It is time for the EU to get closer to its citizens

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that despite their disagreements, the 27 EU Member States are closely linked to their commitment to peace, common core values, democracy and solidarity. Nevertheless, public confidence in the EU remains low. Today, on Europe Day, after a year of discussions within the framework of Conference on the future of Europeit is time to think honestly about how the EU can be reformed so that it becomes more effective, more responsive to needs and closer to the people.

The pandemic and the humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine have shown that the EU is dependent on its regions, cities and towns in times of crisis. Brave mayors have taken the side of the Ukrainian people, while most of the more than five million Ukrainian refugees receive help and shelter in Polish, Romanian and Hungarian border regions. Cities and regions across the EU collect food, medicine and first aid supplies and send them to Ukraine.

Local and regional authorities in the EU also support millions of Ukrainian refugees in other ways, giving them access to the labor market, housing, education and other social services. The EU has quickly helped these governments by making unused EU funds available to tackle the new emergency. The European Commission has EU cohesion policy – regional funds – used to support regions hosting refugees. The need for cohesion such as investment and value has never been clearer.

The war in Ukraine has also seriously affected the EU’s energy security and promoted energy poverty, which is already affecting more than 30 million Europeans. The decision to continue buying gas and oil from Russia to maintain stability has failed. Now that citizens and especially young people are major concerns on climate change, we can not fall back on fossil fuels. The EU must accelerate the transition to a CO2-neutral economy. Local and regional authorities have a role to play in decentralizing energy production, promoting investment in clean energy and financing the renovation of buildings.

For more than ten years, it appears polls that local and regional authorities are the most trusted level of government. The reason for this is simple: Local authorities are part of people’s daily lives, listening to their needs and wants and responding to them. Local and regional representatives implement 70 percent of EU legislation in our territory. However, this important role is not well reflected in the legislative process at EU level.

It is therefore time to strengthen this crucial role through Committee of the Regions, which should go beyond its current advisory role and take on a more binding role in areas with a clear territorial dimension. This will lead to better regulation and more democratic legitimacy in the EU. For example, the 1.2 million local and regional leaders will be encouraged to build bridges between the EU and its citizens.

After a year of debate and good intentions, the Conference on the Future of Europe has shown that citizens demand greater transparency, inclusion, sustainability and security. The institutional debates took place in Brussels and Strasbourg, but the process has strengthened the awareness that local and regional elected leaders are the link between citizens and national governments and Europe. If European democracy is to survive, it is time to speak and act outside Brussels and the national capitals. To give skeptics and people who feel disadvantaged the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Europe must change and put its regions and cities at the center of the issue, otherwise there is a risk that change will be forced by the citizens in the ballot box. How the EU tackles refugee protection, the climate crisis and the post-pandemic economic recovery will shape citizens’ views in 2024. As the European elections approach, the next 12 months will be crucial for citizens to feel that the EU really does matter to them, to their families and their lives. It is time for the EU to get closer to its citizens.

Apostolos Tzitzikostas, Chairman of the Committee of the Regions

Leave a Comment