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A centrally-placed EU Urban Envoy would unite the disparate EU policies and initiatives that currently impact cities and urban areas into a single melody, Burkhard Jung writes.

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In Leipzig, a city resonant with the echoes of Bach and Mendelssohn, we understand the power of harmony. 

Just as a symphony needs every instrument to contribute to the performance, the European Union needs its cities to orchestrate a future that is sustainable, inclusive, and vibrant.

During my 17 years as mayor, a crescendo of crises has shaken the EU – from the climate emergency and energy crisis to economic upheaval, pandemic and war. 

At the same time, respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights and democratic values have been eroded in some parts of the bloc. 

With the European elections coming next year and so much turmoil in the world, we need to reinforce the message that a better Europe starts in cities.

We govern where 75% of Europe’s population lives

While many national leaders throughout this period have taken the opportunity to scapegoat the EU for their own shortcomings, city leaders have long promoted and inspired the European project. 

Indeed, it was in Leipzig that Schiller penned his “Ode to Joy”, the poem that inspired what was later to become the anthem of the European Union.

Meanwhile, we are all too well aware of the real suffering of people for whom economic precarity and social marginalisation have become the “new normal”. 

The discordant notes of political polarisation that this has engendered, and the especially worrying rise of the far right is undermining Europe’s social fabric and our communities.

City leaders are the lead chairs of the European ensemble. We govern the places where 75% of Europe’s population lives, and the places where economic, social and sustainable policy ripples out to affect the peri-urban and rural areas with which we have strong ties. 

We have never been slow in springing to action, whether in buffering our own populations from the harsh effects of the cost of living, energy and health crises, or supporting our allies in Ukraine and farther afield.

We need a robust EU working in tandem with cities

The ideal of Europe is a place where freedom of expression, tolerance, diversity and prosperity are part of the everyday rhythm of life. This is the Europe that we are committed to building in our cities. 

But we need European institutions that, like us, can back up these ideals with policy and action. 

We need a more robust EU that takes full advantage of the direct connection with people’s lived experiences that local governments can provide.

That’s why I and the 200 mayors of major European cities represented by the Eurocities network are calling in a united chorus for a robust EU that works closer to the people, and in tandem with cities.

What is Europe for if not for its people? The European social agenda, ensconced in the European Pillar of Social Rights, is a key priority for cities. 

This agenda and its implementation need to be updated for a world facing crisis after crisis. 

Cities need a well-crafted collaboration with other levels of government to ensure that people’s social rights are at the centre of all policy — be it social and affordable housing, jobs and skills for the green digital transition, security and inclusion, or health and wellbeing — the role of cities must be strongly articulated at EU level.

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Cities have leapt ahead of member states with ambitious climate targets on the understanding that the EU would provide a backing track of concrete policy and a framework for implementation. 

Now we need the policy and finance to deliver on sustainable transport, energy-efficient buildings, a circular economy, sustainable food systems and the widespread adoption of renewables.

Europe must commit to a 90% net reduction in emissions by 2040, and adaptation measures for resilience against the effects of climate change, like the extreme heat and cold that are afflicting our residents.

An EU Urban Envoy would unite all policies into a single melody

The rhapsody of new and more powerful emerging technologies holds great promise. But they must be put at the service of people through a strong framework for digital human rights along with a common EU tool that cities can use to measure and enforce this. 

The impact of technology on our carbon footprint also urgently needs better recognition and alignment with 2050 neutrality targets, from the raw materials used for hardware to the emissions from software use.

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As cities must be the conductors of change needed for a resilient and sustainable Europe, the EU must invest in reinforcing our technical and administrative capacity, both through greater direct access to EU funding, fiscal decentralisation and greater flexibility and incentives for long-term local public investment.

It stands to reason that, as stalwart advocates of European policy, cities must have a framework for direct and regular dialogue with European institutions. 

A centrally-placed Urban Envoy would unite the disparate EU policies and initiatives that currently impact cities and urban areas into a single melody. 

We cannot afford to have structural inefficiencies continue to mute what needs to be an open and consistent dialogue, including through regular meetings with the European Commission president, the European Parliament’s president and the EU Presidencies.

We know that a better Europe starts in cities. To get there, we all need to be playing from a common song sheet.

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Burkhard Jung is President of Eurocities and Mayor of Leipzig.

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