State of the European Union: Cites are crucial to tackling climate and social challenges

13 September 2023

Ursula von der Leyen’s fourth State of the Union address, and the last in the current mandate, took place amid ongoing unrest, including the second year of war in Europe, continued energy insecurity and rising inflation that is affecting millions of people.

As a result, the speech focused on EU support for Ukraine, the need to protect EU values and democracy, and the importance of the green transition in tackling inequalities, providing security and building a more prosperous future.

Throughout her speech, the Commission President highlighted the importance of next year’s European elections, stressing that “this is Europe’s moment to answer the call of history.”

From our side, Eurocities and our members are ready to work with the EU to achieve this goal.

Over the past few years, cities have demonstrated great strength and agility when tackling major global challenges. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, city leaders worked with their national and European counterparts to deal with an unprecedented health crisis. And following the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine, it was cities across Europe that welcomed our Ukrainian neighbours with open arms, finding them shelter, solidarity and jobs.

Cities also have a strong role to play in many aspects of the European Green Deal. As we move onto the implementation phase, most of the work around decarbonisation must be managed at the local level.

It is with its cities that Europe needs to answer the call of history, working in partnership for a climate neutral and inclusive future. It is imperative that the next EU mandate offers cities a seat at the table.

A social Green Deal starts and ends in cities

Von der Leyen was right to applaud progress on the European Green Deal. However, the push for this ambitious blueprint is, in large part, orchestrated from the ground up by cities. Our cities are implementing and promoting the Green Deal’s objectives, often further and faster than national governments.

Cities have been wrestling to get the deal through, actively pushing for each piece of legislation, from advocating for a transition from combustion engines to promoting nature restoration. Their public support has been loud and clear, gaining traction under the hashtag #GreenDealOrBust and featuring in high-profile publications like Politico.

As Von der Leyen made clear, a Green Deal that sacrifices European competitiveness is a non-starter. Her reference to sustainable steel mills will come as no surprise to cities like Ghent, which works hands-on with its port to hit sustainable targets while increasing revenue, including through the conversion of two such mills. A more competitive Europe needs cities on board, and the Clean Transition Dialogues announced in the State of the Union speech must include cities, which are unique actors in their local ecosystems.

As our network’s president, the Mayor of Leipzig, told Politico, “Making our cities and industries more energy-efficient will protect them against volatile energy costs and geopolitical uncertainty,” and create millions of high-paying green jobs.

Indeed, cities stand ready to work together with industry, the European institutions, and other partners, to reach not only our collective climate goals, but also many other ambitions. For example, cities play an important role in attracting talent, and training workers. Cities are already engaging with the Belgian presidency of the EU around these issues, which will be key for the mandate, and the Commission must ensure that city representatives are included in the Social Partner Summit that Von der Leyen  has just announced.

Von der Leyen also stressed the social dimension of Europe’s transition. Cities are implementing EU-wide initiatives like the Energy Efficiency Directive, the European Performance of Buildings Directive and the Renovation Wave with a social approach, for instance by mitigating energy poverty. Local governments boosting energy communities, and collaborating with social services to pinpoint those most vulnerable, as seen with Valencia’s Energy Office, and support them with advice and funding for energy.

The European Green Deal may have been born in the meeting rooms of Brussels, but it is in the streets of Europe’s cities that its success will ultimately be determined.

“The future of Ukraine is in our Union”

Von der Leyen reinforced the EU’s full support for Ukraine in her speech. She stressed that the EU “will be at Ukraine’s side every step of the way. For as long as it takes,” adding that four million Ukrainians have found refuge in the EU since the war began.

To rousing applause, the President made it clear that Ukrainian people “are as welcome now as they were in those fateful first weeks” of the war.

Despite over 15 months of conflict, her words reflected the continued support across Europe for the people of Ukraine, particularly in our cities which continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees, providing shelter and aid, and giving people opportunities to integrate into local communities.

Von der Leyen listed the actions undertaken this year by the EU and its allies to support Ukraine, including 12 billion euros to help pay wages and pensions, and keep hospitals, schools and other services running.

In particular, she highlighted the new €50 billion Ukraine Facility, which will support Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction over the next few years. It was hugely positive to see that the EU is stepping up it support for Ukraine, but also that the facility places particular emphasis on supporting city municipalities in Ukraine.

As Russian aggression shows no sign of abating, Eurocities and our members reiterate our firm, strong and principled support to Ukraine and its cities. We will continue to support their sustainable recovery through this new instrument and other important actions.

Over the past year, our Generators of Hope campaign has brought practical aid to the people of Ukraine by delivering a massive supply of power generators at a time of urgent need. Cities sent more than 500 power generators and thousands of items of electrical equipment and heaters to help Ukrainians deal with the lack of electricity and heating throughout the cold winter months.

Looking forward, Eurocities has established a pilot project for the Sustainable rebuilding of Ukrainian cities, involving 36 Eurocities member cities and 10 Ukrainian cities and run in close collaboration with the Association of Ukrainian Cities. Closely mirroring the European Green Deal, this project can help to inform wider development efforts, such as the EU’s RebuildUkraine initiative and the Ukraine Facility announced today.

Investing in our future

Cities welcome the barrage of investments that the address drew attention to. However, as another winter of discontent looms, with a curtailment in expected growth, along with a spike in inflation cities need to be empowered to invest as well. Yet, despite their potential as engines of sustainable development, our cities are finding it increasingly difficult to make essential long-term investments in green, digital, and social infrastructure.

As our Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey 2023 highlighted, economic recovery is both a top three challenge for mayors in 2022, and a top three priority for 2023. But for over a decade, cities across Europe have suffered from a significant lack of long-term investment. Fiscal rules have curtailed public spending capabilities, especially at the local level.  According to the European Investment Bank, a staggering 70% of cities are resource-strapped, unable to make essential long-term investments.

Immediate steps can be taken to alleviate the funding crisis in European cities. Unused EU funds should be redirected towards local investments in social, green, and digital sectors as a stop-gap measure.

However, more enduring solutions require an overhaul of EU fiscal rules. Cities must be able to long-term investment in public goods without the constant fear of breaching fiscal regulations.

The essence of democracy is bottom-up

Among the numbers that peppered the State of the Union address, ‘300’ was a vital one: the number of days remaining before the European elections. In an age of increasing Euroscepticism and polarisation, cities are at the forefront of participatory initiatives that foster a sense of community and directly involve residents in decision-making processes, all while affirming European values.

In 2021, a Eurocities study of 173 European cities showed that most employ citizen participation, and over half have advanced practices involving residents in co-design activities. This democratic push is largely powered by political will; in 2023, one in six mayors considered citizen participation a top priority. With dedicated teams within administrations to manage and develop strategies, cities are uniquely positioned to innovate with democracy.

In Rennes, for example, the city’s ‘Labo Europe’ has involved more than 200 diverse members in conversations about the EU, resulting in a citizens initiative on migration. Meanwhile, in countries like Poland and Hungary, where national governments may be at odds with EU principles, cities like Warsaw and Gdansk serve as bastions of European values.

If democracy is to thrive in Europe, then local governments, as direct intermediaries between the EU and its citizens, must be placed at the heart of its decision-making processes. We wish to remind President Von der Leyen and the European Commission that Eurocities and our members are ready to work on this common issue and to answer the call of history.

Main image credit: Copyright European Union, 2023


André Sobczak Secretary General, Eurocities