Tischkicker mit Spielfiguren in roten und blauen Trikots
Point of view

Europe is not a luxury: If you're not at the table, you're on the menu

For many German municipalities having a European network is still not a given. Yet, the municipalities should be key players! For only as part of a network can they help shape legislation, funding opportunities and regulations.

An article by Dagmar Köhler

In the past, the German municipalities took their seats in the stands of the “European stadium” but now they are increasingly part of the game. And that is a good thing because without municipal participation and implementation it is impossible to achieve the priority goals in the important future fields of climate change mitigation, digitalisation, economy and democracy.

Even without exercising directly influence over the cities and towns, the European level consistently creates new ways to work with the municipalities, to promote and to challenge cities and towns. It is illustrated by the growing role of the municipalities in research promotion, such as the five new “EU missions”, the EU Urban Agenda and a multitude of prizes and awards for progressive cities and towns. Without municipal partners, pilot cities or city networks on board, project funding is practically pointless. The large majority of European regulations, directives or recommendations also have a local impact. They are generally designated as municipal responsibilities through their adoption into national law.

Is Europe a luxury issue that German municipalities cannot afford?

Despite their direct impact on the municipalities and the accompanying generous funding opportunities, “European matters” are often the first to be dropped from municipal day-to-day business. Europe is quickly classed as a luxury topic that you have to be able to afford. In fact, in many municipalities there is a lack of both financial and human resources. However, there is primarily a lacking understanding of what European initiatives can achieve.

German municipalities are clearly less involved in European activities than the municipalities of our neighbours. Dutch, Italian and Spanish cities and towns of all sizes are present. With assistance from European research support they generate up to one hundred euros in project funds locally for every one euro invested.

European networks: A strong voice

In order to find partners, the cities join European networks. In recent years, the number of such networks has significantly increased. Some are permanently established, while others are tied to projects. There are theme-based networks that bring together economy, academia and the public sector on a specific topic. In contrast, other networks represent a sector, e.g., industry or research networks. City networks serve the municipalities both as a platform and as a lobby group. For example, EUROCITIES covers the full scope of municipal topics, while POLIS specialises in specific issues, which are discussed by the respective experts from administrations. Therefore, European networks serve the municipalities in very different ways:

  • Partaking in others’ experience
    Some measures, which are still future dreams in Germany, have already been implemented somewhere else – or vice versa. How does Rotterdam solve the question of charging stations for e-vehicles? How did Stockholm create acceptance for the congestion charge? Municipalities can profit from the experiences of other towns and cities with new solutions even if they are not immediate neighbours. In the city networks’ working groups or in joint projects, employees of the municipal administrations get to know each other and take new impulses home from the most innovative cities in Europe.
  • Experience support and empowerment
    For employees in the municipal administrations the Europe-wide networks provide expertise, inspiration and a tailwind, which is of particular importance. In particular, they value the support from their European colleagues, who encourage them to try new things and withstand local resistance. For municipalities, the Europe-wide exchange is a chance to present successes and to gain recognition. It polishes their image and increases their appeal as employers or as residential and commercial locations.
  • Profit from EU research projects
    In research programmes, such as “Horizon Europe”, the EU funds projects in which consortia are formed and include members from the research, economy and administration sectors of various countries. Municipalities, cities, towns and regions receive funding for projects and staff in order to test research findings in practice, to discuss experiences among groups of experts and to draft recommendations. For example, Dresden generated additional resources for work on the transport development plan through the “Ch4llenge” EU project. With the help of EU projects, Barcelona has established itself as a pioneer city for delivery traffic. In addition to financial and human resources, EU projects also provide a framework to test out innovative solutions.
  • Having a say in EU legislation
    Municipalities work together in the city networks to communicate their needs, problems and limitations, e.g., when work is being done on new legislation, directives or support programmes. This aspect is very important because the municipalities do not have a formal role in the legislative process. For example, upon London’s initiative cities have successfully advocated that in the future lorries and buses are to be manufactured with more all-round vision in order to be approved for the European market.

New BBSR project helps German municipalities with European networking

The Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik (German Institute of Urban Affairs, Difu) supports municipalities to network in Europe, for instance within the framework of the new “Smart Cities befähigen (enabling smart cities)” project sponsored by the German Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spacial Development (Bundesinstitut für Bau-, Stadt- und Raumforschung, BBSR). At its launch conference in February 2022, the Dutch city of Helmond explained why it chose the European option. Within the POLIS city network Helmond established the “platform for small and medium-sized towns”. With assistance from European projects and networks, the city has made an international name for itself as an innovation location for smart mobility. At the launch conference, Gert Blom from Helmond’s city administration named the following reasons for the city’s European participation:

  • EU projects provide funds and therefore resources in order to drive on the city’s priority projects. They increased the incentives to implement research projects in practice.
  • European participation attracts investors and new employees.
  • European networks strengthen the city both inwardly and outwardly, and open up access to current research knowledge and other involved cities.
  • Together with others, the city’s voice is heard on the European level. As a result it successfully advocated a binding speed assistance system for new cars in the EU.

„If you are not at the table, you are on the menu“

In recent years, municipalities have been increasingly present on the European stage and have together become louder. However, in comparison to other European countries, German municipalities are still significantly under-represented. In order to not be surprised by new legislation, regulations or support programmes, German municipalities should be much more present on the field rather than in the stands of the “European stadium” and should be helping to shape it. It is in close cooperation with other stakeholders that they are able adequately express their own needs and therefore have them considered in legislation and support programmes, and also to profit from the exchange of knowledge and experience.

Gert Blom from the city of Helmond also quoted politician Micheal Enzi, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu”

In order to overcome future challenges, the municipalities are urgently needed on the playing field. The current state of the world also painfully shows us that we cannot manage the future on our own but must face it together.

The text was published in Difu-Magazine, Berichte 1/2022.