Cities respond to social implications of COVID-19 crisis

28 May 2020

More than 90 representatives from 55 cities met online for the Social Affairs Forum meeting to discuss the social consequences of the COVID-19 crisis and how to mitigate them.

Members had the opportunity to get first-hand information directly from the European Commission about the new EU recovery package and how this will reinforce the EU social agenda. Finally, members got invited how to stay actively involved and provide inputs to the Eurocities advocacy actions to ensure a strong urban dimension in reinforcing social Europe and building a fair and inclusive recovery.

Key messages from the political debate

Deputy mayors from Athens, Barcelona, Leipzig, Malmo, Utrecht, Vienna and Zagreb engaged in a direct dialogue with the European Commission Director for Social Affairs, Katarina Ivankovic. They discussed common challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis, exchanged on social policy measures to respond to the crisis and shared lessons learnt so far, as well as concrete ideas for working together between cities and the European Commission in the post-covid recovery.

Key takeaways from the debate are:

  • 1. Cities play a key role in preventing and combating rising inequalities.
    We see in our cities that new groups of people – ‘new urban poor’ – are facing financial difficulties due to losing their job or income, entering debt and many risk losing their home and becoming homeless.
  • To prevent the problems before they become too big, many cities have put in place economic relief measures for people in need. Cities like Utrecht use an integrated approach across city services (e.g. employment, health and social services working together) to identify people at risk before getting into debt and offering them support.
  • This involves better outreach and communication to citizens to respond to their needs. Many cities set up new hotlines not only to inform on the health measures related to COVID-19, but also hotlines to offer labour law counselling (Barcelona) or educational counselling for families (Leipzig).
  • To help people who are already in a vulnerable situation, many cities have extended capacity of homeless shelters or opened new emergency housing such as in Barcelona, Athens and Leipzig.

2. Social investment must remain a priority.

  • Municipal budgets are heavily affected by the crisis and many cities need to redefine their priorities. Learning from the past financial crisis of 2008, cities do well not to cut on social services, but on the contrary, to keep social investment as a key priority of their city budget.
  • Leipzig set a good example announcing that the city will continue investing in strong public (municipal) social infrastructure at the same time as stimulating the local economy.

3. Social and economic recovery from the crisis are strongly inter-linked.

  • Barcelona set up an emergency fund of 25million EUR that will support recovery measures outlined in the ‘Pact for Barcelona’ with participation of all actors to rebuild the city together. Much effort and resources will be dedicated to reducing inequalities.
  • Vienna set up an emergency fund of 35 million EUR to help people in need and support SMEs. Every household in Vienna will receive a cheque of 50 EUR to spend in local restaurants and thus boost the local economy. A part of the fund will be used to finance the Vienna Youth Guarantee to promote training and apprenticeships for young people.

4. Cities are using the crisis to rethink social cohesion and re-connect to citizens.

  • The crisis shows more than ever that social services are essential services. As a result, many cities are turning the temporary emergency social measures into permanent solutions, such as the new homeless centre in Athens to accommodate 700 homeless or the use of digital platforms for social and health counselling like in Zagreb.
  • Moreover, many cities are building on the solidarity actions in local communities and using this social capital for recovery. For example, Barcelona is testing a new social model for territorial interventions with support for community solidarity networks.

5. Let’s use this opportunity to reinforce social Europe with a strong urban dimension.

  • Cities can play a key role in promoting the EU as the engine for social recovery, putting people at the centre of the recovery.
  • The EU recovery plan should have a strong social and urban dimension.
  • Cities are ready to work with the European Commission as partners towards an inclusive, fair and sustainable recovery.

Sedat Arif, the chair of the Social Affairs Forum and deputy mayor of Malmo, said:

“Cities are on the frontline of managing this crisis. We have acted fact with pro-active and innovative measures and we deserve to be recognised for taking a leading role. But no one can respond to this unprecedented crisis alone – we must work together between cities, national governments and the EU. In this way, we can do more than undo the effects of the pandemic, but also give a fresh start to tackle the social inequalities that have been long-lasting in our society.”

EU policy updates

Katarina Ivankovic, Director for Social Affairs at DG EMPL of European Commission, presented the EU priorities to address the social consequences of the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Preserving Jobs and Promote Quality Job opportunities for all
  • Contributing to fair working conditions for all
  • Reinforcing social protection and fighting poverty
  • European Pillar of Social Rights remains the overarching policy framework

Katarina invited cities to work with the European Commission to work together on reinforcing social Europe and contribute to the key initiatives on the EU social agenda for 2020-2021:

  • EU Child Guarantee to be adopted in 2021 with strong focus on ‘children in need’ and on services
  • European Disability Strategy
  • Ageing and social protection – Green Paper on Ageing, reports on long-term care and pensions

Katarina shared with SAF members some insights into the EU recovery package which will include an amended ESF+ proposal to adapt to a new reality after the COVID-19 crisis. One key element is that the new health programme (EU4health) will be a stand-alone programme with a dedicated budget instead of being a part of the ESF+ programme. InvestEU will also have an extended social window with loans and guarantees that cities can use for investing in social infrastructure.

To make the best use of the EU funding available, Katarina recommended cities to work together with the managing authorities both in the programming and in the implementation of the EU funding programmes to respond to the urgent needs in cities.

You can watch the full recording here: