Experiment with potential for renewal

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(This article was kindly published on 14 July, 2017, by „A Soul for Europe“.)

One year ago, on 24th June 2016, the European Union drew up an ‘Urban Agenda’ for the first time in its history in order to better adapt its policy development to the realities of life in cities. As laid down in the preamble to the ‘Pact of Amsterdam’, the fact that it has come so far is not only because 70 percent of the EU population already lives in cities today and 73 percent of all jobs are located in urban regions. Cities make a decisive contribution to the goals of the EU 2020 Strategy. This is also stated in the introduction to this political document.

Among all levels of governance, local policy enjoys the closest connection with citizens. All the better that an EU strategy now takes this fact into account — because building Europe from the bottom up is both rewarding and intelligent; after all, it is a democratically necessary approach that serves as a reality check for EU policy.

Injecting the urban dimension into the EU — but how?

At the level of the European Council, urban policy has only thus far been integrated informally; the meetings between officials responsible for urban policy took place on an irregular basis. It was not until a few years ago, when Austrian Johannes Hahn was EU Regional Commissioner, that urban policy was incorporated in the name of the European Commission service responsible for regional policy. Before then, the European Parliament had its own working group for urban affairs.

However, it took the deep legitimacy crisis of the European Union to not only acknowledge the potential of cities as innovation laboratories on the ground, but also to recognise it in the form of a new governance model, which is now promised.

With its 28 member states (at present) and the often scarcely communicable interplay between the Council, Commission and Parliament, the European Union is already complex enough. Allowing the many cities to have a voice in this structure requires a feat of organisation. The EU Urban Agenda is attempting just that by setting up ‘Urban Partnerships’ on twelve important issues. For each of these issues, five cities, five member states, the European Commission and other major stakeholders will respectively prepare recommendations to improve EU policy from an urban perspective over the course of three years.

The selected areas cover current issues, such as the integration of refugees, work and employment in the local economy, climate change and energy, digital transformation and much more.

The Urban Partnership coordinated by Vienna with Slovakia addresses the topic of living and primarily seeks to create more affordable living space for broad swathes of the EU population. This is because there has been a sharp decline in the creation of affordable and publicly subsidised living space throughout the EU up until the financial and economic crisis.

High living costs constrict consumption and provision

The fact that most cities in the EU are growing, as well as the results of the crisis, misguided EU policy and EU financing often practically inaccessible to cities have led to a real predicament on the European housing market. Around 82 million people in the EU are confronted with excessively high living costs, which in turn constrict consumption and provision. Cities have to invest, although they are often unable. There is a lack of legal security and budgets.

And this does not merely concern new living space, but also renewing existing housing, for example in terms of energy efficiency. Further scarcity trends brought about by new platforms that take away housing for tourism purposes are also an issue. Proposals are therefore being developed in the Urban Partnership for better legal and financial conditions for creating affordable housing for broad sections of the population in cities.

Solutions must then reflect the diversity of the systems and take a broad approach. The advantage of an investment campaign in affordable living space is likewise clear. Investments in a secure, long-term model benefit the economy two-fold — firstly as a direct result of construction, and secondly due to higher disposable incomes which also increase demand for other consumer goods.

The Urban Agenda must outgrow its project status

It is still too early to be able to say whether better solutions from an urban perspective are feasible as a consequence of this experiment. Ultimately, multi-level governance has to be shown to establish itself in practice. Here it is necessary for everyone to undergo a sea change.

The European Commission has to involve the local level of government in the context of partnership, cities have to let go of their engrained (and often justified) mistrust and become more European, and the member states will have to relinquish powers in both directions, whether they wish to or not.

It is hence important to now work together in trusting, objective partnerships and define the framework for this collaboration. The EU Urban Agenda must outgrow its project status. EU urban policy is like a swing; it often takes a few helpful pushes to gain any motion. The EU Urban Agenda could provide additional momentum to contribute towards a real renewal of the EU, from the bottom up.

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