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Local governments share experiences of the Coronavirus crisis  

The European Committee of the Regions' NAT commission began its new term of office with a debate on Coronavirus and its impact on local communities with the World Health Organisation. At the meeting on 5 March, members also adopted an opinion on forestry and discussed on cross-border healthcare, sustainable tourism and food policy. Rural development, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), fisheries, forestry, food production and public health are amongst the key topics on the Commission for Natural Resources (NAT) agenda for this new mandate.

With a growing number of infections of Europeans, including those who had no contacts with the Chinese province of Wuhan, the Coronavirus – COVID-19 – is now a major concern for local and regional authorities across Europe. Mayors, councillors and regional presidents are on the frontline of the fight with the diseases, preparing contingency measures, faced with essential equipment shortages and rising fears among the population.

"The COVID-19 virus has claimed many lives in Europe. The situation is evolving rapidly, each day brings new announcements and measures. We, local and regional government, have to assist, protect and treat our citizens," said Ulrika Landergren (SE/Renew Europe), Councillor in the Swedish municipality of Kungsbacka and chair of the European Committee of the Regions' NAT commission.

Leen Meulenbergs, UN WHO Representative to the European Union, said "Our message to all countries and regions is: we can push this virus back and the important role of local authorities is to educate people.  This is a virus with a serious impact on public health, the economy and social and political issues. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different countries, and different regions within the same country are in different scenarios."

“An epidemic cannot be stopped. Instead, the trend of the infection can be slowed down. With our health system we are at the forefront of managing the emergency machine in Veneto region" stressed Roberto Ciambetti (IT/ECR), President of Veneto Regional Council and Head of the Italian Delegation in the CoR participated in the NAT debate on coronavirus with a video intervention recorded from Venice. 

NAT members also adopted an opinion drafted by Roby Biwer (LU/PES), Member of Bettembourg Municipal Council, Luxembourg, entitled 'Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World's Forests'. This opinion discusses how to strengthen international cooperation and work with partner countries to promote action against deforestation and forest degradation, especially resulting from agricultural production. Forests have a key role in mitigating the climate crisis thanks to their ability to absorb greenhouse gases. Population growth and growing demand for food are leading to forests being turned into agricultural land, and to an increased focus on agricultural productivity. Adoption is planned in the plenary session 13-14 May 2020.

Roby Biwer declared: "Forests are the green lungs of our planet. We will not meet our climate and biodiversity targets without stepping up efforts to protect and restore the world's forests. We call on the Commission to be more ambitious. Encouraging is not enough. We need to guarantee the consumption of products from non-EU deforestation-free supply chains in the EU, as a considerable part of primary forests are located outside the EU. Preventing forest loss can have multiple benefits for people and ecosystems including biodiversity conservation, emissions reduction by carbon absorption and provision of ecosystems services that can drive sustainable growth."

Members exchanged views on the following upcoming opinions:

'Cross-border health care', presented by Karsten Uno Petersen (DK/PES), Regional Councillor, Region of Southern Denmark. Around 150 million Europeans live in border regions. For many, the nearest hospital or simply medical professional is across the border. Making sure that citizens can access health services close to home as easy as possible, while providing safeguards for regional and national health systems, are key concerns of this opinion. This opinion of the Committee of the Regions has been requested by the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans. Adoption is planned in the plenary session 1-2 July 2020. "Border regions make up 40% of the EU's territory. For citizens living in these areas, seeking treatment in a neighbouring country has become a major concern. If the existing European directive have allowed some progress in our continent, more should be done to ensure financial certainty for citizens healed across the border, by simplifying administrative procedures and by improving effective reimbursement for the Europeans" stressed Karsten Uno Petersen.

'Towards more sustainable tourism for EU cities and regions', drafted by Manuel Alejandro Cardenete Flores (ES/Renew Europe), Deputy Minister for Tourism, Regeneration, Justice and Local Administration of the Regional Government of Andalusia. Tourism generates jobs and wealth across the European Union. It can, however, also have a negative impact on the environment or society, if not managed properly. This opinion looks at the positive contribution made by tourism activities: both economically and socially, and reflects on how political leaders could address the challenges and drive forward the sustainable modernisation agenda. Adoption is planned at the the CoR's plenary session 12-14 October 2020.

'From farm to fork – the local and regional dimension', presented by Guido Milana (IT/PES), Member of Olevano Romano Municipal Council (Rome). The Farm to Fork strategy for sustainable food is a prominent part of the flagship initiative on European Green Deal. The strategy will cover every step in the food chain, from production to consumption. European food is famous for being safe, nutritious and of high quality. The EC communication on Green Deal published in December 2019 confirmed the publication of the Farm to Fork strategy for the end of March 2020.

This opinion highlights how local and regional authorities can tackle climate change, protect the environment and preserve biodiversity while stimulating sustainable food consumption and promoting affordable healthy food for all. This will require cooperation between many players, institutional and beyond.

Rapporteur recalled that "The Farm to Fork initiative has the potential to be an opportunity to change our food system in view of the global climate emergency. Policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy should be changed as to contribute to the objectives of the European Green Deal. Cities and regions are key players in the food transition and we call for an ambitious strategy that supports the centrality of producers and short supply chains, encourages better food distribution and promotes responsible and critical consumption."

"Our ambition is to make the European Food Forum a high-level platform for debates on food policy. We all need it today. We need to come out from the silos of different parliamentary committees or institutions and discuss the food policy together. We need to work together on sustainable food production, consumer protection, food quality and environmental protection" stressed Róża Thun und Hohenstein, European Parliament, founding member of the European Food Forum. Finaly MEP stressed the importance to cooperate on this with the CoR - inviting the Committee to join the Forum as a special member.

Adoption is planned in the plenary session 9-10 December 2020.

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Wioletta Wojewodzka
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