André Sobczak officially takes up the reigns as Eurocities new Secretary General this week, as he begins work in the Eurocities offices in Brussels. As explained in this interview, André was already familiar with the network before taking on this role, and has even been on his first Eurocities mission – to Ukraine, on a quest to determine how to help cities there rebuild better.
Nice to meet you André. As someone who has already worked in a city administration, and alongside many Eurocities member cities, I guess you are ready to hit the ground running. What are you already hearing from Eurocities member cities about their priorities?
My advantage is that I already know our network from the inside. As Vice-President of the Nantes Metropolitan Area, I had the perspective and the expectations of a member of Eurocities.
For me, as a membership-based organisation, we need to offer value to our member cities and their people as well as to those who represent these cities. On the one hand, we must accelerate the ecological and social transition in our member cities, by fostering innovation and by identifying and disseminating good practices, as well as mistakes from which others may learn. On the other hand, we should offer politicians and officers from our member cities the possibility to develop their personal network and skills. Building on the knowledge we have within our more than 200 cities across 38 countries, I’d like to launch a Eurocities Academy to train the next generation of responsible leaders for sustainable and inclusive European cities.
This summer has proven once again that we urgently need to adapt our cities to climate change, while at the same time ensuring that cities will become climate neutral as soon as possible. Of course, these transformations will only be possible if cities also strengthen social justice and guarantee economic viability, and if they involve all citizens in the decision-making processes.
European cities have a huge potential to face these challenges, but to fully explore this potential, they need the right legal and financial framework. This is why Eurocities must fight further for cities to be around the table when decisions are made within the European Union. Cities are not just there to implement decisions made by others; they need to be able to bring in their experiences and their direct links with citizens when new policies are defined. Over the last years, Eurocities has made good progress in regularly discussing with the European institutions, but we still need to go further and make sure that our network is systematically involved in all major European decision-making processes.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge in this role?
My role is to make sure that Eurocities offers the best services to our members, is systematically involved in the European decision-making processes, and accelerates the sustainable transformation of European cities.
Over the last 36 years since its foundation, our network has grown a lot and gained a lot of influence. That’s definitely thanks to the work of my predecessors, such as Anna Lisa Boni, and a lot of other people that have contributed, from staff to members and partner organisations.
For the future, it is crucial to ensure that each member city feels involved and can influence our activities and priorities. We will need to multiply consultations and meetings with our members. While the last two years have shown the potential of virtual meetings and tools, we still need to ensure that face-to-face meetings and learning expeditions are a staple part of the Eurocities package. I will implement a visiting in and out programme to allow officers from member cities to spend time at our offices in Brussels, and to send our staff members to member cities.
From a management point of view, as for any organisation in a context that is constantly changing, Eurocities needs to stay agile, despite its growing size. We must define clear performance indicators and report regularly on our achievements. As Secretary General, my role is also to ensure that we will continue to attract, retain and motivate the best talents to achieve our ambitious targets. This also means that we need to define and implement a social responsibility strategy for our network.
I understand you have already been on one mission for Eurocities. Can you tell me what it was about?
Yes, certainly. I went to Ukraine, to Kyiv, with eight mayors, including Eurocities President, Dario Nardella, who is the Mayor of Florence. First of all, we wanted to declare our solidarity with the Ukrainian cities, four of which are already members of Eurocities, show them that we do not forget them, and that we condemn the war led by Russia that attacks not only Ukraine but democracy and the rule of law. It was shocking to see the destruction with our own eyes, and very inspiring to meet such brave people fighting for our common values.
The main aim was to see how we can help the Ukrainian cities to rebuild better. We were able to meet with President Zelenskyy and to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to agree some basic principles on how we could work together on this initiative. The Ukrainian government has already identified many of the existing rebuilding needs in their cities that we will share with our members to pool our expertise and have the strongest possible impact.
The mission was very important, because we showed our confidence that the war will be over one day, that Ukraine will once again be free, and will be rebuilt in a more sustainable way and as a closer member of the European family. For me, it also demonstrated that Eurocities can become a key player in the European debate. And it showed that our member cities are not in competition, nor only looking to improve their own cities, but are also ready to show their solidarity with others. It demonstrates that together we can imagine and create a more positive future for cities and their people.
Generally speaking, what expectations do you have for the next days and weeks as you take on this role as Eurocities Secretary General?
Well, my expectation is to learn more about how the network is concretely organised internally. As I mentioned, I have been following Eurocities’ activities from the perspective of a member. As the Vice-President of the Nantes Metropolitan area, I was involved in the Eurocities Economic Development Forum. I have also been involved over the last six years via the Executive Committee. Therefore, I know of course a lot of the activities, and I have seen the professionalism and the engagement of the staff of Eurocities – which was also one of the reasons why I decided to apply to become Secretary General. But now I would like to see how it actually works, and how we can continue to train and develop the staff in order to face the challenges I mentioned, and in order to provide ever better services for our cities and their citizens.
I will participate in a lot of Eurocities ‘forum meetings’ and ‘working groups,’ and I will meet a lot of mayors, politicians and officers from our member cities to learn what they expect from the network, and what are the concrete challenges from their perspective.
Then, my job would be to identify some key priorities together with the Executive Committee and develop clear action plans and KPIs in order to see how we can improve things at all levels.
As I said, I think Eurocities has already done a lot of good work, so I would not anticipate changing everything, but on the other hand, I’m not just there to reproduce what has happened in the past. I would like to innovate, and in order to innovate, I will need to involve, of course, the staff and listen to all the members.
And now maybe just a bit of a more personal question. How has the move to Brussels been?
Very positive, thank you. I was excited to join a new city at the heart of Europe. Thanks to the support of friends and staff members at Eurocities, I identified quite easily a nice area to live in. And I was lucky to find an apartment there, close to several parks and not very far from the Eurocities offices where I can go by bike. I already discovered the nicest routes to get safely to the office too.
Over the summer, I’ve also taken the opportunity to discover some of the cultural activities on offer. And, as you mentioned, I already had my first mission for Eurocities, so I’ve also seen that it’s a place where you can quite easily reach different cities all over Europe, which makes it easier for me and the Eurocities staff to get to our different member cities, and, of course, to welcome members to our offices.