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Interview with Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions
The European Committee of the Regions is an institution that represents local and regional authorities from across the European Union and advises on new European legislation that affects them. In this interview, we discuss with its President, Mr Apostolos Tzitzikostas, a wide range of topics including institutional cooperation, the role of regions and cities in the post-pandemic recovery and the transition to climate neutrality.
Mr Tzitzikostas, the Conference on the Future of Europe was inaugurated on Europe Day. How do you envision the role of regions and cities and do you believe that their priorities, hopes and concerns will be transformed into actionable recommendations?
Regions and cities have a key role to play in the Conference on the Future of Europe because they are the level of government closest to the people and best placed to engage with them. The CoR has been calling for the involvement of local and regional authorities since the idea of this Conference came up in 2019 and our local and regional barometer published in October 2020 shows that citizens want to see the local and regional level more involved in EU decision and law-making.
Now the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe agreed between the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission in March 2021 refers explicitly to "local and regional parliaments and administrations". The CoR, as representative of 1 million local and regional elected politicians will be active during the Conference in many ways. Online citizens' dialogues have been organised since December 2020, (before the Joint Declaration was signed), upon the initiative of CoR members. The outcomes of these dialogues will feed the digital platform set up for the duration of the Conference.
The CoR also launched a cooperation with the Bertelsmann Foundation on 12 May to organise innovative and state-of-the-art citizens' participation and dialogues.
At the political and institutional level, a high-level group on European Democracy composed of 7 wise men and women and chaired by the former President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy was set up to support the political work of the CoR at the Conference. Moreover, I represent the CoR in the Executive Board of the Conference. The CoR has an active observer status and in this regard, I make sure that the interests of cities, regions and villages are represented in a proper way.
The CoR will also be present during the Conference Plenaries with 18 members. This delegation will bring forward the voices of cities, regions and villages by giving visibility to local and regional ideas and it will report concerns from the local and regional perspective throughout the process of the Conference.
On 9 May, in the morning of the launch of the Conference, the CoR organised a local dialogue in Strasbourg to mark the 'territorialisation' of the Conference - that is the need to take into account the role of local and regional authorities in this process. On this occasion, an open letter, signed by all participants, was published the same day to call on all local and regional politicians to organise citizens' dialogues. A citizens' survey on the future of Europe was also launched on that day.
In the spring of 2022, during the Summit of regions and cities that will take place in Marseille under the patronage of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the CoR will issue its recommendations and its contribution to the Conference. As a result of the Conference, we hope to see regions, cities and villages more and better involved in the EU decision-making process because they are the democratic foundations of the European Union and they know best how to improve people's lives.
The European Committee of the Regions has recently started a new initiative - Network of Former Members. Could you summarise the most important components of it? How do they benefit local communities and authorities?
The Network of Former Members was launched during our May Plenary in the presence of Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa. Currently counting more than 170 members, this network brings together former members and alternates of the CoR and gives them the possibility to continue following the CoR's political work and activities. It will help us to increase our political outreach by reaching out to local and regional councils and to the one million local and regional politicians, whom the CoR represents at the EU level.
The network is also meant to promote the CoR's political initiatives and communicate the European Union policies that are relevant to the local and regional level. It will not only share experience and knowledge with decision-makers at the EU level through the CoR's networks and activities but also at the national level in each Member State where many former Members play important political roles. I believe that this network will also nourish our discussions about the functioning and the future of the European Union.
The CoR also launched on 9 May a Network of Local and Regional EU counsellors. Local and regional politicians are invited to appoint in their political assembly a counsellor on European Affairs who would be the contact person for the citizens in EU related affairs. This counsellor would also organize citizens consultations in the framework of the Conference and beyond. We are in the process of elaborating synergies between these 2 networks in order to have a maximised political impact.
By 2050, the EU intends to achieve climate neutrality. Numerous cities are initiating programmes and projects to become emission-free. What assistance can they expect from the CoR?
First, I think it is important to stress that the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is of unprecedented magnitude. However, we must not forget that we live in a climate emergency. It is, therefore, crucial to understand that the European Green Deal, which is the EU growth strategy to reach climate neutrality by 2050, is a historical opportunity to recover from the socio-economic crisis while moving forward our commitment to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world.
The green transition will not succeed unless we fully involve local and regional governments that are responsible for delivering 70% of EU policy, more than 70% of climate mitigation measures and up to 90% of climate adaptation measures. From cutting pollution, reducing and recycling waste, to making our mobility and homes sustainable, the transformative change we need starts locally, in our communities.
Our Committee will continue to ensure that the EU green deal policy is fit for its purpose, so it benefits rather than burdens city leaders. We are working with the European Commission on a number of areas of specific relevance for local and regional governments such as the renovation wave (energy-efficient buildings), zero pollution, sustainable transport and protecting forests, and is strengthening its work on the Covenant of Mayors.
Coupled with a campaign we are launching that aims to engage, empower and accelerate the green deal in our regions, cities and villages, the CoR continues to represent the interest of all local communities and their people. For that purpose, we have recently launched Green Deal Going Local, a flagship initiative that includes a working group of 13 mayors and regional presidents to improve EU policy and support the exchange of information.
The network of national ambassadors of the Covenant of Mayors, which we launched on 21 April, is another proof of our commitment and support. Twenty-seven of our members, one for each Member State where I'm personally representing Greece, will contribute to mobilise municipalities across the EU to join the Covenant. These are only a few examples of how concretely we support cities to turn the European Green Deal into tangible results that bring sustainable growth and jobs for every community.
Speaking of the ‘Green Deal Going Local’, how does the CoR intend to implement it, and do you see the Green Deal as a chance for a stronger role for local governments?
We have seen an enthusiastic response since the launch of our initiative Green Deal Going Local in June 2020. The pandemic has shown how local and regional authorities have been at the front line of the fight against COVID-19. As local and regional leaders, we know very well that we are also at the front line of the impact of global warming. Let us not forget that climate change always impacts locally first.
The question is not whether cities and regions must have a stronger role in the European Union and in the implementation of the European Green Deal. The question is how to best integrate them so we can be more effective in matching the green transition with territorial needs ensuring that we leave no one behind. Especially, vulnerable regions such as coal and intense-carbon territories, rural and remote areas, and socially disadvantaged communities.
The European Green Deal is certainly a chance for a stronger role for local governments simply because there is a shared understanding that without us, the EU transition towards climate neutrality will not succeed.
Digitalisation is another key topic for CoR and the European regions and already a necessity and a reality for a growing number of businesses and industries. How far away are we from having fully digitalised local and regional administrations?
The Committee of the Regions looks at the digital transition from a broad perspective, in terms of infrastructure, skills, digitalisation of public services and digital transformation of businesses and SMEs. Trends may vary strongly between regions and between urban and rural areas, that's why developments have to be considered from the local perspective.
The COVID-19 crisis and the lockdowns across Europe have clearly demonstrated the need for digital infrastructures more than ever before. However, digitalization of public services in our regions and cities was already a trend before COVID-19.
The 2020 eGovernment Benchmark report by the European Commission shows that the "digital gap" between national and local government administrations has narrowed over the past years. According to the report, the services made available online by regional and local public authorities are lower but comparable, on average, to those made available by national authorities. Moreover, the "online availability" of local administrations improved at a higher pace, from 49% to 77% (between 2017 and 2019), compared to national administrations (from 69% to 89%).
Nevertheless, the scale of improvement and the overall performance varies substantially and these EU averages hide wide differences across countries. In some countries, online information and services made available to citizens and businesses score better at the local level than at the national level. In other countries, online services made available by regional public authorities score less than 30%.
Statistics show that there is an urban/rural divide in terms of the use of e-government services and that the COVID-19 pandemic did not help in closing that gap. Actually, in some countries differences have increased since 2020. The CoR is currently working on a study that examines the impact of Covid-19 on digitalization and the role of local and regional authorities in supporting businesses.
Equality is a fundamental principle of the European Union and local and regional authorities are setting the bar in this field to ensure that it is upheld. What plans does CoR have to continue the promotion of equal rights?
Being closest to the citizens, local and regional governments must take the lead in promoting equal opportunities and protecting vulnerable groups and minorities. Unfortunately, different forms of discrimination remain frequent across Europe. It is worrying that nearly 60 percent of Europeans consider discrimination on the basis of racial or ethnic origin to be widespread in their country.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities and discrimination, hitting marginalised communities disproportionally hard – both in terms of deaths as well as economically and socially. Women have also been more affected than men, as they form the majority of workers in the health and care sectors.
We must continue to challenge structural discrimination and stereotypes and ensure that political decision-making takes into account the needs of everyone in our societies. This also means improving political representation of women and ethnic and other minorities at local and regional level. Currently women form only one third of the members of regional parliaments or local councils in Europe. Only 17% of mayors in Europe are women.
Unfortunately, the same democratic deficit is still reflected in the composition of the CoR. In this regard, our hands are somewhat tied because it is up to each Member State to appoint its members and despite our calls the situation has improved only slightly. However, we have launched an initiative called "For more women in politics" aiming to promote gender equality in local and regional politics and decision-making.
We have also been actively promoting gender equality within the Committee's key bodies: for example, half of the CoR's thematic commissions are now led by women, and our target is to achieve a better gender balance in management positions. As local and regional decision-makers, we must set example, also in our capacity as employers.
Finally, speaking of the Covid-19 pandemic, it should be noted that cities and towns played a critical role in its management. How does the CoR plan to assist cities in their recovery?
Europe's reaction to the pandemic has been very positive, despite some delays and mistakes at the very beginning. To face the health, social and economic crisis, the Union has been able to develop and launch the largest investment and support plan for Member States in its history.
The next European budget and the recovery plan will make available one thousand and 8 hundred (1.800) billion euros that must be invested in all of EU's regions, cities and villages to relaunch the economy, maintain jobs, support businesses and strengthen health systems.
The task of our Committee is now to make sure that both cohesion policy and recovery plans are successfully implemented on the ground. To achieve this goal, we must improve coordination between all levels of government: EU, national, regional and local.
We must use the pandemic as an opportunity to help regional and local authorities to face the societal challenges we are facing. Increasing resilience to face health crisis preparedness is a priority, but it is also important to manage climate, demographic and digital challenges.
We have to make sure that the EU resources are used to address people's needs and to increase local authorities' preparedness to respond appropriately to future emergencies.
Our Committee is at work to represent the needs of 1 million locally elected politicians across Europe and to make sure the resources will support recovery that leaves no region and no people behind.
All levels of governance - EU, national, regional and local - are called upon to join forces to turn the EUR 1.8 trillion investment into reality. We need a fair, digital and green recovery. This is what our citizens expect and what we all need to achieve to turn the challenges into opportunities.
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