Our cities after COVID-19: the Leipzig Charter still relevant
the CoR’s newsletter
Comité des Régions (CoR)
The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) intervenes at several stages in the European Union’s legislative process. On the basis of European legislative proposals, the CoR’s commissions draw up opinions which the CoR’s plenary members vote on and adopt. The CoR also works in close cooperation with national, regional and local authorities, for whom it acts as a mouthpiece, and by promoting political debate, not only in Brussels, but also in the regions and cities of the EU, outside Europe and on the internet.
In the CoR’s newsletter, Juan Espadas (ES/PES), Mayor of Seville and President of the CoR’s ENVE commission and the Green Pact - Investing in the Local Level working group answers four questions on the new Leipzig Charter, a set of principles to guide European cities towards greater sustainability, resilience and inclusion. The CoR’s opinion on the renewal of the Leipzig charter was adopted at its October 2020 plenary session. Today, the new Leipzig Charter remains relevant, especially in terms of promoting urban sustainability after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to develop soft mobility or to imagine a new organisation of work in cities. These recommendations are also in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Would you say that your opinion on the « Renewal of the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities » is ahead of its time in proposing new development strategies for cities in the post-COVID-19 era and in the context of the recovery plan?
Both the German government, which holds the EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2020, and the European Committee of the Regions have been working on the new Leipzig Charter since long before the COVID-19 crisis. As elected representatives, we must ensure that this terrible crisis becomes an opportunity to improve the quality of life of all our citizens. In recent years, we have significantly strengthened our collective strategies to combat climate change through key international agreements. December 2020 marked the 5 th anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement. The new Leipzig Charter updates the needs of urban entities in the new global paradigm. Cities are the engine of change to achieve a more sustainable and healthy world. Now that we have reached agreement on the new EU long-term budget and the post-COVID-19 recovery plan, the Leipzig Charter shows that it is as relevant as ever to guide our cities into a new era of sustainability, resilience and inclusion.
Your opinion emphasises the necessary partnership that the EU must establish with European cities if it is to achieve the objectives of the Green Deal for Europe. Do you think that local and regional authorities are sufficiently involved in the implementation of the ‘Next Generation EU’ recovery plan? Will the funds allocated to regions and cities to develop sustainable cities - in sustainable regions - be sufficient to implement the green and digital transitions in Europe without leaving anyone behind?
Firstly, we have to bear in mind that each EU Member State has its own administrative architecture. Therefore, it is quite complex to assess the exact involvement of local and regional authorities in each EU policy area. There is no doubt that the European Committee of the Regions is the forum that relays the contribution of cities and regions to the development of EU policies, and in particular to ‘Next Generation EU the recovery plan to overcome the dramatic social and economic consequences of COVID-19. We must not forget that cities are the entities closest to the citizens, and the ones that will have to implement most of the recovery measures. Local - and regional - authorities must therefore be at the heart of the design of recovery plans and priority investments. At the beginning of 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set out her priorities, putting at the top of the list the Green Pact for Europe, the Union’s new growth strategy to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. All EU policies must be in line with the principles and objectives of this Green Deal. We cannot look back. The future will be green or it will not be. The role of cities will be decisive in achieving this goal.
COVID-19 also highlighted the interdependencies between urban and rural areas, particularly with regard to the organisation of food systems in Europe. What do you propose in your CoR opinion to strengthen cooperation between these areas in order to better achieve the objectives of cohesion policy, the Green Pact or the Farm to Table strategy?
We need to strengthen cooperation between urban and rural areas if we are to build more sustainable cities. Cooperation on food production and consumption is a key factor. Promoting the consumption of food produced close to urban areas will not only contribute to the sustainability of our food systems, but also to improving our health. I think we also need to stress the importance of metropolitan areas, because we cannot understand how cities work without taking into account the metropolitan areas around them: they all need to work together for a more efficient use of resources in cities.
The European Commission is highlighting its initiative to promote « better regulation ». What do you propose in this area? Do you think it would be necessary to reform the European Semester to better take into account regions and cities, cohesion policy objectives and the implementation of the Green Pact for Europe?
First of all, I would like to clarify that better regulation does not mean deregulation. Indeed, Europe now needs to be more efficient and the COVID-19 pandemic has been an eye-opener in this respect. The only way to achieve this goal is to strengthen cooperation and coordination between the different levels of government, namely the European and national levels, but also the regional and local levels. This is definitely the first step to better regulation! For example, the European Semester, the European process that formulates specific economic recommendations for the EU Member States every year, cannot remain a purely bureaucratic exercise without democratic control and without being anchored in the European regions. That is why, in the European Committee of the Regions, we want regions and cities to be formally involved in the drafting of these recommendations. We also call for the European Parliament to be empowered to exercise its full role in democratic control, which is not the case today. Furthermore, from a thematic point of view, one could ask why recommendations on public investment, solidarity or sustainable development objectives were, until recently, absent from the specific indications of the European Semester, especially when the current crisis shows us how useful this would be. We need to change this approach to adapt and respond to the concrete needs of our citizens and territories. This is the only way to implement the Green Deal for Europe without leaving anyone behind.
Adopted during the German EU Council Presidency in 2007, the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities helped define the concept of integrated urban development at EU level and was instrumental in shaping EU initiatives such as the Urban Agenda. The new Leipzig Charter was adopted at the informal meeting of ministers responsible for urban and territorial development on 30 November 2020.
This new version examines the impact of pandemics on cities and the potential increase in territorial disparities. The new text supports the principles of an integrated, territorialised and multi-level governance approach. The renewed Charter recognises that the surrounding rural areas have important advantages for cities. It explicitly recognises the importance of promoting « digital cohesion » in Europe, both for its citizens and its territories. The new Leipzig Charter recognises the validity of the three pillars of the EU urban agenda ('Better Regulation', ‘Better Financing’ and ‘Better Knowledge Sharing’), as defined in the Amsterdam Pact. In the second half of 2020, the German Presidency of the EU Council followed the CoR’s recommendation to formulate conclusions on the Leipzig Charter, the EU urban agenda and its link to the EU Territorial Agenda, which were presented to and adopted by the Environment Council Ministers on 17 December 2020.