Cities and MEPs share vision for green, prosperous future

11 October 2023

“If we get it right in cities, we will build a better Europe.”

This was the strong message conveyed at a meeting in the European Parliament, where city leaders and MEPs gathered to discuss how they can work better together.

Organised ahead of next year’s European elections, the Mayors’ Agenda for Cities and the EU event brought together mayors, MEPs and the upcoming Belgian Presidency to discuss their shared priorities and opportunities to increase understanding of urban issues.

At the meeting – held by Eurocities and the European Parliament Intergroup – city leaders stressed the importance of the European Green Deal in achieving climate neutral cites and called for democracy and social integration to be placed at the heart of EU decision making.

They also outlined the importance of EU initiatives, such as the Covenant of Mayors and the 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030, both of which Eurocities plays a key role in, along with EU tools like Cohesion Policy. But they explained that EU funding available to cities must be improved and cities must be given greater recognition in EU goals.

In response, MEPs made it clear that the European Parliament shares many of cities’ priorities, particularly regarding climate action and sustainable mobility, and supported the call for a clearer EU urban policy.

Focusing on urban priorities

The priorities and concerns of European mayors were outlined by André Sobczak, Eurocities Secretary General, who began the meeting by presenting the Eurocities Pulse Survey. The survey, which collected the responses of 92 mayors from 28 countries, provides an analysis of the major trends, challenges and priorities that shape urban affairs in 2023.

Over half of the mayors surveyed say that tackling the impacts of climate change is their biggest priority, including working together on climate neutrality, implementing the European Green Deal and investing in sustainable transport. Local challenges, including improving transport and housing, ensuring economic recovery and tackling energy poverty are also crucial for mayors.

“The Eurocities Pulse Survey was developed to identify the key issues facing the mayors of our cities at a crucial time for the EU,” said Sobczak. “In advance of the European elections, it is a way for us to show the European Parliament and the Commission what is important at local level and to influence future EU policy making decisions.”

City leaders share the priorities of the European institutions
— André Sobczak, Eurocities Secretary General

In the survey, city mayors make it clear that the current resources they are being provided by the EU are not enough to tackle the many challenges they are facing. Many mayors also say they share the priorities of the European institutions, but they feel they are not included in EU decision making processes.

“Mayors said it is difficult to find the resources they require to carry out much needed investments in areas such as housing, the energy transition and urban poverty,” said Sobczak. “It is clear that major public and private investment is required, along with significant funding from the EU Cohesion policy, to achieve these goals.”

A clear vision for cities in the EU

Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence. Photo © Stavros Tzovaras

Speaking at the meeting, Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence, stressed that the European elections are taking place at a crucial time for the EU, when significant progress has been made on the European Green Deal and Europe has “showcased immense leadership and unity in combatting war, pandemics, climate and energy crises, and inflation.”

However, despite this progress, he warned that scepticism about Europe is gaining ground and must be tackled. “Growing polarisation within our societies, inequalities among our urban and rural territories, and our shared struggle for peace. These are all important issues that must be addressed at EU level in more robust partnership with cities,” said Mayor Nardella.

He said that the European Parliament and other EU institutions have developed a better understanding of the need to collaborate with cities to address major challenges such as providing housing for all, integrating refugees, and navigating the digital transition.

"We must ensure that collaboration between the EU and cities is reinforced to address urban and European challenges
— Dario Nardella, Mayor of Flreoce

“Looking to the future, we need to fortify this alliance even further,” said Nardella. “The priorities of city leaders leave us in no doubt: climate action, the clean energy transition, economic recovery, urban mobility, migration, housing, and tackling inequalities. This is the core of the mayors’ agenda, and these are also the challenges facing the EU.”

To further boost collaboration, Nardella explained that a long-term, clear vision should be developed for cities within the EU. He also insisted that a systematic approach should be established to involve cities in shaping and implementing EU policies, and he called for a dedicated EU Vice-President with the mandate to integrate initiatives and policies for cities into a unified and clear framework.

“To deliver this enhanced collaboration, cities and the EU must develop appropriate tools and resources,” said Mayor Nardella. “We need to collaborate to strengthen the administrative capacity of city governments. Without well-staffed and well-financed cities, we won’t be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

Time for a clear European Urban Policy

MEP Jan Olbrycht. Photo © Stavros Tzovaras

Supporting these views, Polish MEP Jan Olbrycht, chair of the European Parliament Urban Intergroup, explained that there are many methods of formal and informal collaboration between cities and the EU, but “we are still missing a clear European Urban Policy.”

“We have the Cohesion Policy, part of which is the Urban Agenda, but when I look at your priorities, they are not about Cohesion, they are about urban policy,” said Olbrycht. “Everything in cities is integrated, so it is about urban policy, not sectoral thinking.”

We are still missing a clear European Urban Policy
— MEP Jan Olbrycht

Olbrycht explained that efforts have been made to pursue an urban agenda at EU level, including suggestions for a Commissioner to coordinate urban policy and the creation of a special urban unit in the European Commission, but they have not produced the urban focus that is needed.

He also warned of the growing tendency to make the contradiction between urban and rural areas, rather than recognising the importance of developing them together.

“Step by step, Eurocities and its mayors must influence the European Parliament and the Commission, to ensure cities get the expertise and funding they need to tackle issues such as climate change and urban mobility,” said Olbrycht.

Shared values and priorities

MEP Marcos Ros Sempere. Photo © Stavros Tzovaras

Spanish MEP Marcos Ros Sempere stressed that many of the issues highlighted by mayors in the Eurocities Pulse Survey align with those of the European Parliament, particularly issues around the clarity and role of EU initiatives and the importance of sustainable urban transport.

“Cities should not feel alone,” said Ros Sempere, “In the European institutions, and especially here in the Parliament, you will always find an ally to initiate social, climate and digital priorities in your territories and to be able to count on the appropriate funding and mechanisms to do so.”

Cohesion Policy can tackle inequalities and support the development of cities
— MEP Marcos Ros Sempere

Ros Sempere outlined the importance of EU Cohesion Policy, which he said is the main tool to end inequalities and support the priorities of regions and cities across Europe. While he recognised there have been bureaucratic difficulties with the policy in recent years, he stressed that it remains the best means of fighting inequality in urban areas.

Regarding the development of sustainable urban transport, Ros Sempere said it is one of the most important steps in tackling the climate and energy crises. He highlighted the EU’s proposal for a new Urban Mobility framework, which suggests measures to develop of safe, accessible and emission-free urban transport systems.

“This is an important initiative that also addresses the issue of transport pollution and congestion,” said Ros Sempere. “Parliament has adopted our response to the report, which includes providing access to EU funding such as Cohesion Policy, to give back the space taken by cars and develop healthier, more liveable cities. We hope this framework will move forward quickly.”

Rebuilding Braga: the importance of EU funding

Ricardo Rio, Mayor of Braga, spoke about the importance of EU funding in achieving economic recovery in his city, which 10 years ago had an unemployment rate of 15%.

One of the many innovation economic actions adopted by the mayor and his administration was Invest Braga, the first economic development agency to be introduced at local level in Portugal. This was supported by Start-Up Braga, which supported start-ups and entrepreneurs and attracted IT companies to the city.  Over 2,000 jobs a year were created, reducing unemployment to 5%, while Braga became the fourth-biggest exporter in the country.

The city of Braga, which has been transformed thanks to EU funding

“To achieve these goals, we had to improve industry, tourism, services and commerce, and for those initiatives the connection with European funding was crucial” said Mayor Rio. “The work that has been done by our companies, in connection with universities and research centres, has mostly been financed by innovation programmes at the European level.”

We must ensure the stronger involvement of cities in budgetary processes
— Ricardo Rio, Mayor of Braga

Outlining many of the recommendations presented in Eurocities’ policy paper on how the EU can work better with cities, Rio stressed the need to strengthen multilevel collaboration between all levels of the EU and to have the stronger involvement of cities in the budgetary process.

He called for innovative EU investment in public-private partnerships at local level to stimulate economic growth, as well as the need for the European Investment Bank to invest in city projects and act as a dedicated advisory hub.

Mayor Rio added: “We need to invest in talent and develop quality human resources, that are supported through EU funded training and education projects, reskilling professionals and building a high-quality workforce.”

For climate action, we need a climate of change

Anna Lisa Boni, Deputy Mayor of Bologna, made it clear that Europe’s cities are ready to work with the European Parliament and all the EU institutions to tackle climate challenges.

“Climate action is not a priority we can choose to follow or not, it is a fact,” said Deputy Mayor Boni. “We need to work on climate action, because we have no choice. The impacts of climate change are not about future generations, they are about the present generation. We must work now, and fast.”

The EU must work with its cities to ensure the European Green Deal is achieved
— Anna Lisa Boni, Deputy Mayor of Bologna

She explained that in Bologna and in cities across Europe, climate action means working in an integrated way. This includes wide-ranging actions needed to develop sustainable urban mobility, create green and blue public spaces, build zero energy buildings, expand the circular economy and work on social issues, such as making social housing energy efficient, and tackling energy poverty.

She said that the EU Mission for 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2023 has helped to speed up innovative climate action in cities, along with the EU Recovery Fund and Cohesion Policy.

“We need to make sure that the ambitious legislation and initiatives we have in place, such as the hugely important European Green Deal, are strengthened and consolidated,” said Boni. “Cities and the EU must utilise our united drive and ambition to build a just urban future for our citizens. Eurocities and its members are ready to work with the Parliament and the Commission to push for our urban dream.”

A “bright future” for cities

These views were supported by Irish MEP Ciarán Cuffe who stressed that cities “have a very bright future.” He explained that Europe is in the middle of a transformation when it comes to tackling climate change, with cities leading this work, supported by collaboration and funding from the EU.

“It changes the energy we produce and use, it changes transport and mobility, it changes construction and buildings, and it changes what we grow and eat,” said Cuffe. “If we do this right, it will be a very productive period for cities. It will give us jobs that are sustainable for a generation to come, as we adapt cities to climate change and as we mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

Cities can forge a link with the EU that can be powerful
— MEP Ciarán Cuffe

He pointed to the new transportation plan that is being developed in Dublin, a city which has for many years given priority to car drivers, but is now developing initiatives that give space to public transport users, pedestrians, cyclists and those with mobility issues.

Dublin city

To achieve this goal, he highlighted the importance of the EU’s Fit for 55 package, with its goal to reduce greenhouse gases by 50%, while he also urged cities to apply to the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility, which has only used 20% of its available funds.

“It is clear that the direction the EU is taking is to try and make the transition to net zero smoother, cleaner and not leave people behind,” said Cuffe. “Cities can forge a link with the EU that can be powerful, where cities can benefit from EU expertise and funding to tackle the climate crisis, so it is good for the economy, the climate and our planet.”

Belgian Presidency: “City issues will be high on the EU agenda”

Ans Persoons, Secretary of State of the Brussels Capital Region, presented the priorities of the upcoming Belgian Presidency in relation to urban policy. She explained that the Brussels Capital Region will be in charge of urban policy during the presidency, offering a “unique opportunity” for the views of cities to be heard in the European policy making process.

It is important that cities are heard in the European policy making process
— Ans Persoons, Secretary of State of Brussels Capital Region

“The Belgian presidency, which begins in January 2024,  will be a presidency that cares about cities,” said Persoons. “With the upcoming European elections and the start of new European programmes, we plan to  deliver strong messages to the European institutions when it comes to urban policy.

“This is an opportunity to develop collaboration between cities across Europe, foster multilevel governance and create better links between the goals of cities and the agenda of the EU.”

Persoons explained that the Belgian presidency will focus on three key urban policy goals: defending the urban and metropolitan dimension in European policies, confirming the importance of large cities as European partners, and making sure that spatial planning and European governance are recognised as key tools to achieving European objectives.

To achieve these goals, several high-level events are being planned, including an urban policy summit in Brussels on 24 January 2024, which all the mayors of large cities have been invited to attend.

“You can count on the Belgian government to bring matters that are important to cities high on the EU agenda,” concluded Persoons.

Photos © Stavros Tzovaras, European Parliament.


Andrew Kennedy Eurocities Writer