Taking the pulse of European mayors

The Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey is the flagship annual survey carried out across the broad membership of Eurocities, which brings together most of the major European cities, representing over 150 million people all over Europe. Drawing on 92 responses from leaders among Eurocities’ 204 member cities across Europe, this second edition aims to offer an overview of key urban trends, including the top challenges and priorities facing mayors at the doors of the European elections.

What you will read here is the result of a selection of the main findings of the Eurocities Pulse, with further analysis of the data to follow.

The Eurocities Pulse Survey is the flagship annual survey carried out across the broad membership of Eurocities, which brings together most of the major European cities, representing over 150 million people all over Europe. Drawing on 92 responses from leaders among Eurocities’ 204 member cities across Europe, this second edition aims to offer an overview of key urban trends, including the top challenges and priorities facing mayors at the doors of the European elections.

What you will read here is the result of a selection of the main findings of the Pulse, with further analysis of the data to follow.

Looking forward: top priorities for mayors for 2024

Climate action is by far the top priority for 2024, with more than half of mayors selecting it for the second year running; more than double any other category. Climate action brings together two main areas: actions to mitigate climate change, and actions promoting climate adaptation and resilience. In their reflections, mayors highlight the co-benefits of the climate transition for other sectors, and the central role of cities in leading the way in actions as diverse as building renovations and reaching out to citizens. Despite this, one major reflection shared by mayors on climate action is the lack of financial resources and local level capacity to actually deliver on this.

Top 10 priorities for 2024

Jumping up two positions this year, and coming in second, actions promoting social inclusion and equity have noticeably risen in mayors’ priorities, with close to one out of three mayors highlighting it as one of their top three priorities. Linked to the cost-of-living crisis and given mayors’ close connection to residents in their city, they are keenly aware that increasing numbers of people are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. As put forward in Eurocities’ European elections manifesto, ‘A better Europe starts in cities,’ mayors also expect to be more involved in the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights. They want to act as a link with the EU in protecting people’s social rights in the green and digital transformations, and to build municipal capacity in this area to face the increased pressure on essential social services generated by multiple crises.

In this context it is not surprising to see affordable housing making it to the top three of mayors’ priorities for 2024 (top five in 2023). While house building may have fallen off the agenda in recent years, rental and housing costs are now a key voter concern as we head into different elections this year, and it could be a strong factor in determining outcomes. Although housing is not an EU competence, it’s clear that, from a city point of view, tackling EU-level barriers for making affordable housing accessible locally should be a priority. Some cities like Vienna, where around one quarter of all housing is social housing, have a long tradition in providing high-quality affordable housing to all citizens. However, for many others, especially where housing needs are more of a state level competence, such as in France, without further support these needs will not be met.

Sustainable mobility remains a critical priority for 2024; despite a shift in the ranking around the same percentage of mayors (27.5%) consider it a top priority. In their reflections, mayors highlight actions aimed at the provision of services and infrastructure to facilitate the movement of people and goods. Mayors emphasise the importance of safety, affordability and efficiency, all while minimising harmful emissions and impacts on the environment. Some specifically highlight their efforts in making public transportation the main form of transportation in the city. Compared to other priorities, this priority is geographically predominant in Southern European cities.

Urban planning and infrastructure closes the top five of mayors’ priorities, with a slight increase from last year (at 24.1% overall). In the post-Covid city more attention is placed on the power of urban planning, recognised as a strategic tool to promote more compact living that can boost environmental and healthy living objectives while enhancing public life. Through their reflections, mayors highlight how they are seeking to transform urban spaces through the effective and adapted layout of buildings and functional spaces. For example, in Tblisi there is a considerable need to replace aging infrastructure to meet the requirements of urban redevelopment and expansion. Meanwhile, cities like Florence aim to create new participatory processes to keep the public’s interest high in longer-term projects to redesign the public space.

Public safety and security scores highly, at number six (up from tenth place in 2023). Mayors highlight the importance of promoting public safety and creating safe living conditions for community residents, as well as responding to crises such as the Russian war in Ukraine. Others also highlight their efforts to prevent youth crimes, with some mayors particularly highlighting their commitment to tackle drug criminality and their networks.

Consolidating public budgets is considered a top priority by 18.4% mayors, and is a new entry in the top 10. This doesn’t mean reducing public expenditure, but rather securing sustainable urban finances and a balanced budget that can promote a strong urban economy. At the same time, mayors highlight their efforts to address financial difficulties without cutting social services, for example by fostering reforms that will bring efficiency and productivity gains.

Economic recovery and attractiveness, a top three priority last year, is now ranked eighth by mayors. With the immediacy of concerns brought on by the pandemic, it is interesting to see that mayors’ priorities in this area have shifted more towards making their economies and territories attractive to investors to attain long-term prosperity. This can mean putting emphasis on strategies such as city branding and economic diplomacy, as mayors explain in their reflections.

Democracy and services for citizens, which comes in ninth, is broadly aligned with last year’s position. In their reflections this year, mayors put particular emphasis on the importance of defending democratic and fundamental values, not only at home but also globally, especially in the context of the European elections. When it comes to promoting democracy at city level, mayors highlight their continued efforts to promote participation in public life.

Closing the top 10 priorities, and another new entry, is the request to improve multi-level governance. This means working on strengthening the collaboration between different levels of government (supra-national, national, regional, local) as well as non-governmental entities, forming new partnerships and new channels for resources, as well as governance models. For example, some mayors highlight the importance of strengthening local city governance, including with surrounding municipalities, while others emphasised the need for a more structured long-term partnership between the EU and cities. While this can be understood simply as a means to achieve many of the mayors’ other top priorities (as later explained), it is interesting to see that some mayors also frame multi-level cooperation as a priority in its own right.

Other lower ranking priorities include developing capacity around labour and skills shortages, culture and heritage, and greater focus on the energy transition.

As already indicated in some of the above analysis, when asked about the main strategies they would wish to employ to achieve their priorities, mayors ranked sourcing additional funding from central governments and the EU level in first place overall (with 85% selecting it as their top choice overall). This suggests the need for new mechanisms to empower cities to develop sustainable and reliable investment strategies and will be discussed more in section three of this analysis.

The second most important strategy identified by mayors is to focus on innovation to implement new and cutting-edge solutions. As the special section on government innovation will discuss in more detail, mayors perceive government innovation to be an important tool that allows them to solve complex challenges and deliver transformative policy agendas.

As already indicated in some of the above analysis, when asked about the main strategies they would wish to employ to achieve their priorities, mayors ranked sourcing additional funding from central governments and the EU level in first place overall (with 85% selecting it as their top choice overall). This suggests the need for new mechanisms to empower cities to develop sustainable and reliable investment strategies and will be discussed more in section three of this analysis.

The second most important strategy identified by mayors is to focus on innovation to implement new and cutting-edge solutions. As the special section on government innovation will discuss in more detail, mayors perceive government innovation to be an important tool that allows them to solve complex challenges and deliver transformative policy agendas.

What are the most important strategies for mayors to achieve their priorities?

The third most important strategy is again related to multi-level governance, and it is about finding better ways to cooperate with the national and EU level. When looking at top priorities like climate action and housing, it is very clear that the existence of national frameworks supporting cities in a concerted way can make the difference in the long term (more analysis in section three).

Other lower ranking strategies include sourcing more competences transferred from the central government and EU level, developing the technical skills and capacity of city staff, and maximising networking with other cities.

We need close cooperation and support from the Commission.

– Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz

Urban resilience: cohesion, green transition, and community engagement

Sustainable urban development is one of the keys to the future of Europe. Our cities must be inclusive, green and resilient adapting to new challenges and to unprecedented shocks and crises. The priorities identified by mayors in this survey confirm the diversity of solutions to integrate and invest in local policies and strategies, joining in with regional and national levels’ actions.

By Themis Christophidou

Director-General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission

This is welcome given that the recently published 9th Cohesion report shows that in recent years there are positive trends in social inclusion and poverty reduction. However, it also points to the need to pay close attention to regional disparities, and social and economic impacts of transitions in all territories.

Cohesion Policy supports cities in their green, digital and just transitions, and cities are key allies to ensure these are successfully delivered. Many cities are engaging in ambitious actions to become climate neutral, to accelerate sustainable mobility, to support biodiversity in urban spaces, digitalisation and technology deployment, and more. Cohesion Policy has played a key role over the years in supporting public investment, contributing to strengthening the European growth model, spurring economic growth in line with key policy priorities from the twin transition, to innovation, business and skills, from childcare, education and health to protection from natural disasters. The support is available to cities of all sizes, territories and local communities, with investments targeted to the specific needs of urban and peri-urban areas, without forgetting crucial linkages with surrounding territories.

For these transitions to be successful, it remains important to involve the economic and social partners, civil society and citizens in the planning processes and implementation. Responses at local level, with a strong involvement of local actors, contribute to territorial and social cohesion and helps exploit wider regions’ untapped potential and increase the coherence and effectiveness of policies. Through our action and support, the Commission has put the emphasis on two factors that are essential for the sustainable and resilient development of cities in Europe. Firstly, it is important to follow the principle of multi-level governance and participation, working together with cities, the metropolitan areas, regions, member states and all stakeholders. Secondly, it is key to empower cities by investing in integrated sustainable urban development strategies.

The 9th Cohesion report also highlights the significance of skills, capacities and administrative resources to plan and implement these developments and ensure good governance. The European Urban Initiative invests in capacity building and is dedicated to urban stakeholders and policymakers. A mix of activities and tools, easy to apply for and fast to implement, are available for any interested EU city willing to develop its skills in the area of sustainable urban development, strategic planning, urban connectivity, urban-rural linkages and associated themes.

Calls are also made for more effective multi-level governance both at EU and national level, for the early involvement of local authorities in discussions on new legislation. Working together across different levels of governance is of key importance for bringing in positive change to the lives of people in European cities. To this end, the Urban Agenda for the EU, through which the European Commission collaborates with member states, cities, regions and other stakeholders, brings opportunities to support the mainstreaming of the urban dimension in various policy areas and processes. The Urban Agenda for the EU represents a common frame of action and instrument for this purpose, stimulating co-creation, and triggering consultation processes. It also seeks to activate multi-level governance cooperation on a number of issues such as greening cities, equality in cities, and urban food systems.

The continued support to the multi-level governance approach is critical to implement collectively the principles agreed in the New Leipzig Charter, which continue to echo current challenges and priorities for European cities, such as affordable and sustainable housing, ensuring the provision of local services and connectivity.

Finally, I would like to highlight the importance of cities in building a greener, just and more competitive Europe, and congratulate cities for their active engagement in this process. There are still challenges ahead and we should continue working together for a better European future.

By Themis Christophidou

Director General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission

Mayors corner

When asked to further expand on their top strategies, mayors noted that urban voices should be listened to at all levels of decision making, that European funding should be allocated directly to cities, and that more collaboration is necessary both between cities and across levels of government. 

In short, they suggested the need for:

Looking back: top challenges in 2023 for mayors

For the 92 European mayors from large European cities who responded to this year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey, climate change was their overall top challenge in 2023, with 28.7% choosing it as one of their top three. Other top challenges reflect the changing realities in cities. In a sign of the times, housing, public budgets and inequalities have all grown more prominent in mayors’ assessments compared to one year earlier. Inflation, energy concerns and the economic recovery have dropped in the rankings, though they evidently still register highly on mayors’ radars of challenges that impact their ability to improve people’s everyday lives. In its own working structures, Eurocities addresses all of these top concerns with its member cities, and brings them to the attention of European and national decision makers.

Top 10 challenges in 2023

Overall, most of the 10 top challenges shared by mayors reflect global current affairs, in one way or another, showing how interlinked the local political level is with other levels of government.

While the impacts of both the Russian war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic have dropped out of the top 10, they are still mentioned by mayors in their reflections. In particular, many mayors are still very vocal on their steadfast support for Ukraine, with a handful selecting it as their top challenge.

While the top 10 challenges remain broadly similar overall to last year, the appearance of urban planning in position 10 and inequalities jumping in at position five both demonstrate that several long-term challenges for mayors are becoming more acute.

The energy crisis, the top challenge overall in 2022, is now placed tied seventh, with 14.9% of mayors placing it as a top challenge overall. With the cost of energy and immediate concerns for cost-of-living having abated, following successful shifts in EU policies, including in energy supply, the impact on the most vulnerable groups was still highlighted as an ongoing concern by mayors all over Europe, from North to South.

Meanwhile, 28.7% of mayors highlight issues such as access to water, the effects of extreme heat, the challenge of promoting climate adaptation measures as well as advancing on decarbonisation and climate neutrality goals as their number one challenge overall in 2023, reinforcing this long-term trend.

Housing, which achieved only tenth position in 2022 is now indicated a top challenge by 26.4% of mayors, coming in second overall. As Eurostat data confirms, the average cost of a house in the EU was nearly 50% higher in mid-2023 than at the same time in 2010. Mayors highlight that providing access to affordable housing to low-income as well as middle-income workers is increasingly difficult, with homelessness also becoming a growing challenge. This is clearly associated with the ongoing effects of inflation in the economy: despite inflation decreasing as a standalone challenge in mayors’ estimations, it is no surprise that it remains in the top 10 again this year, and is of particular concern in Central and Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Czechia.

The effects of inflation and slowly rising or stagnating salaries, are contributing to what has been defined as a real cost-of-living crisis in cities; it is no surprise therefore that inequalities are a top challenge for 17.2% of mayors, with a significant shift compared to last year, making its first entry in the top 10 list. When elaborating on this challenge, mayors highlight the challenges of growing social inequalities and exclusion in cities, pointing to their efforts to promote social and climate justice while facing increasing polarisation and demonstrations. Addressing urban poverty and inequality in the current context is a key concern.

The long-term effects of inflation, coupled with a shift in prevailing monetary policy and higher interest rates, has a noticeable effect on public budgets and financing, and was listed as a top three challenge by 14.9% of mayors overall. In some cases, such as in the UK, mayors highlight how there is a turn back to austerity policies (often imposed by higher levels of government as explained in section three of this analysis), with significant budget cuts and difficulties in the provision of public services often due to lack of human resources. Others focus on the challenges of accessing private capital, as well as a general difficulty in attracting and retaining investments. This challenge is equally linked with the economic crisis, something that was highlighted by those mayors whose national economies are facing recession, such as in Germany and Turkey.

Similarly, the challenges of accessing economic recovery resources and implementing recovery projects have decreased significantly from top three to top seven, with a renewed focus on regeneration rather than recovery. Mayors highlight the challenges of keeping the economic ecosystem vibrant, innovative, attractive and competitive amidst a changing global landscape. In addition, the need for industrial decarbonisation while continuing to promote growth that is both socially and economically sustainable is an added consideration of many mayors commenting in this category.

Nonetheless, implementing economic regeneration projects remains a major challenge for a significant number of cities, particularly amongst recipients of EU recovery resources, as shown in the data. This relates to the challenges of implementing big regeneration and infrastructure projects, which need buy-in from the public as well as from private actors, and strongly relates to ongoing shifts in the urban planning environment (challenge 10).

One city that has dealt effectively with these challenges is Bologna, which will receive around €1 billion from the EU. The city will focus projects it selected not just as a response to the impact of Covid-19 but that reflected the city’s long-term vision for growth. The first area of focus contributes to building the new green infrastructure that supports the goal of becoming a carbon-neutral city, the second invests in the regeneration of urban areas, and the third deals with constructing two new tramway lines, which are part of the sustainable metropolitan mobility strategy.

Mobility, which can also entail large infrastructural projects, such as new metro lines and tramways, remains a critical challenge for many mayors, and is listed as a top four challenge this year. Mayors mentioned their efforts to promote sustainable mobility with integrated approaches to public transport systems. Interestingly, many of the mayors mentioning this challenge are from Southern European cities (mainly Italy, Spain and Portugal).

Lastly, the integration of migrants remains a significant challenge for many mayors, although it is perceived less as a crisis currently than was the case during the first months of the Russian war in Ukraine (challenge four and five in 2022).

Not listed in the top 10, but also highlighted by several mayors, were challenges such as public safety and security, the impacts of natural disasters and global crises.

Mayors’ opinion on key policies and EU support

2024 sees new faces filling both the hemicycle of the European Parliament and the European Commission’s college of commissioners. With this in mind, the Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey 2024 includes a section asking mayors their opinions on key policy areas that will impact cities and should be placed high on the EU agenda: climate policy, housing, industry and innovation, and fiscal and administrative capacity.

I expect the EU to get to grips with the priorities of the ecological transition.

– Jeanne Barseghian, Mayor of Strasbourg

Climate policies: are mayors confident about citizens’ support and local capacity to deliver climate action?

While around 40% of mayors answered positively when being asked whether they were concerned about current backlash from citizens against their climate policies – a priority for mayors as indicated in the previous section – about the same number were less concerned. Although a possibly confusing stat at first, it can be qualified by other data, and following conversations with some mayors. Moreover, the chart on the right reveals, the vast majority of mayors (70%) believe the majority of local residents support and prioritise decarbonisation policies.

The majority of my constituency prioritises and demands action on decarbonisation policies

As a mayor, I am concerned about backlash from citizens against local climate policies

Given that mayors are the closest level of government to citizens, with whom they regularly interact, and are essential ambassadors both to encourage the necessary behaviour change and implement policy at local level, including through building alliances with industry, and to coordinate at national and EU levels on shared commitments to climate neutrality, they have a unique perspective on the current state of play on such matters. And, to further qualify the reaction to the chart on the right, several mayors explained that, while they are nonetheless concerned about a potential backlash from a minority of residents, they are still focussed on the 2050 climate targets. This emphasises the importance of not only communicating better about their climate policies, but also the need to ensure that their climate policies promote a just transition, while also addressing other critical needs.

European climate policies match the needs of my city’s decarbonisation objectives

My city has enough tools and capacity to meet our climate commitments and targets

Housing: what levels of support do cities need?

When it comes to housing, one of the top three priorities of mayors this year, the vast majority of mayors (79%) believe they need to make compromises between delivering high quality and affordable housing, ensuring good energy standards and increasing the quantity of housing. Interestingly, among the few who disagree with this statement (less than 15%), the majority are Nordic cities.

To compound this, one out of two mayors also clearly highlight that they don’t have enough tools and capacity to meet the current housing needs of the most vulnerable. Worryingly, only 5% of mayors strongly agree that they have enough tools and resources. Again, it is Nordic cities that are most confident about their resources.

The shortage of housing supply is a key contributor to the housing affordability crisis. In recent years, housing affordability has become a growing concern for local authorities as housing costs outpace income growth. Vulnerable groups are among those who face the greatest challenges in accessing affordable housing. Moreover, low-income households, single-parent families, migrants and people with disabilities face a higher risk of experiencing energy poverty due to a structural lack of adequate housing.

I need to make compromises between delivering high quality and affordable housing, ensuring good energy standards and increasing the quantity of housing

My city has enough tools and capacity to meet the current housing needs of the most vulnerable people

At the EU level, cities are playing an important role in making housing an EU-wide priority (as recognised in the recent EU Council Presidency declaration on housing, among others) and moving forward they expect housing to be put at the top of the agenda (see section four).

Given that local authorities play a central role in delivering housing support, and it is not a direct competence of the EU, it is striking that one third of mayors highlight the challenges they have faced to increase access to affordable (and good quality) housing due to regulatory barriers at the EU level. With this in mind, it is crucial for European and national governments to support cities in tackling the housing crisis by encouraging investment in sustainable social and affordable housing and by removing barriers such as restrictive state aid rules for services of general economic interest.

When asked if their national government considers the housing crisis a priority and is working with cities to develop suitable policies and make sufficient investments, more than half of mayors disagree.

In my efforts to increase access to affordable (and good quality) housing, I have faced significant regulatory barriers due to EU rules

My national governement considers the housing crisis a priority and is working with cities to develop suitable policies and make sufficient investments

Innovation in cities driving industrial transformation: how do mayors expect to move forward?

Reading into the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other sources, it is clear that combatting the climate crisis and moving forward on decarbonisation requires a whole of society approach. This is what inspires and drives the 112 cities working towards climate neutrality by 2030 in the context of the EU Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, using tools such as the Climate City Contract to bring together local actors to drive change. Beyond the mission, EU climate policies are increasingly incentivising and providing resources to turn societal support for the transition into reality with initiatives such as the EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan and the Net Zero Industry Act. Against this background, it is not surprising that more than two out of three mayors agree that EU climate policy positively impacts their city’s collaboration with local industry and drives innovation, helping them for example to develop new technologies and accelerate the transformation.

Historically, cities have been at the heart of past waves of industrial revolutions. With the imperative of the green transition calling again for a transformation of the economy, local innovation ecosystems and supply value chains are key to both develop new solutions as well as to scale them up in integrated value chains. While city administrations have a key role in providing an enabling framework for innovation and industry to flourish, they are sometimes underestimated as actors directly driving innovation in key sectors for the transition and in industrial value chains.

EU climate policies positively impact my city’s collaboration with local industry

My city has a stake in local utility companies that are strategic partners in driving climate neutrality at the local level

As this year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey highlights, the vast majority of mayors (eight out of 10) agree that their city has a stake in local utility companies, which are strategic partners in driving climate neutrality. As further elaborated by some mayors, this can mean holding significant power regarding public procurement, which can be used to update industrial processes with social and ecological objectives in mind. From fully controlling the local mobility company to holding a majority stake in the local energy company or a multi-utility company (often bringing together broad portfolios of companies for waste management, water, energy, urban planning, etc.) there are many ways in which mayors can use their power to directly accelerate change and support the objectives of the Green Deal Industrial Plan.

If the same rules apply to all European cities, the market will adapt much faster and drive innovation in zero-emission transport.

– Eva Oosters, Deputy Mayor of Utrecht

While innovation is dealt with in a separate section, including via a guest essay from Philipp Rode from LSE Cities, it’s clear that city governments have many means by which to innovate. One of these can be through digital transformation, which city administrations tend to focus on, ensuring inclusivity, for example through e-governance services, but also through targeted actions to bridge the digital divide. When asked if they think their city has enough tools and capacity to promote digital transformation with a focus on digital inclusion around 65% of mayors partially or strongly agree. This suggests that mayors’ perception of their capacity to drive digital transformation – albeit with a more specific focus on digital inclusion – is higher than their perception of their capacity to drive climate action.

In the last edition of the Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey, mayors confirmed digital transformation to be one of the top priorities for mayors, necessitating EU resources to achieve policy objectives. They emphasised in particular the need for capacity building in city administrations and noted that, while the vision for digital innovation is present, capacities still need development. Ahead of the upcoming European elections, Eurocities is calling for a comprehensive approach to ensure sustainable, inclusive and people-centred digitalisation. This could take the form, for instance, of introducing a comprehensive framework that guides and supports policymakers in upholding fundamental human rights in digital spaces. It would support cities in accessing the necessary tools to effectively protect citizens’ digital rights. Capacity building should extend to include government innovation, digital and data skills for all citizens, and practices for citizen participation.

My city has enough tools and capacity to promote digital transformation with a focus on digital inclusion

Local competences and finances: do mayors consider they have the capacity and capabilities to deliver on the challenges ahead?

Cities have a significant capacity to take action to tackle the major global challenges. During the Covid pandemic, the Russian war in Ukraine and the energy and cost-of-living crisis, city leaders demonstrated determination in combatting challenges locally, responding to residents’ immediate needs, and advising other government levels on the next steps. This innovation capacity in cities is essential to Europe’s resilience in times of crisis today and in the future.

Clearly, cities can play a central role in dealing with complex challenges, and the same is true for how cities collectively manage the social, green and digital transformations. For this, mayors need new resources, with often the transfer of specific competences from the national level. However, when asked if they have received such additional resources, a strong majority of mayors disagrees (57%). In some cases, as was often the case in the previously mentioned scenarios, mayors have simply had to step up to fulfil a local need that is not being catered for by central governments, regardless of current capacities.

To drive the climate and digital transformation my national government has transferred new responsibilities to my city

I have received additional resources to effectively manage these new responsibilities

My national government has imposed fiscal consolidation on lower levels of government which has adversely impacted the fiscal capacity of my city

In my city, the main barrier to hiring new staff and building competences across key policy areas is insufficient budget

However, this can lead to longer-term difficulties, given that city governments are particularly dependent on central government to secure financial resources that can drive their priorities. As the OECD’s Fiscal Decentralisation Database shows, the level of fiscal devolution is particularly low in Central Eastern European countries. Similarly, data from the OECD shows that the alignment with EU budgetary rules of many EU national governments has been achieved in parallel with diminishing public investments at the local and regional level. Against this background, we asked the 92 mayors who responded to this year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey whether their national government has imposed fiscal consolidation on lower levels of government with an adverse impact on their city’s fiscal capacity. With only 29% of respondents disagreeing with this statement, either partially or strongly, it is clear that this is a challenge for many cities.

Given this state of affairs, it is difficult to understand how local administrations can be expected to build their administrative capacity in order to deliver on new priorities. When asked to confirm whether or not the main barrier to hiring new staff and building competences across key policy areas is insufficient budget, more than 50% of mayors agreed with the statement.

Priorities for the next elections and support expected by mayors

With the 2024 European elections almost upon us, we asked our mayors their opinion on the top three priorities on the EU agenda when it comes to advancing cities’ needs. We provided them with a list of 12 urgent actions for impact that we pre-identified and validated in consultation with our network of experts from each of Eurocities’ member cities, which also formed the basis of the calls to action in the Eurocities European elections manifesto, while also leaving the possibility for mayors to highlight additional actions.

Top five priorities for next European Commission

The top priority overall, chosen by 55% of mayors, is also the only one that explicitly highlights a transfer of resources to help cities deliver on one of their priorities. Moreover, unlike housing, which is second on the list, investment into sustainable urban mobility is typically an area where the EU has supported local investment, principally through its Cohesion Policy programmes. Given EU emissions reduction targets, however, and while transport still accounts for one quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, it is no surprise that mayors urge the European Commission to provide them with additional resources to deliver concrete actions in their ongoing efforts towards decarbonisation of the transport sector.


Based on the Urban Agenda for the EU and the New Leipzig Charter on the transformative power of cities for the common good, a strategy for urban policies must outline how to work better with cities and their role and participation in shaping EU developments alongside member states and regions. In its European elections manifesto, ‘A better Europe starts in cities,’ Eurocities also makes the call for the creation of an Urban Envoy, centrally placed in the European Commission, with a mandate to oversee and coordinate all EU policies and initiatives for cities and urban areas, ensuring a positive impact and political attention on the potential and needs of cities.

Recognising capacity building at the local level as a priority for achieving EU goals comes fourth, with more than one out of three mayors selecting it as a top priority overall. As explained by mayors, city administrations lack the capacity to deliver on important priorities, most notably climate action. While the EU generally recognises local authorities as drivers of EU objectives such as the European Green Deal, it has not really recognised building local capacity as a resource intensive priority requiring a significant financial envelope.

In fifth place, 35% of mayors call for a real social climate fund to address the employment and social impacts of the climate transition. From a city point of view, the European Green Deal must be first and foremost about people – ensuring a fair transition whereby social inclusion and climate neutrality go hand in hand means taking particular consideration of the impacts of the transition on the most vulnerable. Via its Fit for 55 climate package, the European Commission has already acknowledged and shown a clear ambition to strengthen the social and distributional impacts of the European Green Deal, and this could be further boosted by a specific fund. This could include, for instance, targeted income support measures and investments in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights poverty reduction target, to which all EU member states have committed, which aims to lift 15 million Europeans out of poverty by 2030.

Other lower ranking actions include making EU budgetary rules fit for purpose by incentivising local public investments and promoting fiscal decentralisation, recognising cities’ role in the Green Deal Industrial Plan by encouraging partnerships with local industries, and supporting cities in making public spaces that are good for people and the planet.

The EU must empower us and boost our capacity to act.

– Johanna Rolland, Mayor of Nantes

Top priorities for the next European Commission

Where do EU mayors expect investments from the next EU budget?

As highlighted by mayors responding to last year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey, EU funding is an essential support for cities. In the coming five years, an unprecedented amount of EU funds will be invested in cities, and in some cases these funds will be implemented directly by cities. These funds are naturally deployed to support EU priorities and objectives, especially investment into the twin transformations. For example, the EU Recovery plan has earmarked a minimum of 37% spending on climate and biodiversity and 20% to digital measures, while for the current EU budget period, 2021-27, EU Cohesion Funds earmark a minimum of 30% for climate action and put a strong emphasis on investments in sustainable mobility and infrastructure.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that mayors from within the EU expect funding for climate change and energy transition to make the biggest difference in their ability to achieve their policy priorities.

When asked this year what they would like to see in the next EU budget, there are two noticeable differences: the added prominence of housing and the creation of quality jobs and skills. Moreover, the distribution of areas of focus for the next EU budget show a more balanced approach overall in terms of top areas to support.

Beyond expressing their opinion about areas to prioritise, in their responses many mayors highlighted the need to promote strong participation and multi-level governance in EU funding decisions, to consider new approaches to provide direct funding to cities, and expressed their worries about the ongoing centralisation trend, which has been the case in the Covid-19 recovery plan through the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Top areas where mayors would like the next EU budget to support them

Ahead of the upcoming mid-term review of the EU’s Covid-19 recovery plan, NextGenerationEU, a recently published report from Eurocities and CIDOB, ‘Urban Recovery Watch,’ says that the plan is not solid enough to drive the urban actions required for a just, green and digital transformation; and that the EU still needs to put more focus on long-term investments.

The report aims to enhance understanding of how the instrument can better harness the capacity of cities to support the recovery process. It also provides recommendations on how the instrument should evolve if it is to become a benchmark for public investment support schemes at EU level.

These are all considerations that need to be taken into account in the development of the next seven-year EU budget, which should take account of the voices and needs of cities.

2024 EU elections, what is at stake for cities?

The upcoming elections for the European Parliament to be held in June 2024 could put climate ambition and other urban priorities at stake. Challenges and priorities identified by European mayors and collected in the 2024 Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey will depend on the configuration of the new political scenario in Brussels.

By Agustí Fernández de Losada

Director, Global Cities Programme,
Barcelona Centre for International Affairs

The appointment of the new EU institutions, mainly the new European Commission, will be crucial to understand the way Europe will address key files in the years to come. Negotiations to define the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the future of the European Green Deal and the EU Cohesion Policy, or the way the EU will tackle migration, the digital transition, and the Russian war in Ukraine will shape without any reasonable doubt urban realities.

Climate action is by far the top priority for European Mayors. In recent years, European cities have shown a clear commitment to achieve climate neutrality. Mayors have led their communities, including citizens and businesses, to implement ambitious initiatives to reduce emissions, decarbonise buildings, improve the environment and promote the circular economy. They have combined efforts in key areas under municipal competences such as mobility, public space, and economic development to deliver tangible results aligning with European and global commitments. However, a hypothetical step back in the European Green Deal and EU climate regulations, as is proposed by several political forces across the continent, could undermine the efforts made so far.

The future of the Cohesion Policy and the reconfiguration of the recovery strategies will be central to the negotiations of the new MFF and another major concern for cities. As stated in the Urban Recovery Watch, a joint piece of research by CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs) and Eurocities, the recovery process has led to a certain recentralisation of investments and reforms. As some experts are already arguing, this could consolidate a concerning trend that could undermine the capacity of local governments to take an active role in the definition of the investments behind the EU’s Structural Funds. Aligning EU financial instruments with the effective needs and interests of communities is key for mayors to address the challenges that cities are currently facing.

Indeed, the new budget, as well as the EU’s regulatory capacity, will be decisive for cities to address some of the main challenges and priorities highlighted by mayors in the Eurocities Pulse. Providing local responses to tackle housing, the digital transition, migration, or the urban-rural divide, to put some critical examples, requires an enabling regulatory framework that depends heavily on Brussels. Yet, if the recentralisation trends observed in the recovery years are confirmed, mainstreaming urban interests within the EU policy-making process will prove to be even more challenging than is the case today.

All this plays out against a background profoundly shaped by the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the growing commitment among EU members to reinforce their defence capacities through a joint EU action. This will certainly condition future policy and budgetary developments after the EU Parliament election and could undermine the partnership that the EU has been forging with cities over successive years to address common interests and priorities. Moreover, the current geopolitical tensions have gained centrality in urban concerns ¬– issues from inflation, to the energy crisis or the reception of refugees all have a relevant urban dimension. And the growing centrality of defence in the European mindset will contribute to the above-mentioned recentralisation patterns.

Setbacks in policy areas such as climate change, the temptation to recentralise powers and budgets, together with the new centrality that defence and security are gaining in the European context could put urban priorities at stake. The urban and cohesion agendas are losing weight in the European political debate and risk to be sent to the outskirts of the European project if certain political configurations are endorsed by European voters this June. The current scenario should mobilise mayors and the municipal movement, with an otherwise complex scenario on the horizon for cities. New alliances should be formed to preserve the ambition, commitment, and resolution showed by mayors to address urban priorities and the European project. Lessons learnt by cities in Europe that have already suffered backlashes in the past years might provide inspiration and a path to follow. That’s why understanding the views of the more than 90 mayors who responded to this year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey should be top of the agenda for researchers and urban practitioners as they anticipate what is at stake for cities this year.

By Agustí Fernández de Losada

Director, Global Cities Programme,
Barcelona Centre for International Affairs