How can cities improve their engagement with the EU?

19 June 2024

European city administrations are increasingly recognised as critical partners of the EU institutions in tackling major global issues and achieving key EU objectives, such as the European Green Deal and Europe’s digital transformation. A growing number of urban-focused initiatives, driven by the European Commission, have led to significant opportunities for cities to have their say on EU affairs and to work jointly to achieve common objectives. 

Cities equally understand that they need to improve their own structure and organisation to contribute to EU policies and benefit from EU opportunities that will allow them to respond to local challenges, including tackling social inequalities and implementing green infrastructure.

As a result, many cities are building their institutions in relation to EU affairs, creating and expanding their European teams and opening offices in Brussels.

However, despite cities’ increased investment in EU politics, there has been very little research carried out into the factors that ensure cities are able to reach their goals at EU level. There are examples of how individual cities are working effectively with the EU, but an overall analysis of why different cities engage in EU affairs and how they organise their engagement has not been carried out.

In an effort to provide greater clarity, Eurocities and the Rise of the Sub research project of the Swiss National Science Foundation have published a new report – City administrations and EU affairs – which presents cities’ shared experiences of working on EU affairs, including their common challenges, governance structures and most effective methods of EU engagement.

Drawing on expert interviews, survey results and a city workshop, the new report compiles evidence and data from 25 cities across Europe, to provide all city administrations with the knowledge and understanding they need to boost their own EU engagement further. The report aims to be the starting point for tailored capacity building activities and training for cities on the topic.

We spoke to the report’s co-author, Carlo Epifanio, a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies in the University of Lausanne, who explained the report’s key analysis and findings.

What are the main findings of the report?

We decided to write this report to understand how and why cities engage in European affairs, and to study the EU departments of cities. We wanted to understand why they organise a certain way and their main goals.

The report’s first finding focused on why cities engage in European affairs, and we found a plethora of reasons. Some cities want to get European funds, and to learn more about European affairs because it is a complicated field. They join European networks, like Eurocities, so they can benefit from their expertise and knowledge of EU affairs and policies.

There are many other reasons, showing that individual cities usually have their own motivations. Some cities want to gain visibility, some cities want to lobby the EU and some want a better reputation. All in all, there are lots of reasons and each city is different.

Our second finding is how they organise their European affairs. The report highlights cities’ growing awareness of the need to structure and develop their capacity to engage with the EU.

All of the cities we surveyed have some sort of EU institutionalisation, meaning a person or a unit that follows EU affairs. However, different cities have different degrees of EU institutionalisation. 37% of the cities surveyed have a dedicated EU team, and 25% have an EU unit within an international relations department.

Interestingly, 33% of surveyed cities have a delegation in Brussels, where they can develop direct political relations with EU institutions and convey information on new EU legislation and opportunities.

33% of surveyed cities have a delegation in Brussels
— Carlo Epifanio, the report's co-author

However, we also noticed that there is an emergence of established EU units in cities, meaning there are bureaucrats that last longer than political terms and mandates. We also observed the emergence of EU teams in relation to EU projects, which provides funds and reasons to work on EU affairs, and legitimacy.

Are there other key findings in the report and examples of how cities are boosting their EU engagement?

Another key finding is this problem of administrative capacity, which is often mentioned by the member cities in the Eurocities network. In our research, we tried to respond to the question of what does lack of capacity mean.

Of the cities we surveyed, 70% feel they have a lack of staff in the wider administration to deal with EU affairs, which is often not perceived as a priority. Most cities say they have enough capacity to run their urban affairs, but few cities have enough capacity for EU affairs.

The main tension we found is that EU affairs are cross-sectoral in nature, but EU teams said there are not enough EU experts in cities and they have to deal with the challenges of silos in city administrations.

A second point on a lack of capacity is that to engage in EU affairs, cities need to reach out to several departments at once, because EU policies often cover several issues, such as climate and mobility. EU teams often find it difficult to relate to other departments and to reach out to colleagues.

To solve this issue, we found that some cities have a strategic document that helps all the departments to be on the same page, and to give legitimacy to the work of their EU teams.

Barcelona, for example, has a strategy for international and EU affairs which gives its EU team a mandate for action. Milan brings together all its staff engaged in Eurocities and EU projects once a year to share their activities and ideas.

Of the cities surveyed, 70% feel they have a lack of staff to deal with EU affairs
— Carlo Epifanio

Lastly, politics has a significant influence and if a mayor or local government is pro EU, it can really be a factor, especially for the Eastern and Southern European cities that we surveyed. Our survey shows that 21% of cities, such as the City of Barcelona, have an EU team within their Mayor’s office. In those cities where there are less developed institutions and capacity, a big political speaker that brings the city into EU affairs can be a deciding factor.

Look at Budapest, for example, whose experience of EU affairs completely changed with the current mayor, Gergely Szilveszter Karácsony, elected in 2019, as opposed to the previous governments which were pro-nationalism and so not interested in EU affairs.

How could these findings help EU cities and EU teams improve their effectiveness in EU affairs?

There are two main practical ways that this report can help.

First, this report provides an example of how other cities organise their EU affairs. This is a topic on which very few studies or academic research has been undertaken, so cities don’t know too much about it. So this report can provide concrete examples for them.

A city officer can go to the report and see how other cities organise their EU teams, showing how they organise and develop good governance. Cities can better understand how they can organise effectively and understand effective ways of working.

Secondly, we built a framework that can help cities better structure a discussion and strategic thinking about EU affairs, and we provide a Self-Assessment Tool at the end of the report, which every city can use to self-evaluate their work and understand themselves and how they need to develop and improve their engagement.

As well as these practical steps to help cities, the report brings forward concrete actions to improve EU engagement, such as encouraging internal and cross-department discussions in cities about the position of their EU teams. It also invites EU teams and their most connected departments to co-design a protocol with procedures and responsibilities on EU affairs across city departments.

The Self-Assessment Tool at the end of the report, which cities can use to self-evaluate their work

What is the status of the academic literature in this field and why is it important for researchers to work with practitioners?

The academic literature suggests that cities have become increasingly involved in diplomatic activities in recent years, transcending their traditional role as a level of government. They have established their own governance structures, which involve various local actors, NGOs and organisations within their territories.

Despite this, there remains a significant knowledge gap regarding cities’ perspectives. Why do different cities engage in distinct diplomatic activities and networks? How do they practically organise their involvement in EU affairs? What are the outcomes of their international activities?

These questions, which have not been adequately addressed in the literature, are the focus of this report. The aim is to provide insights that can help cities improve their organisation and facilitate better collaboration between cities and EU institutions.

There is a transformation taking place inside cities and a trend towards Europeanisation, with cities wanting to work more actively with the EU institutions to develop policies and ideas. Cities have also demonstrated their central role when tackling challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the repercussions of the Russian war in Ukraine.

Equally, the EU is increasingly recognising cities’ critical role in tackling major challenges and building a more sustainable and prosperous Europe. A growing number of urban-focused initiatives, driven by the European Commission, have led to opportunities for cities to have their say on EU policies.

Well-known initiatives, such as the Covenant of Mayors, have been complemented by new initiatives,  including the EU Mission for 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030 and the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, as well as the Living-in-EU movement.

However, if cities are truly to reach their full potential at the EU level, it is crucial that they understand the tools and actions they need to implement to ensure they can be a strategic ally to the EU institutions, both providing input into and benefiting from transformative EU policies and funding.

We need to work with cities to ensure their voices are heard
— Carlo Epifanio

Also, networks like Eurocities can struggle to fully understand their members’ individual perspectives, so this is a way for Eurocities to acquire information on cities’ viewpoints and to understand how they can better support them.

European affairs are evolving very fast and every year there is a new trigger issue, like inflation or the housing crisis. We need to work with cities to continue to improve their ways of working and to ensure their voices are heard and properly understood at EU level.

Why are you interested in the field of city networking and what is your vision for the future of EU engagement by cities?

City networks, such as Eurocities, will play a crucial role in the future as cities face increasingly complex and transnational problems. These issues are part of a broader political landscape, where institutions and actors can be perceived as distant and unresponsive by citizens.

In this context, city networks and local politics can serve as a vital mechanism for promoting European democracy and representation by providing a tangible vehicle for citizens to engage with and influence European policymaking.

Eurocities provides a platform for cities to share their ideas and experiences in an ever changing political and social landscape, offering city administrations the opportunity to share their experiences with the EU, develop solutions to improve people’s lives and influence EU policies that can build a better future for Europe and its people.


Download a copy of Eurocities new research report City administrations and EU affairs. The report has been compiled by Pietro Reviglio, Eurocities Policy Advisor, and Carlo Epifanio, a researcher in the Institute of Political Studies in the University of Lausanne. Special thanks go to the University of Lausanne and the Swiss National Fund for their generous support of “The Rise of the Sub” research project1 (grant number 186897)2.

You can also download an infographic outlining the main messages in the new report. 

The report builds builds on Eurocities recent policy paper – How the EU can work better with cities – which puts forward a series of recommendations on how collaboration between cities and the EU institutions can be further improved.