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Our cities after COVID-19: the undiminished relevance of the Leipzig Charter  

​In this interview, Juan Espadas (ES/PES), Mayor of Seville and Chair of the CoR's ENVE Commission and the Green Deal Going Local working group,  answers four questions on the New Leipzig Charter, a set of principles to drive European cities towards greater sustainability, higher resilience and broader inclusiveness. The CoR opinion on the renewal of the Leipzig Charter was adopted during the October 2020 plenary session. Today, the New Leipzig Charter is of undiminishing relevance, in particular to fostering urban sustainability after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to develop soft mobility or new organisation of work in cities. These recommendations are also consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the implementation of the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Would you say that your opinion on the renewal of the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities is at the vanguard in proposing new development strategies for cities in the post-COVID-19 era and under the recovery plan?

Both the German Government, holding the presidency of the EU Council during 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 politicians, we must ensure that we turn this terrible crisis into an opportunity to improve the quality of life of all our citizens. In recent years, we have substantially improved our collective strategies to combat climate change through crucial international agreements – December 2020 marked the 5th 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 agreed on the EU's new long-term budget and the COVID-19 Recovery Plan, the Leipzig Charter demonstrates its undiminishing relevance to driving our cities towards a new era of sustainability, resilience and inclusiveness.

Your opinion insists on the necessary partnership with European cities if the EU is to reach its objectives enshrined in the European Green Deal. 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?

First, we have to acknowledge that every EU Member State has its own administrative architecture. Consequently, it is a rather complex task to analyse the exact involvement of local and regional governments in any EU policy area. Without any doubt, the European Committee of the Regions is the forum that conveys the involvement of cities and regions in EU policy-making, and in particular Next Generation EU, the recovery plan to overcome the dramatic social and economic impact 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 core of the design of recovery plans and priority investments. At the beginning of 2020, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, laid down its priorities, placing the European Green Deal, the EU's new growth strategy to reach climate-neutrality by 2050, at the top. All EU policies need to be in line with the principles and objectives of the European Green Deal. We cannot look back. The future will be green or it will simply not be. Cities are pivotal to reaching that goal.

COVID-19 has 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 reinforce cooperation between these areas, with the aim of better achieving the objectives enshrined in the cohesion policy, the Green Deal or the Farm to Fork strategy?

We must strengthen cooperation between urban and rural areas if we want to build more sustainable cities. Cooperation on food production and consumption is a key factor. Promoting the consumption of food products, which are produced close to urban areas, will not only help the sustainability of our food systems but it will also improve our health. I believe we must also highlight the importance of metropolitan areas, as we cannot understand the functioning of cities without considering their surrounding metropolitan areas, which must work together as a whole to improve resource efficiency in cities.

The European Commission is pushing its initiative in order to promote "better regulation". What do you propose in this field? Do you think it would be necessary to reform the European Semester in order to better take into account regions and cities, the objectives of the cohesion policy and the implementation of the European Green Deal?

First, I would like to make it clear that better regulation does not mean de-regulation. Indeed, Europe needs to be more efficient nowadays, and the coronavirus pandemic was meaningful in this regard. The only way to achieve this goal is to strengthen the cooperation and coordination between the different levels of government i.e. European, national but also regional and local levels. This is certainly the first step for better regulation! For instance, the European Semester, the European process that draws up specific economic recommendations for EU Member States on an annual basis, cannot continue to be a merely bureaucratic exercise without democratic control and without anchoring it in European regions. This 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 ask that the European Parliament be empowered to deploy fully its role in terms of democratic control, which is not the case today. Moreover, thematically, one might wonder why recommendations in terms of public investments, solidarity or the sustainable development goals were, until recently, absent from the specific indications of the European Semester, especially when the current crisis demonstrates how useful that would be. We must change that approach so as to adapt and respond to the tangible needs of our citizens and territories. This is the only way to implement the European Green Deal without leaving anyone behind.

Background Information:

Adopted during the 2007 German Presidency of the Council of the EU, the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities helped establish the concept of integrated urban development at EU level and was influential in the development of 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.

The renewed version considers the impact of health pandemics on cities and towns and the subsequent potential increase in territorial disparities. The new text supports the principles of an integrated, place-based and multilevel governance approach.

The renewed charter acknowledges that the surrounding rural areas offer important benefits for cities. The new version of the Leipzig Charter expressly recognises the importance of promoting "digital cohesion" in Europe, both for its citizens and for its territories.

The New Leipzig Charter recognises the validity of the three pillars (Better Regulation, Better Funding and Better Knowledge) of the Urban Agenda for the EU identified by the Pact of Amsterdam

In the second semester of 2020, the German Presidency of the EU Council followed the CoR recommendation to put forward Council conclusions on the Leipzig Charter, the Urban Agenda for the EU and its link with the Territorial Agenda for the EU, which were submitted for and adopted by the Council of EU Ministers on Environment on 17 December 2020.

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