Here, Open Access Government considers the future of cities in Europe, including the opinions of Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary-General, Eurocities
Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary-General of Eurocities recently said that the next EU budget process and recovery plan’s adoption process have become a saga, first in terms of Brexit and now the money. Boni goes on to consider the people that have lost their job, have a business to manage, or who are planning digital and green investments to regenerate private and public spaces or create new employment. Such individuals are looking towards the European Union (EU) to play their part in supporting them during the times ahead. In the view of Boni, such people are being let down and, therefore, cities need the EU to get their act together.
“Our cities have been hardest hit by this crisis, and cities are the place where all sorts of challenges come together. Where are the fundamental values of the EU? Now is the time for a demonstration of solidarity and unity. Otherwise, we will lay ourselves open to more populist rhetoric, which only weakens the EU,” Boni comments.
Europe: The future of cities
The next EU budget is “a unique chance for Europe to imagine a new future,” Boni states and “to rethink what our cities and our continent could look like through a totally different paradigm,” so the opportunity must not be wasted. (1) The largest-ever EU budget, we discover, incorporates temporary recovery funds to help Europe mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, in the view of Pietro Reviglio Policy Officer on Governance from Eurocities. On adoption, the package totals €1.8 trillion and brings in top-ups of €16 billion to many flagship programmes which are particularly pertinent for cities, like Health (€3.4 billion), Horizon Europe (€4 billion), Erasmus (€2.2 billion) and culture (€0.6 billion).
The Recovery and Resilience Facility will fund nearly €700 billion in loans and grants to European Member States, and is seen as crucial to kickstart recovery in cities, Reviglio states. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 response, cities have been on the front lines, working with national governments, to stop the spread of the virus. Many businesses have been temporarily shut down, and whole sectors such as tourism had to stop completely,” Reviglio adds. Certainly, the crisis has demonstrated how vital public investments are, not to mention good governance to build resilience, Reviglio explains. (2)
It’s interesting to note that the aforementioned themes were very much present in the during the online Eurocities 2020 conference, that explored the road to recovery and resilience post-COVID-19 for Europe’s cities. “If treated as partners in Europe, cities can be the place where green and just recovery happens,” Boni concludes. She added that cities can bring innovation in terms of public services, financing and governance “and they are ambitious”. (3)
The green and digital transition
One of the speakers at the aforementioned conference, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, highlights how the current pandemic acts as an accelerator, especially when it comes to the green and digital transition, something that cities have been at the heart of. For Šefčovič, while COVID-19 has posed a threat to the cities of Europe, it has also underlines how crucial they are.
“I think that cities to a great extent already confirmed and demonstrated their resilience,” Šefčovič explains to the online attendees. “You managed to secure the continuity of services, continuity of business, protecting people’s lives. Nationwide testing would never have been possible without absolute close cooperation and enormous work of municipal workers. They’ve been at the core of the action,” Šefčovič states. (4)
In late October 2020, nine European mayors wrote to the presidents of the EU institutions to emphasis that: “The coronavirus crisis and the pressing need in its wake for a sound and green economic recovery poses a severe challenge to Europe that requires the full commitment of all levels of government.” In response to this, Boni remarked that: “The biggest EU budget ever is on the table to pull Europe out of this crisis. Our cities have been hardest hit and our city leaders have already proven they can respond rapidly to urgent needs. Investing in Europe’s cities is essential to build back better and plan for a green and just recovery.” (5)
COVID-19 and social inequalities
Sedat Arif, Deputy Mayor of Malmo and Chair of Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, says that the current health crisis is “deepening social inequalities and putting our European social model at risk.” He notes that pre-exist- ing inequalities, such as the digital divide, have now become more visible in the cities of Europe. In his own words, Arif details some of the ways how cities have stepped up in 2020 in terms of the social services they provide.
“Cities have stepped up in an unprecedented way with fast and immediate responses to help the most vulnerable. We have all stretched our healthcare and social services, sometimes beyond limits, to get urgent support to all in need. Many cities found more people in need, previously unknown to our social services, who are now coming forward to ask for help. They may be students, young people, freelance professionals, or undocumented migrants who are now at risk of poverty – ‘new urban poor’. (6)
The current reality for the cities of Europe “We live a crisis of crises,” is Anna Lisa Boni’s assessment of the current reality for the cities of Europe. The pandemic challenges every aspect of urban life and forces cities to close the things that make them vibrant, and as such, many have asked if cities will survive. While it seems that cities have been robbed of their DNA during the pandemic, it can be hard to imagine them bouncing back. However, let’s close this article on a positive note and consider how history has taught us that cities can adapt to change and are both innovative and resilient.” (7)
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