The stronger role given to regional and local authorities, but also more cohesion within the EU, are the “antidote to the growing discontent in Europe”, emphasized the president of the European Commission of the Regions, Vasco Alves Cordeiro, during his annual speech on the State of Regions and Cities in the EU at the opening event of the 21st European Week of Cities, in Brussels.

Today’s speech coincided with the publication of the 2023 EU Annual Report on the State of Regions and Cities, which includes research, carried out in partnership with IPSOS, of local and regional leaders in all 27 EU Member States. And in which it is mentioned, among other things, that 30 million people are expected to “disappear” from the rural areas of Europe by 2033, (compared to 1993), that is, as much as “the population of Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania combined” . Furthermore, from 2015 to 2021, the proportion of people aged over 65 increased by 5% in rural areas, twice as much as in urban areas.

“The alarming situation is also a threat to European democracy, because those who remain in rural areas feel left behind by local, national and European institutions,” the Report notes.

B.A. Cordeiro: “A stronger role for regions and cities in the EU will be crucial in view of the major challenges we face”

Mr. Cordeiro emphasized from the beginning that regions and cities are managing more and more crises. “2023 is already a record year – for unfortunate reasons,” he said, and immediately added: “The hottest summer on record and this extreme heat came with fires, heatwaves, droughts, but also storms and floods.”

The climate crisis, he stressed, “takes lives, destroys our economy and threatens our future”, but in addition “reinforces inequalities and this can lead to consequences and effects that start from the climate, the economy or infrastructure, but it can also affect political institutions and democracy’. He also underlined that “without participation, without the mobilization of regions and cities, it is not possible to turn global commitments into local actions”.

On rebuilding Ukraine and supporting cities and regions, he stressed that “the European Committee of the Regions will play its role to ensure that the local and regional dimension is taken into account and key policies such as cohesion policy will continue to be a central investment position in the long term in all regions.” As he said, “enlargement (of the EU) is not only a question of numbers and budget, it is a political commitment and it will be done in the interest of the candidate countries, but also in the interest of the EU, adding that “we must be ready for this historic step in our common European journey and we must know that, whatever the cost, it would be far more costly to close Europe’s door to those who want to join this amazing political journey.”

32 million cannot afford a proper meal every other day

As shown in the Report, social inequalities are increasing across Europe. For example, it finds that over 32 million Europeans cannot afford a proper meal every other day and 40 million could not keep their homes warm in 2022.

For Mr. Cordeiro, therefore, “social cohesion in the regions still remains a goal”, as “the local and regional authorities are the first to face the challenges and are the first to respond despite the costs”. He called for “European solutions” such as “local energy and food production” and “personalized support for people in need, especially the most vulnerable”.

Furthermore, as was clear from his speech, he considers that public investment is “key” to finding an answer to these challenges and to the success of the green and digital transition, given the demographic change (ageing, etc. ), so as to achieve the objective of “territorial, social and economic cohesion in Europe”.

For him, it is clear that to make “cohesion policy fit for the future” it must be based on “simple ideas” such as “flexibility with predictability, partnership and accountability” and, he said, “we must work in partnership with all regions and cities’ and ‘that’s why we need to strengthen the Code of Conduct for partnership’.

Mr Cordeiro also highlighted the role that local and regional authorities play in their communities, saying that “the success of ambitious policies needs a critical ingredient, trust”, adding that evidence shows that citizens trust local and regional authorities more representatives than in their national governments and have more trust in them than even in the EU institutions.

He pointed out, finally, that, in view of the European elections in 2024, the regions and cities “have a role to play” even though, as he said, “our names may not be on the ballot”.

“We have a responsibility to show that democracy works at all levels”, he continued, stressing that “a stronger role for regions and cities in the EU will be crucial in view of the great challenges we face” and especially in view of the enlargement of the Union .

“This can only strengthen our common democratic fabric,” he said, calling, at the same time, for policies “that are studied on the ground” and “a revitalized European democracy, with regions and cities at the heart.”

Key findings of the EU’s annual State of the Regions and Cities report

The report finds that “EU regions and cities are key to the successful reception and integration of Ukrainian refugees, as “about half of EU regions and cities report hosting refugees from Ukraine.”

The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia is the EU region hosting the most Ukrainian refugees, followed by the Polish region of Mazowieckie with just over 200,000 displaced Ukrainians.

The majority of regions and cities (60%) see clear benefits – including in terms of demographics, attitudes and economy – from welcoming refugees into their communities.

Four out of ten EU cities and regions (45%) believe that they can contribute, contributing in some way to the reconstruction of Ukraine, while it is judged that “the Alliance of Cities and Regions for the Reconstruction of Ukraine established by the CoR and many partners in June 2022, contributes to filling the gap in sub-national cooperation”.

The vast majority of regional and local politicians (75%) claim that they “suffer from a lack of specific financing mechanisms to address climate adaptation challenges” (agricultural production, local tourism industry, etc.).

It is also estimated that the EU program “NextGenerationEU” remains “territorially blind” as, according to the new Regional and Local Barometer, more than 70% of local and regional authorities stated that they have not engaged in the implementation of the Recovery Mechanism and (MAA-Recovery and Resilience Facility), the cornerstone of the post-pandemic recovery plan through “NextGenerationEU”. (PS: The IAA is a temporary instrument at the heart of NextGenerationEU, which is the EU’s plan to emerge stronger and more resilient from the crisis and through the mechanism, the European Commission raises funds by borrowing from the capital markets (issuance of bonds on behalf of the EU) and then these funds are available to the Member States in order to implement reforms and investments. The importance of the MAA is also crucial for the implementation of the REPowerEU project, the European Commission’s response to the “socio-economic difficulties and to the global energy market disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”).

According to the EU’s annual State of the Regions and Cities report, “regions and cities are mobilizing to make the green transition work, but Europe must avoid a ‘green gap'”.

On the one hand, it shows that regions and cities have taken measures in particular to reduce energy consumption (62%), promote the preservation of nature and green cities (40%) and reduce waste and their environmental impact (37%). However, on the other hand, as noted, “regions in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Poland are among those recording job losses due to the closure of coal-intensive industries.”

Therefore, “strengthening (as an accompanying measure) these regions with investments and to upgrade skills, is an action of utmost importance to avoid the creation of a ‘green gap’ in Europe”.

Regarding measures to protect the environment, it is reported that “45% of regions and cities have set more ambitious targets for climate neutrality than the EU”, however, it is underlined that “30 million people are expected to “disappear ” from Europe’s rural areas between 1993 and 2033″, that is, as much as “the population of Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania combined”.

Furthermore, between 2015 and 2021, the proportion of people aged over 65 increased by 5% in rural areas, twice as much as in urban areas.

“The alarming situation is also a threat to European democracy, because those who remain in rural areas feel left behind by local, national and European institutions,” the Report notes.

Finally, trust in local and regional administrations remains higher compared to citizens’ trust in national and EU-level administrations (governments). In fact, there is also an increasing trend, as “since 2018 polls consistently show that regional and local authorities are the only form of government trusted by more than 50% of respondents in the EU”, as underlined in the Report.