EU needs ambitious project with citizens at heart

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

"Municipalities and regions are the most relevant representatives of citizens as they are their voices at the European level," writes Mayor and Governor of Vienna Michael Häupl, president of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), in a May paper.

"Sixty years ago, on 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman presented a proposal on the creation of an organised Europe as a means of guaranteeing peaceful relations. Following Schuman's declaration, a group of European mayors founded the Council of European Municipalities in Geneva in 1951 to represent local interests at the European level. Today, we celebrate how far the Union has come, in the hopes that it will continue to evolve, keeping the interests of citizens at heart.

Leadership and Euroscepticism

The EU needs strong leadership when it comes to EU-related issues but this is unfortunately not the case. Indeed, heads of state and government and the new president of the European Council currently dominate the agenda-setting. It is my firm belief, as president of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), that a lack of vision and a feeling of detachment from goings-on at EU level has led the population to become increasingly disillusioned.

The consequences of this disillusionment can notably be seen in recent Dutch, French and Italian regional elections as well as in Hungarian legislative elections, which saw Eurosceptic and populist parties gain political ground. I am convinced that the solution must be found at the European level or matters will get worse.

Crisis leads to change

In the past, critical historical moments have allowed for the EU and the continent as a whole to undergo new developments and changes. The fall of the Iron Curtain, for example, much like today's financial and economic crises, allowed for a new and fresh perspective. The latter was characterised by new hopes for integration and welfare in Europe through mutual support and solidarity among nations and more importantly among Europeans. The EU is now and again at a crossroads and thus requires a new ambitious project bringing both citizens and stakeholders together.

At the present time, however, the will of some member states to solve problems at a European level seems limited, including in the recent debate on solidarity amongst members of the euro zone. What, then, is Europe doing to counter the effects and to face the challenges of the current economic crisis and its worrisome social repercussions?

Putting citizens first: CEMR calls for better-living in EU policies

The European Commission has, for instance, launched the Europe 2020 strategy, a new economic strategy to stimulate sustainable growth and employment with the year 2020 in mind. This strategy will however fail to succeed, much like its predecessor, the Lisbon Strategy, if it does not take into account the local and regional capacity for sustainable development, creativity and innovation, with the well-being of citizens at heart.

CEMR strongly believes that the question of better living for Europeans should be prioritised over economic factors in EU policies and that decentralised government should be involved at all levels of the policy and decision-making process.

Lisbon Treaty and subsidiarity

The Lisbon Treaty, ratified six months ago, explicitly recognises the role of local and regional governments and further extends the principle of subsidiarity — the EU shall only act if the objective cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states, either at the central or decentralised level. These clauses have given me hope that EU institutions will better understand the role of decentralised powers as key actors when developing comprehensive recovery and long-term development strategies at the European level.

I am however disappointed to see that the European Commission does not express how it intends to apply the Treaty provisions and notably so in its 2010 work programme. The European Union's construction is still underway, but I believe it needs to reassert itself in its development and build a project with all levels of government, including local and regional authorities. Europe is based on the common will of citizens to reach a higher level of development, be it social, cultural, economic, environmental or intellectual, and to share the wealth that comes with it. Cities and regions are committed to building this new Europe by developing cooperation and increasingly sharing their expertise.

European local authorities have been at the forefront of citizenship-building in Europe, for example, through town-twinning and partnership projects. Municipalities and regions are the most relevant representatives of citizens as they are their voices at the European level. Let us bring Europe back on track through a bottom-up approach, all the while connecting citizens to the EU."

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