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Speech by President von der Leyen to the European Committee of the Regions' plenary at the European Week of Regions and Cities

Speech given yesterday by President von der Leyen to the European Committee of the Regions' plenary at the European Week of Regions and Cities.

"Check against delivery"

President Tzitzikostas,

Mayors, Presidents, Representatives of Europe's regions and cities,

Dear Vice-President,

I come from a federal state. When I first got involved in active politics, I was elected to the local council of my hometown. After that, I became Cabinet Minister in the government of Lower Saxony. I was responsible for social affairs, health care and families. And I learned a lot from local politics.

You realise that it makes a big difference how politics is implemented on the ground. Local and regional politics is never abstract. It is about families, workers, communities. And it is about people who care about their communities.

This is a lesson I have always tried to keep in mind, first in Berlin, and later on here in Brussels in the middle of Europe. Local and regional governments have their finger on the pulse of Europe's citizens. I know very well what an invaluable advantage this is. It not only helps to solve small, everyday problems, but also to master the great challenges of our time.

Coronavirus is one of those. Yes, it has revealed our fragility. But we have also seen Europe's enormous strength – coming from the heart of our communities. Bonds of solidarity that have helped millions to make it through sickness and through the hardest months of the lockdown. You have witnessed this solidarity first-hand.

And you have contributed to it every day, since the early days of the pandemic. Local authorities were the first line of defence when the crisis hit. You have sent local police and volunteers to check on lonely elderly persons, in every village.

You were at the side of women who were victims of violence within the four walls of their homes. You have delivered facemasks and food to those who could not afford it. You have set up mobile testing centres to bring healthcare closer to your citizens.

And Europeans know what their mayors, governors or councillors have done for them. This is very clear in the Barometer that you present today. You continue to be the most trusted institutions in our Union. Your work has made your constituents feel that they were not alone, even when they could not leave their home.

But I also know that sometimes you have felt alone. You have felt that you were not receiving the support that you need to help your people. This crisis has tested our Union's cohesion. Some regions were hit harder, or earlier. Not all countries had the same financial strength.

Earlier this year we all felt the risk that some parts of our Union would recover at a slower pace. That they would stay behind. That we would start drifting apart. We saw how fragile our achievements can be. But we have acted. Europe has acted.

This summer we agreed on a revamped EU budget and a Recovery Plan that we call NextGenerationEU. EUR 1.8 trillion, worth 13% of our Union's national income. With NextGenerationEU we want to give all Member States a fair chance to overcome the crisis and to modernise.

And regions and cities will be at the core of NextGenerationEU. Part of the funding will directly address the difficult situation that you are facing right now. We call it: REACT-EU – Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories. It will be available in the next two years to finance employment subsidies, short-time work schemes, and to provide liquidity to SMEs. This will help save thousands of businesses and millions of jobs throughout our Union!

The same goes for our health systems. We all know that the quality of healthcare varies widely across our Union. But all European citizens have the same right to health! NextGenerationEU's resources will therefore target the resilience of our health systems. The European funds will enable investments in new hospitals, better equipment and stronger healthcare systems – not only in the big cities, but also in more remote regions.

Additionally, NextGenerationEU looks far beyond crisis response. No administration should have to choose between responding to a crisis and investing in the future. NextGenerationEU will mend our social fabric and repair balance sheets across Europe. And while we are doing this, we press fast forward towards a green, digital and resilient future.

We want to use these investments not only to restart the economy. We also want to use them to improve the air we breathe in our cities, or to help small enterprises take up the digital solutions. And for all this, local administrations must be in the driving seat.

In this year, I believe we have built a very good cooperation between us in difficult circumstances. And we – at the European Commission – are ready to have a close look at your proposals for greater engagement.

In these weeks, we have also sent a very clear message to national governments. Regions and cities should be involved in the preparation of national recovery plans from the very outset. You must contribute. Capitals must coordinate with you, because you will be the ones bringing projects to life in your local reality. This gives you a great responsibility.

But I know you can master that. The success of NextGenerationEU will depend on each one of you, the one million local administrators in Europe. It will depend on your determination, your capacity to re-invent your territory as a greener and healthier place.

One third of the 750 billion investment from NextGenerationEU will finance our European Green Deal objectives. New resources will be available for your green plans. The resources will come from Europe, but the ideas must come from you.

For instance, new resources for one million electric charging points across Europe. Or resources to finance a Just Transition in the regions that have to take a bigger leap. It is the future of your territories that is at stake. When Member States will draw their just transition plans, you should be part of the conversation.

Let me give you an example. NextGenerationEU will only succeed if we play as a team. In two days from now we will launch the renovation wave. We want to make public buildings and private homes more energy efficient and more comfortable – all across Europe. Our buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy consumption. Some buildings are already being renovated or retrofitted. But at the current pace, it would take more than a century to bring emissions from our buildings to zero.

We must speed up. And the good news is, by doing so we can create new jobs in the construction sectors and beyond. The renovation wave will focus specifically on schools, hospitals and social housing – for which local governments are usually responsible. It will be up to you to bring the renovation wave into your cities and regions. We need you to engage with citizens and neighbourhoods, but also with other cities that share the same ambition. I know that many of you already share this vision of a greener future.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Lisbon where the city hall, dating back to 1880, has just been entirely renovated. And this has cut the building's electricity usage from the grid by more than half. Italy's Emilia-Romagna region is already incentivising the use of bikes to promote socially-distanced mobility. There are so many green solutions that are just waiting to happen. NextGenerationEU is your opportunity to bring them to life.

The same goes for digitalisation. Some of our regions – from the Basque country to the Danube – are already creating new hubs for digital innovation. Places where companies of all kinds can thrive – digital start-ups looking for new customers, as well as traditional industries that are discovering the potential of data and artificial intelligence.

But we also know the other side of the coin. Today, 40% of people living in rural areas still do not have access to the most basic high-speed internet. But these connections are the prerequisite for home working, home learning and online shopping. Without broadband, it is not possible to build or run a business effectively. Or to build up ‘smart city' services that will keep your neighbourhood cleaner, safer and more liveable. NextGenerationEU is a unique chance to expand 5G, 6G and fibre and bring them to every village.

And again, this will only be possible with your support, to prioritise investment and coordinate public works on the ground. We want to listen to you. We want to hear what the best solutions are, on access to infrastructure information, speedy permitting and single administrative contact points. We want to boost digital infrastructure, expand digital public services and give the entrepreneurs the digital skills they need to succeed.

We will create a European cloud and neutral data spaces. Because companies and universities should be able to share their data safely. But we need you to promote the real hubs – where academia meets business, tech meets manufacturing, and innovation is born. Much of this lies in your hands. You can be a frontrunner and model for others.

Europe will only be successful in the digital age if its cities and regions succeed. What I am asking from you today is more than a list of projects and initiatives. It is a vision. A vision for the future tailored for your territories. A vision what cities and territories you want to leave to your children. NextGenerationEU is here for them. This is your moment, your opportunity, and our shared responsibility.

Long live Europe.


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