risk of poverty – ‘new urban poor’. Cities are investing many resources and efforts to protect all these people from falling through the cracks. Without the quick actions of cities, many more people across Europe would be facing poverty and the recession would be deeper.
EU funding for social investment at local level as key to recovery
A stronger social Europe is about a stronger social investment. Our cities have been able to respond promptly to this crisis because of our own investment in public healthcare and social services and infrastructure. But cities cannot act alone. While we are doing our best to make the most of our municipal budgets, we are faced with budget shortfalls due to this crisis at the same time as we face an increasing demand for social services in our cities. This is not just an urban problem, it is a European problem that needs a European solution.
We have all seen in this pandemic how essential healthcare infrastructure and social services are at local level for our society. We need to learn from the past financial crisis, and respond very differently, with more solidarity to help the most vulnerable immediately. But this does not stop there. We need to learn from the past also for how we come out of the crisis, this should also be different: a more ambitious, fair and inclusive recovery with a strong social investment at local level. We need to change the EU approach to social investment by looking at spending for social infrastructure and social services as an essential investment and not a cost, while keeping it outside of strict state aid rules.
The EU recovery plan must boost investment in local social services and infrastructure, which is essential for social cohesion. Cities’ efforts should be supported financially, including through the ReactEU recovery instrument and the European Social Fund+, with a clear emphasis on channelling the funds to where they are most needed, in cities.
That’s why cities should have a seat at the table when the national recovery plans are developed and priorities are set for the recovery and resilience facility of the NextGenerationEU. This is the right way to ensure that priorities match the social challenges in our cities.
EU social policy should be higher on EU agenda and respond to urban challenges
But we need to do more than just undo the effects of this pandemic crisis. We need to build back better. A stronger social Europe means putting people first in all EU policies. This means putting social policy high on the EU agenda alongside the goals for climate neutrality and digital transformation.
We need the EU to strengthen the social dimension within its economic and environmental priorities. We as cities fully support the goals of the Green Deal and Digital Europe, but we call for a more ambitious goal for just transitions to help all people in need. Green transition can have important, positive employment effects only if efforts are made to invest in retraining, upskilling and reskilling, and supporting inclusive labour markets. We should avoid energy poverty due to increased energy costs. Recent research estimates that at least €20 billion of social investment is needed to support just transitions to low-carbon economy by 2030.
A stronger social Europe is about finding European solutions to common social challenges faced by many Europeans. More than 75% of Europeans live in urban areas and face specific urban challenges, such as the lack of affordable housing, gentrification, homelessness and insufficient places for childcare, among others. These are urban challenges that need European solutions by reinforcing the EU social agenda with a strong urban dimension:
- We call for a place-based approach to poverty through an EU anti-poverty framework that would allow for developing Local Pacts to fight poverty in the most deprived urban areas.
- The EU should support local schemes of Child Guarantee with integrated measures to address the specific needs of children most in need at local level.
- We need the EU to support our cities in tackling the housing crisis, by enabling more affordable housing and fighting homelessness.
- We need the EU to unlock cities’ potential in driving quality jobs and skills training through the Just Transition Fund to support integrated local plans for upskilling and reskilling, and by supporting social economy ecosystems in cities.
- Last but not least, we call on the EU to support local plans for integration and inclusion of migrants as well as of Roma people.
Improve EU social governance by working with cities
Finally, a stronger social Europe means a Europe that is inclusive in its governance of social policy. Cities are allies in pushing social Europe forward. We have already proven our commitment to the implementation of the European PIllar of Social Rights by taking real action and earmarking social investments for this purpose. I am happy to announce that the Eurocities campaign ‘Inclusive cities for all’ has so far collected 60 city pledges, representing over 51 million people, pulling together financing for social investment worth of over €14.2 billion.
Many cities have pledged to do their best to ensure all people can access and enjoy their social rights, leaving no one behind. In turn, we expect European leaders to engage with us as key partners. We are calling for a new pact between the EU and city leaders to shape together the action plan for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. Based on this pact, cities should be engaged as essential partners in the design, implementation and monitoring of social policies that directly impact people on the local level.
We can build back better for a stronger social Europe, if and only if we work together and join forces!