Against the background of more than six months of continuous war on European soil, and a tough economic outlook for the winter ahead that will heavily impact millions of people, Ursula von der Leyen focussed her third State of the European Union address on the war in Ukraine, the rising cost of living, and the need to secure European democracy and sustainable development on several fronts.
Overall, the speech struck several inspirational chords charting the essential ambition of EU leaders to address key challenges. However, by overlooking the potential of cities to contribute in most of these areas, the key challenge might just be matching the grander ambition to local level practicalities. A stronger collaboration between cities and European leaders would boost Europe’s chances of making a success of the coming years.
Calling the war in Ukraine, “a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values and a war on our future” and a fight of “autocracy against democracy,” von der Leyen stated to applause that “Putin will fail and Ukraine and Europe will prevail.” Her rhetoric matched a strong sentiment across Europe, evident in gestures such as Ukraine’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, and in the many actions taken in our cities to welcome Ukrainians and send aid, as well as in moments of solidarity such as the one Eurocities organised in the first weeks of the war, in over 150 cities.
To these words, and with Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine, invited as her guest of honour, von der Leyen listed the actions already undertaken by the EU and its allies, including imposing the toughest ever coordinated sanctions on a nation state, and spoke also to reconstruction plans.
She promised access to the single market for Ukraine, and direct aid for reconstruction, including €100 million to rebuild schools.
Recently, alongside eight Eurocities mayors from cities across our continent, I travelled to Ukraine, where we met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss exactly this.
We agreed to a set of principles to undertake city-to-city rebuilding efforts, and our aim is to work in a way to enhance European level efforts set forward by the European Commission.
We know rebuilding needs to work in conjunction with the needs and wishes that people express locally, and rebuilding civic infrastructure like schools is essential to ensuring that Ukrainians have access to the basic services needed for normal living.
We are working with our member cities in Ukraine, and in conjunction with the Association of Ukrainian Cities to best understand exactly what is needed. And on this front, I hope to be able to speak in person with Ursula von der Leyen soon to coordinate how local level efforts can boost this coordinated European response.
Given the already rising inflation levels of the last two years, and the concomitant energy price spikes that have resulted from Russian aggression, it is clear that we need a coordinated European solution out of this crisis. Divisions are only serving Putin’s interests and ongoing manipulation of our energy markets. Cities are ready to work closely with the European Commission to support innovative solutions to protect our citizens, especially those most in need, while reducing energy consumption and accelerating the transition towards renewable energies.
Citing the good example of Denmark, which has reoriented its national grid around wind power, she recalled the RePowerEU commitments made earlier this year to redouble efforts around renewable energy – something that many cities have already been working on for a long time.
Although energy has not been a traditional competence of local authorities, renewables in particular have led to a new level of democratisation of our energy markets whereby locally produced energy can make a big difference – not only to bills but as an overall contribution to energy sovereignty.
Across Europe, there are already many examples from cities in the field of energy production – and many that are particularly advanced also on von der Leyen’s principal point on the importance of undertaking energy-saving measures ahead of the winter.
Mannheim, for instance, estimates it can deliver 20% in energy savings by reducing the temperature of indoor swimming pools to 26°C, turning off the heaters for outdoor pools, and adjusting the temperature difference between water and room temperature to a maximum 2°C.
Warsaw, meanwhile, aims to reduce 35% of its annual electricity consumption by replacing 52,600 lamp bulbs with LEDs.
To go further and not to lose precious time, it is crucial that cities get direct access to funding from the European Commission.
Paris, comme toutes les villes, fait face à une crise énergétique d'ampleur inédite.
Nous annonçons aujourd'hui les premières mesures du Plan de sobriété énergétique parisien. Fil à dérouler 🧶 pic.twitter.com/9BTWgqUodx
— Dan Lert (@danlert) September 13, 2022
Short-term relief is not enough
Winter is coming. In cities, we are well aware of the difficulties being faced by people to heat their homes. An additional step is needed on top of the cap announced by von der Leyen on the revenues of some energy companies to help reduce people’s energy bills. EU member states must work with local authorities to jointly design measures to reach the people most in need.
Municipal governments are key in reaching out to citizens and have a crucial role to ensure that direct relief measures do not contradict energy efficiency goals by informing citizens about energy-saving options and providing timely, accessible and inclusive energy advice and support. For example, many local authorities now provide services such as one-stop-shops to help residents get all the information they need in one place to make the most of potential energy-saving measures and cost reductions.
Such measures need to be designed for the long term. The European Green Deal is not a barrier, but a solution to the current crisis. A swift agreement on the Fit for 55 package and RePowerEU is an opportunity for people to lean into the clean energy transformation.
With this in mind, structural measures and long-term investments in energy efficiency and local energy markets must be supported by the European and national levels with the goal of slashing our dependence on fossil fuels and fast-forwarding to a green and fair transition.
It is not just a question of this winter, but as has been pointed out recently by the Belgian premier Alexander de Croo, it is something that will be with us for many more winters to come.
Next Generation EU
The transition to a climate-neutral economy is foremost in the minds of virtually every politician I speak to, both at local and international level. As von der Leyen rightly pointed out, the NextGenerationEU cash has been a vital source to sustain jobs and growth, but more can still be done with the money available.
Finding a way to divert some of these funds directly to cities would have big returns. Creating a transnational facility to promote local investment projects could, for instance, promote pan-European city projects to pool resources and expertise to accelerate the twin digital and ecological transitions.
Another means to accelerate these transitions and champion investments into social, green and digital assets could be to champion investments in these areas outside of current rules on managing public debt. Hopefully, this is something that von der Leyen will consider, given that she spoke today about finding a new debt reduction path for member states.
Even though I have not been able to address them all here, there are many other areas, such as the involvement of citizens in direct democracy actions through citizens panels, and other more innovative measures, where much can be learned, shared, and gained through strengthening our collaboration.
Main image credit: Copyright European Union, 2022