Cities are at the core of this pandemic, hardest hit by the crisis and on the frontline of mitigating the impact on people and jobs. Cities are essential partners for a fair and inclusive European recovery and a stronger social Europe. This was one of the main messages shared by EUROCITIES political representatives this morning in an online dialogue with Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights.
“The social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis requires all of our efforts to preserve and create jobs, and to ensure social inclusion for everyone”, said Schmit.
As outlined by Sedat Arif, chair of EUROCITIES social affairs forum (SAF) and deputy mayor of Malmo, city administrations have a clear track record delivering on social rights, and in acting as a bridge between the EU and its citizens. The pledges collected by EUROCITIES on the European Pillar of Social Rights, for example, which have so far been signed by 30 major European cities which have together pledged over €6 billion, show a clear commitment on mitigating challenges such as inclusive labour markets, integration of migrants and refugees, tackling homelessness, and active inclusion of vulnerable groups such as Roma.
As mentioned by the Commissioner, “In these endeavours, the European Pillar for Social Rights is more relevant than ever and I welcome the work of EUROCITIES in implementing it.”
The toll of COVID-19 on our cities
Maarten van Ooijen, vice-chair of the social affairs forum and deputy mayor of Utrecht, outlined how, for many cities, the impact of COVID-19 means jobs losses estimated at 30% or more. And above all, vulnerable groups are being hardest hit, especially the elderly, homeless, and migrants.
All this means that inequalities are rapidly rising in our cities. Home-schooling, for instance, is deepening the digital divide in education and widening the inequalities for children in low-income families. We are seeing that new groups of people – ‘the new urban poor’ – are falling through the cracks, especially students and young people, freelance workers and self-employed and undocumented migrants. Besides social inequalities, territorial inequalities are also deepening, with deprived urban neighbourhoods being more heavily affected than other areas.
In response, cities have done what they can to mobilise and stretch our social services to provide targeted support to the most in need. Many cities have extended shelter capacities for the homeless and set up extra services such as food delivery for the elderly. Some cities are also providing income support to the most vulnerable people and emergency funding for SMEs at risk.
But, as van Ooijen remarked, cities cannot act alone: “We need urgent support from the EU level and a strong urban dimension in the EU recovery strategy. In turn, we can bring social innovation from our cities to inspire EU social policies for a fair and inclusive recovery.”
Crucial support for cities still missing
As brought home by Sonia Fuertes, Commissioner for Social Rights, Barcelona City Council, all these extra activities carried out at municipal level to respond to the urgent needs during the COVID-19 crisis come at a cost and put a strong pressure on municipal budgets.
Increasing demand on social services, targeted support for the most vulnerable groups and newly unemployed people all lead to more public spending. Coupled with less revenue from taxation and tourism, this puts at risk the city budget for employment and social services.
With this in mind, Arif, van Ooijen and Fuertes noted the centrality of the European Social Fund is making such a response possible – but also suggested that putting more focus on the urban dimension of this policy would bring even stronger results. This would better match the priorities of the Fund to the specific social challenges in our cities, such as rising homelessness, and better respond to new emerging needs, such as active inclusion local measures for ‘new urban poor’ groups. By doing so we have the opportunity to reconnect to citizens and put them at the centre of the recovery in our cities and in Europe.
Commissioner Schmit agreed that cities play a key role in building a stronger social Europe. He said: “There cannot be a real recovery from this crisis without a social recovery. For this, we need to strengthen the social dimension of Europe to rebuild the social fabric in our society and give cities the means to tackle the rising urban poverty and inequalities”. The Commissioner echoed the unprecedented social challenges in cities due to the crisis, saying that the urban problems are European problems and need European solutions. He invited cities to have a say on how to reinforce social Europe and find the best solutions.
In parallel meetings, EUROCITIES politicians also met today with the European Commissioners Frans Timmermans, Paolo Gentiloni and Johannes Hahn.