European cities and regions unite their efforts to build inclusive, diverse, sustainable and resilient communities. Such communities can reinvigorate the European project. In order to regain and strengthen trust in European institutions, all levels of territories will need to cooperate. Today, representatives from regions and cities all across Europe came together to discuss how they can help with bringing European policies to life. The workshop ‘Getting Europe back on its feet – a view from local and regional governments’ was an explosion of aspirational thoughts around a single idea: citizens need to get involved in EU policy-making and local authorities are the essential link. The workshop was organised within the framework of the European Week of Regions and Cities.
Mr. Bonaccini, President of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), opened the session by presenting the CEMR’s position paper on the future of Europe. According to him, “Europe needs to become stronger and local authorities play a crucial role in this. We are ready and willing to have a debate with all levels of governance.” The position paper was welcomed by all other speakers. Ms. Maydell, Member of the European Parliament, agreed that engagement with citizens is needed to address their most pressing concerns. “The EU needs vision and pragmatism to encourage citizens to join in the public debate,” she confirmed. More speakers were concerned with the role of citizens in EU policy-making. Mr. Van Den Brande, Bureau Vice-President of the Committee of the Regions, argued that the EU needs more elements of a deliberative democracy on top of its representative model. “The real question,” he started “is whether citizens are currently the owners of the European project. Are they followers or protagonists?” Together these speakers expressed an enormous political will for more involvement of local authorities in EU policy-making.
Mr. Olbrycht, Member of the European Parliament, however, questioned to what extent political intentions will actually lead to concrete results. “We all speak of cities now, it’s trending,” he said. “But does this translate into real recognition of cities in the whole system of the EU?” According to him, the time for local authorities to claim their voice in EU policy-making is now. He speaks of a true “window of opportunity”. After Brexit, the remaining 27 Member States agreed that the EU needs to be reformed. A lot of issues that were discussed at the time of the referendum are actually most pressing at the local level. “Think of incoming refugees, for example. National governments make decisions, but municipalities have to come up with real solutions here.” This window of opportunity will not always stay open: “right now is the moment for very serious debate.”
One recurring theme in many speeches was the importance of the Cohesion Policy in strengthening European regions and cities. Rudolf Niessler, DG Regio, expressed his appreciation for the way in which local authorities and interest groups already play a large contributory role in the Cohesion Policy. He explained that the policy unites European regions around collective goals, such as sustainable development. “If there’s one thing we have pushed for in the Cohesion Policy, it’s to make the EU’s innovation agenda participatory. With our regional smart specialisation approach we moved away from our top-down investment approach. Instead, we now mobilise investments on the basis of regional knowledge, for example on competitive advantage of local enterprises.” The Cohesion Policy is a crucial tool for connecting citizens and local and regional authorities to the EU.
The message from today’s workshop is clear: regions and cities are ready to get involved in European politics. Their relevance in bringing European policies to life was not just expressed by CEMR staff and local representatives, but also by Commission staff and MEPs. Ms. Helgesen, Co-President of CEMR, asks herself and the audience: if citizens don’t believe their local representatives, will they believe representatives at a higher level?” In Norway there is a great trust between citizens and local governments and between local governments and the national government. This model could be exemplary for the EU,” she stated. “After all,” she concluded, “trust is our most important capital.”