It seems odd that ‘unity’ is not a word often associated with the European Union. Yet the ‘unity’ of the union has been much on show this week across Europe. The war in Ukraine has rekindled a flame, ever at the core of the union, but often reduced to empty rhetoric about ‘values’.
“All for one, and one for all,” was the rallying cry of Benoît Payan, Mayor of Marseille, at the European Summit of Regions and Cities, whose municipality is twinned with Odesa in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is Europe,” echoed Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, shortly after a minute of silence was held to honour the victims and observe the plight of fellow Europeans in Ukraine.
The response to Russian aggression from across Europe has been rapid, and transformative for Europe’s external relations. It was with these thoughts that participants turned to addressing another undercurrent of unity that has been bubbling away these past months – the necessity, born once again out of crisis, to make good on the post-pandemic economic, social and cultural recovery.
“Governments are working for a common mission: recover from the crisis and deliver the twin digital and environmental transition,” said Dario Nardella, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Florence.
However, while all governments may currently be working towards these same goals, the picture differs significantly across Europe, particularly at local level where an added complication is that the National Recovery and Resilience Plans may not see the whole canvas.
Talk with cities
According to Mayor Nardella, Florence, along with other Italian cities, has had a much smoother ride. This has been the result of joint work with the Italian association of local authorities, and with other metropolitan cities, as well as a realisation from early on by the Italian national government that these efforts would not succeed without local actors on board.
It also makes sense, given the magnitude of the total amount of money to be spent – over €200bn in Italy to be delivered by 2026 – as part of the NRRPs, that cities also be entrusted with making a portion of the investments.
For his part, in Florence, Nardella plans to invest the money especially on providing 100% digital public services, and to support the environmental transition. “We are planning investments to boost our recycling capabilities and support the shift towards a circular economy. Transforming our urban mobility system is another key priority, and we will build cycle lanes and tramways and buy new ecological buses,” he said.
However, this is not the case for most cities in other European countries, as has been recorded by Eurocities members.
“In some Eastern European countries, the opposition between cities and the national governments on this has grown very high. Cities there are systematically excluded from decisions that concern them directly and they are often withheld relevant information,” warned Nardella. “Let me be clear,” he continued, “those cities are key to deliver on EU objectives. They are Europe’s best allies to deliver the European Green Deal in those countries. This is demonstrated by the ambitious projects they put forward to deliver on their climate neutrality objectives.”
In this respect, the mayor was later able to thank Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, for the Commission’s strong support and efforts to make sure national governments respect the rules of the funds and properly involve cities in their implementation.
For several years now, city budgets have been squeezed, and the added expenditures, combined with loss of revenues for many during the pandemic period, have exacerbated a growing trend. The Committee of the Regions estimates that this can lead to a funding gap of €180 billion for EU local and regional authorities.
“The Recovery and Resilience facility is fresh oxygen for investment at local level, but we should not forget that it is a temporary measure” explained Nardella.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we should realise that the recovery plan cannot finance all the public investment we need locally.” To give a concrete example, the recovery funds could not be used to make a long term investment in a city administration, like hiring much needed staff.
As such, other sources of funding are needed, more generally for cities. And with this in mind, several options were mooted by the mayor. This includes reassessing the EU’s fiscal rules, ensuring the continuance of the EU’s Cohesion Policy, and crowding in all sources of private finance, including from the European Investment Bank.
Cohesion funds, especially, have been a crucial lifeline to cities since their establishment, and will remain a key EU instrument to support the recovery of cities post-pandemic, and to support long term investments – a point Mayor Nardella also made in the side meeting with European Commissioner Ferreira, alongside Mayor Aboutaleb from Rotterdam and Mayor Rio from Braga.
Since the pandemic began, cities have been able to use the cohesion funds in a much more flexible way, which Nardella mentioned as an important means to make sure investments are delivered
“Cohesion policy is key to reverse worrying trends such as growing inequalities in cities,” said Nardella, and he also pointed out that cohesion funds can help cities target longer term goals such as sustainability and energy independence.
For her part, Commissioner Ferreira agreed that cohesion policy can be an essential tool to support innovation ecosystems at the metropolitan and regional scale, as well as with surrounding rural areas. In this regard, she also sought to keep the discussions going with cities, and asked that the mayors share good examples of how this type of cooperation can be achieved.
Good exchange with @eurocities mayors @DarioNardella @JuntosporBraga & Ahmed Aboutaleb #Rotherdam on the role that cities can play to host Ukrainian 🇺🇦 refugees and how #CohesionPolicy can support them pic.twitter.com/SqanX1VyJm
— Elisa Ferreira (@ElisaFerreiraEC) March 3, 2022
Against the background of a new war started on European soil – and the recovery efforts – unity, solidarity, reaching out, seem to be appropriate reactions.
In this spirit, Mayor Nardella also met separately with Clément Beaune, Secretary of State for European Affairs, France; and Magali Altounian, Deputy Mayor of Nice to discuss how to bring French, Italian, and all Eurocities member cities closer together.
Turning once more to Ukraine, one action that could do this is the shared moment of solidarity next 12 March.
Meanwhile, at the Regions and Cities summit in Marseille, Vitali Klitschko, Mayor of Kyiv, shared the following message:
— European Committee of the Regions (@EU_CoR) March 4, 2022