Connecting UK-EU Cities & Regions
Since Brexit, many UK cities, regions and nations have explored strengthening their ties and connectivity with counterparts in Europe, despite disengagement at the central level. Cities like Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Cornwall have set up offices in Brussels, as have three constituent nations, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Our research on this theme involved exploring the extent of city and regional-level powers to act independently, aspects of decentralisation and federalism, the role of mayors and councils, the expansion of twinning programmes, cultural collaboration and educational exchanges. We engaged with UK and European regional government representatives, city councillors, mayors, EU committee of the Regions, Eurocities, Council of Europe, pan-European cultural organisations, British Council and politicians and activists.
In a series of dialogues, we are exploring efforts to fill gaps left by the UK’s departure from these EU funding programmes:
- NextGenerationEU aimed at speeding up the EU’s collective recovery from COVID
- Regional Development & Cohesion Funding such as European Territorial Cooperation / Interreg; Structural & Investment Funds; European Social Fund, European Solidarity Fund.
- Agricultural & Rural Development support.
- Erasmus, Creative Europe
We are also discussing how to maximise participation in 5 EU programmes the UK chose to participate in as a third country, subject to its financial contribution.
- Horizon Europe (research and innovation)
- Euratom Research and Training programme
- ITER (fusion test facility)
- Copernicus (Earth monitoring system)
- Access to EU satellite surveillance & tracking (SST) services
- What common challenges must UK regions and cities still face together with other Europeans?
- Which mechanisms and projects can UK actors still be part of? What new initiatives are needed?
- Can UK cities and regions create a different relationship with Europe than the UK Government’s separation approach?
- Are forging closer relations at the local level a matter of will, resources, legality and powers, or popular support?
- Will the UK Government create alternative cooperation channels to replace lost EU funds & programmes?
- What improvements can be lobbied for in the UK-EU TCA deal?
- What are future prospects for a sense of European commonality?
- How will Brexit affect UK cohesion?
- There is broad appetite & political will to stay connected among many UK and European local officials and communities
- Cities & regions can adopt a more open strategy than central govt with creativity, resourcefulness & vision
- They must work twice as hard to do this without EU tools, programmes and arrangements
- We should generate links and information-share between UK & European cities at governance and sectoral levels
- Connectivity can also be explored from the bottom-up through grassroots groups and activism
- COVID has shown the need to empower cities and regions in implementing local plans and bringing governance closer to citizens
- Key UK-EU avenues and networks still exist to be utilised and expanded
- Expand participation in Eurocities and other similar networks to bring in other UK cities
- Explore more regional-level cooperation bilaterally and through EU Committee of the Regions, Assembly of European Regions, CPMR and other networks
- Maximise UK participation in Horizon Europe and its five mission areas
- Advocate rejoining Erasmus and/or seek replacements including bilateral initiatives such as a UK-German Youth Council
- Repurpose existing models and mechanisms in light of new realities
- Strengthen and revitalise twinning and share best practise across UK towns
- Visibly demonstrate the value of links to build public understanding & support
- Rebuild a sense of belonging – UK remains part of the European cultural space
- Engage cultural & philanthropic foundations to retain ties & people to people contacts
- Networking is important not only between city to city, but urban to rural.
- Keeping channels open may be just as important WITHIN UK, as BETWEEN UK and rest of Europe
CITY TO CITY
In our discussions, many agreed that UK-Europe connections would endure but needed extra support. Despite Brexit, 17 UK cities remain key members of the EuroCities network of 190 cities from 39 countries – more UK cities could join.
“No separation agreement can delete centuries of historic relations between cities & people’s relations. Let’s remember that in history, states and borders might change, but cities can stay connected.”
Horizon Europe was cited as “perfectly suited” to foster relations between cities and enable the exchange of best practice and peer-to-peer learning. In areas such as education, to fill the gap created by the UK exodus from the Erasmus programme, we should “rethink a new model for students’ mobility and research exchange.”
AN ENHANCED ROLE FOR CITIES
With the pro-Brexit campaign slogan ‘Take Back Control’ striking a nerve among disillusioned voters, we asked how local entities could better connect to citizens, give them a greater say in local affairs and increase trust in democracy.
“Eurocities will work with others including EU to ensure that national recovery plans across Europe have a strong urban dimension and that the role of cities as partners in reform and investment is acknowledged.”
“More needs to be done by national governments everywhere to involve cities in recovery, so that the vital mobility, business renovation, digital innovation and cohesion projects can have a systemic impact and contribute to the digital and green priorities of the recovery.”
It was agreed there had been some economic benefits from Brexit for cities such as Amsterdam, which was now home to the European Medicines Agency, and whose stock market had recently eclipsed the City of London in respect to share-trading (though not in other financial services).
But overall, most Brexit effects on the rest of Europe were negative and the UK departure still mystified Europeans.
“Brexit has really perplexed people across Europe – you can only understand this from a political rationale, because from an economic or any other perspective, it makes no sense. It’s a lose-lose situation. We’re losing connections between communities, peoples, cities and regions. We’re losing part of the European family. We think UK should have stayed. It’s always sad to see somebody go and connections being lost.”
NATIONS & REGIONS
Many networks, channels and activities have been proposed that could connect the UK and Europe at the national and regional levels and help fill the vacuum caused by Brexit.
“Though a lot of today’s problems are global, all politics is local so bottom-up approaches provide some of the most valuable solutions.”
“Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved Governments and Assemblies that can work unilaterally with the EU, as well as through the UK. We can therefore seek extra ways to mitigate Brexit effects on our trade, and facilitate better exchanges of ideas, knowledge and policy solutions. In devolved policy areas, we can even stay aligned with the EU and have more constructive engagement.”
The EU Committee of the Regions was praised for its role in lobbying European institutions and influencing Brexit negotiations by sharing information about real impacts on the ground. Their EU-UK Contact group allows representatives of different UK municipalities, regions and nations to stay in contact with EU and facilitates connections with other European counterparts.
German representatives extolled the virtues of town twinning, with 58 German towns and cities already twinned with UK localities, and efforts to foster more links with regions like North Rhein Westphalia. Regional co-operation was praised in areas like climate change, new transport solutions and hydrogen power.
Efforts are also being made to set up a UK-German Youth Office, replicating the successful Franco-German Youth Office which has facilitated exchanges for over nine million young people over the decades.
A key cooperation model which is ripe for revitalisation in the post-Brexit world is the concept of twinning, also known as sister cities or strategic partnerships. Many city officials and Mayors agree that twinning is a good foundation for building a broader open strategy and creating economic opportunities in a particular area.
“Twinning was a visionary idea to reconnect people, communities and countries after the horrors of World War Two. Wonderful organisations like the British Council helped put cities in touch with each other. Bristol was twinned with Hanover and Bordeaux, and Bath with Braunschweig in Germany and Aix-en-Provence in France. And like all good relationships, they’ve stayed together in spite of various ups and downs along the way. We can continue to stay together – if we seize the moment.
The great thing about twinning is that it encompasses all areas of our communities. We have musical and choir exchanges, joint sports events, sharing of expertise on sustainable transport solutions. We also have very high-level Mayoral participation in international conferences. Twinning provides opportunities to learn from each other on so much.
Twinning definitely needs the support of local authorities, whether it’s a city or parish council. One of the great benefits of twinning are the grassroots community contacts. We have an infrastructure that we’ve been developing for 70 years. We’ve got to use it.”
YOUTH & ERASMUS
Many people lament the loss of the Erasmus Plus programme for young people and advocate rejoining it. There have been widespread calls for more exchanges and interaction across ALL ages and sectors in Britain not only youth, since large parts of the British population need more understanding and engagement with the continent to which they belong.
In discussions, the UK Government’s Turing scheme was welcomed but highlighted as inadequate since it was one way and did not include youth work. It also did not propose a replacement to the Erasmus’ E-twinning programme, which provides a platform to facilitate collaboration on educational projects across Europe. It was also noted that British school education on European culture and languages had deteriorated in recent years – leaving Erasmus could hasten this decline.
“I do hope that we can inspire young people to stay connected and learn from each other, because they are the ones with the passion to campaign, make things work and crash through the barriers, whether formal or informal.
And that’s our message of hope: young people in Europe don’t want to go back to the past with problems and walls between communities and countries. They want to go forward together and live in a strong, peaceful and prosperous Europe.”
Pan European cultural organisations have a special role to play in promoting people-to-people connections.
“We need to create a sense of Europeanness and belonging to a European cultural space, where people feel part of something larger and can promote peace and welfare together.”
“Brexit is a symptom of a Europe-wide phenomenon so we have to work on rebuilding a sense of common identity that also allows for diversity, across the whole of Europe. This can be about a sense of community on a very local scale, or the promotion of healthy dialogue to ensure people with different views can still have a decent conversation. We see it as a general trend that we have to invest in, otherwise there is a danger of Europe falling apart on many levels and localities.”
“Ongoing investment in UK-Europe relationships is needed more than ever by important actors like the British Council as well as philanthropic and other cultural institutions.”
In discussions with politicians from all parties, we explored how to paint a new vision for UK-EU relations that builds public appreciation of Britain’s place in Europe and fosters deeper mutual understanding.
“We have a lot of national voices in politics and media who want to portray UK-EU relations as a competition or zero-sum game – we need to get alternative perspectives out there too, that show there is mutual gain to cooperation on shared challenges.”
Many more Britons now identified with Europe more consciously than before, while others remained ambivalent or hostile. The key would be in finding routes to keep connections alive and promoting successful cooperation which shows Europe is a bastion of good practise. Allowing criticisms and admitting limitations would need to be part of the conversation.
“Opposition parties need to frame a narrative of cooperation and improvements to the UK-EU deal. We need to continue to engage with European cities in problem-solving at the local level. And for many geopolitical reasons, such as combating disinformation, the rise of China, clean finance and business ethics, as well as climate change.”
“What strikes me is the amount of networking that’s needed to rebuild ties between urban and rural populations, between cities and the rest of the polity. What’s bubbling up now in the United States on the left and right is the question of whether red and blue America can continue to live with each other. And what does that mean for isolated cities – those islands of blue surrounded by very right-wing America. If you’re an urban dweller, you are largely not considered a real American by a large chunk of the population.
The failure to connect our local populations could ultimately destroy the United States and there may be a similar challenge in the UK. So an initiative that brings together local councillors from both city and rural areas who face the same challenges, could help bridge the urban-rural divide.”
None of us can face future challenges alone. We need all these networks and projects in parallel so that together, we can amplify the power of cities and regions to bind Europe together, and not let the UK go.