The values that unite us – Eurocities 2024

30 May 2024

From global instability and the cost-of-living crisis to the increasingly fragmented political landscape, it’s city leaders that are closest to their damaging effects, and to the levers for change. With one week to go until the European elections, more than 400 representatives from cities across Europe are gathered at Eurocities 2024 in Cluj-Napoca to engage on their experiences and their expectations for the next five years.

Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca, host of the Eurocities Conference, introduced the importance of this year’s theme sustainable, innovative and resilient cities. Given the proximity of the European elections and likelihood that parliamentary gains for the extreme right-wing could undermine not only progressive EU policies but the European project itself, he noted that “peace, prosperity and democracy should not be taken for granted.”

Over the past five years, the response from cities to the Covid pandemic, the Russian War in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and the growing attention to the climate emergency have generally increased the recognition of the critical role of cities at the European level and internationally. Yet, as highlighted in Eurocities European elections manifesto, A better Europe starts in cities, much more is still possible to push for a strong European Union that defends respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights and democratic values.

And with this, “we need strong cities and strong mayors to defend the idea of Europe,” opined André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities, during the conference opening session.

Populism on the rise

A political debate focussed on democracy, asked mayors what concerns they have around populism and how they are taking action in their cities to bolster democratic values.

As indicated by Burkhard Jung, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Leipzig, “we see populism on the rise in Europe, in our cities, and surrounding areas.” He also noted that democracy needs to become one of the top focuses of mayors, who play an essential role as the closest level of political representation to people. “The foundations of Europe’s democracy are local,” he said.

Many daily challenges experienced by people, from access to affordable housing and essential public services, to securing a job that offers a decent salary, and putting healthy food on the table, have been exacerbated by the rise in the cost of living. This has put more middle-income people at risk of poverty, and vulnerable groups at risk of social exclusion – a concern highlighted in the recently published Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey.

“Citizen participation plays a key role in an effective and democratic local governance,” said Juhana Vartiainen, Mayor of Helsinki. “It not only ensures citizens have a voice in shaping policies that affect their lives but also contributes to more legitimate and better decisions – decision-makers have more complete information at their disposal. When the decisions take into account the needs of all stakeholders, also the vulnerable populations, they are more sustainable and implementable.”

The values that unite us

City leaders are working hard on two fronts: Both to reach people on the importance of democratic institutions and to innovate with forms of civic engagement, like Warsaw’s participatory budget or Rotterdam’s new district councils initiative, that can supplement and strengthen existing democratic systems.

“While extremists try to create divisions and threaten fundamental rights, particularly those of women and minority groups, it is vital that we take the opportunity that networks like Eurocities bring to collaboratively explore how we build trust and engagement amongst our residents so that they can be actively involved in our democratic story,” said Manchester City Council Leader Bev Craig.

Cities’ support for democracy also crosses borders, including staunch political and material support for Ukrainian cities. Cluj-Napoca, which lies in the heart of Transylvania, is situated just 200 kilometres from Ukraine, and many participants, including Mathias de Clercq, Mayor of Ghent and Vice President of Eurocities, who travelled recently to Ukraine on the occasion of Europe Day, expressed the need to support cities across borders, including through city networks like Eurocities.

Democracy and services for residents ranked again among the top ten priorities for local leaders in the just-released Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey. Local leaders at Eurocities 2024 are demonstrating their commitment by signing The Values that Unite Us, a shared endorsement of democracy, equality and freedom.

By signing, mayors from the more than 200 large European cities in the Eurocities network, are declaring with one voice that they are committed to an open, democratic, pluralistic, inclusive, and solidarity-based society.

This evening, the Eurocities Awards will honour exemplary local initiatives aimed at inspiring innovation ecosystems by attracting and retaining local talent, sustainable food systems that empower local people, and creative election campaigns that mobilise residents to vote. From Gdansk’s sleep masks that, as part of a wider campaign, warn people not to sleep through the elections, to Aix-Marseille-Provence’s enormous programme to attract and incubate thousands of African entrepreneurs, there are a lot of creative ideas on the table.

The host of the Eurocities 2024 conference, Cluj-Napoca, itself provides a great example of how cities use innovation policy to include local people and organisations in strengthening democracy, sustainability and resilience.

The city’s Civic Imagination and Innovation Centre combines public engagement and consultation with cooperation from academia and the private and cultural sectors to co-create innovative urban policy that meets the needs of local people and enhances transparency and trust in government.