Unlikely friendships form the strongest bonds: Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president François Mitterrand, and more recently the growing alliance between the EU and its cities and regions. And what a mutually supportive alliance this could be, were both partners to rely on each other for the achievement of their shared and individual goals.
Whilst the European project is going through a crisis of confidence, caused by the threats of a Brexit and/or Grexit, the consistent fall in turnout at European Parliament elections since their institutions in 1979, and the distrust of ivory tower eurocrats, European cities and regions are on the rise. Their projections on national and European debates are that of progressive, innovative actors with a strong democratic mandate from their citizens – albeit often lacking the legislative or financial means to actively take control of their transformation. Complementing each other’s flaws and strengths, their partnership would be particularly beneficial to delivering the Energy Union vision the European Commission laid out in its 25 February communication – that of a fundamental transformation from a fossil-fuel heavy, highlight centralised yet fragmented system, to a sustainable and inclusive one built around consumers, and for citizens.
What cities can bring to the table is their close links to the public, their on-the-ground expertise and ambition, and their innovation and business creation potential. First, Cities and regions must act as ‘Energy Union ambassadors’ to share the European Union vision with the public at large, explain the role of citizens in the European project and in the energy transition, and the rationale for building a European energy market, often misunderstood by the public at large. Cities and regions would bring credibility to the project, and we can expect their communication with citizens not to be tainted by the power struggle storyline often conveyed by national governments.
Secondly, cities and regions must clearly express what they need to develop the necessary skills, products, and expertise. Sedentary and concerned with their future subsistence, cities and regions have inherent incentives to build and maintain local growth centres. Ultimately they themselves will drive and shape the creation of the necessary supply chains building Europe’s expertise in low carbon, resilient and resource efficient product and services. Finally, cities and regions are best placed to test and share best practice programmes to drive growth in small scale renewables, energy efficiency in buildings, and the development of smart homes and smart grids. They can inform EU and national policy makers of their failures and successes.
However cities and regions can only actively deliver the Energy Union vision if they get a little help from the EU. After all, the EU is relying on local actors to do much of the energy transition on the ground. What the EU can do for cities is to use its agenda setting and legislative role to raise their profile and establish them as serious political actors. For instance, the European Commission and Parliament should give credence to their call for the Juncker Investment Plan for Europe to support the transition away from fossil fuels and to empower local growth. This could be done by putting emphasis on local, diffuse and small-scale retrofit and renewable projects through technical assistance and aggregation, and away from complex, expensive and unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure.
Being listened to in Europe will also help cities and regions argue their case for more devolution in several countries which would increase their regulatory, planning and financial means to take control of their own transition. Aristotle said that ‘a friend to all is a friend to none’ – it may be time for the EU to make cities and citizens their priority.