RIGA - The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has demonstrated that the EU foundations lie in local communities, therefore their voices must be heard, said President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), Apostolos Tzitzikostas, at the Conference on the Future of Europe.
"For more than one year now the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across Europe. (...) Throughout these difficult times, the CoR, and the one million regional and local elected politicians in more than 300 regions and 90, 000 municipalities it represents, has never stopped working to serve the people living in regions, cities and villages across Europe," Tzitzikostas said in his statement.
"As the pandemic crisis has clearly shown, our Union's foundations lie in our local communities. As local leaders, our responsibilities are great – from running health services and schools to providing social services in these troubled times. Despite the unprecedented difficulties, we have found new ways to encourage research, support businesses, adapt the local economy, and work with civil society. We have been fighting side by side with doctors and nurses," he said.
Tzitzikostas said that the months ahead will continue to be difficult for all of us, but there is light at the end of the tunnel if we work in solidarity and continue striving for a smooth and comprehensive vaccination campaign. We must make sure that our key values of cohesion and solidarity remain the principles for the vaccination strategy in the EU and its regions. We must avoid competition for vaccines between Member States and within Member States and avoid a ''vaccine divide’' that would increase inequalities between our regions, cities and villages.
"Europe must emerge from this crisis more resilient and formally recognize the central importance of local and regional administrations. We are a cornerstone for the health, prosperity, resilience and vibrancy of our local communities," he said.
"We must ensure that EU funds are used effectively to help the recovery of our local communities. We must be fully involved in designing and implementing EU and national recovery plans. Our contribution is key to forging policies that manage the fundamental societal transformations we are facing. COVID-19 is one of those transforming forces. So too are the climate crisis, the digitalization of our economies and the demographic evolution," he said.
Tzitzikostas noted that trust will pull us through this crisis, and we, locally and regionally elected leaders, are the most trusted level of government. We know best the citizens' needs and concerns and we know how to address them via concrete actions on the ground.
"If we are to boost the European project we must enhance its democratic functioning. We must build together our common House of European Democracy with its roof – the European Union –, its walls – the Member States - and its foundations – the regions, cities and villages," he said.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is a great opportunity to strengthen the democratic functioning of the EU. The Conference is not an objective per se: its goal must be to honestly engage with people, also via the European Committee of the Regions that represents the vote of the citizens living all across Europe.
"We can make sure that citizens participate in this process and have their say because local and regional authorities are the closest and most trusted level of government. By listening to our people, the Conference must allow an honest reflection through a profound democratization process. We want less institutional complexity and more democratic representation of people's trust via their vote in the European, national, regional and local elections," he said.
"Our recently established High-Level Group on Democracy led by former European Council President Herman van Rompuy will strive to promote our Committee's contribution to the Conference. We will team up with the business sector and civil society, youth associations and territorial European and national associations and, of course, with the three EU institutions which are steering the Conference – the Parliament, Commission and Council. Our local dialogue on 9 May marks the territorial dimension of the Conference and, in addition to many local dialogues across the UE, we will organize the Summit of Regions and Cities during the French Presidency in early 2022 in Marseille.
As governors, presidents of regions, mayors, regional and local councillors, we have been at the forefront, fighting the pandemic, and now we are ready to start the recovery. Today Europe and its people need trust and leadership. The Conference on the Future of Europe can contribute to this process if it genuinely and concretely involves our local communities and if it gives voice to people in our regions, cities and villages. This is key to avoid a top-down exercise that would only feed the demagogic and anti-European false narrative of populists and Euro-sceptics," said Tzitzikostas.
"Our purpose, as European Committee of the Regions, is to establish a strong regional and local dimension of the entire Conference in all EU Members States by engaging with citizens at regional and local level. We are fully convinced that by working together, based on mutual respect, we can increase the trust of our citizens in our common European project, strengthen the EU democratic architecture and bring Europe closer to its people," he said.
On March 10, European Parliament President, David Sassoli, Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Costa, on behalf of the Presidency of the Council, and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have signed the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe. This paves the way to launching a series of debates and discussions that will enable people from every corner of Europe to share their ideas to help shape Europe's future.
The Conference sets itself the goal of giving citizens a greater role in shaping EU policies and ambitions, improving the Union's resilience to crises, be it economic or health-related. It will create a new public forum for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with Europeans around the issues that matter to them and affect their everyday lives.
The Conference will launch on May 9.