'It's our duty to turn the migration challenge into an opportunity'
By Eric Maurice
The refugee crisis that took Europe by surprise last year has posed many challenges for the EU's asylum system, border management and decision-making.
But it is cities that have borne the brunt of the arrival of more than 1 million people in a single year.
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Roughly 70 percent of the European population and 75 percent of the continent's jobs are concentrated in cities. Many of the problems governments have to address – from affordable housing and air quality to energy efficiency and poverty – are also concentrated in cities.
To this list of challenges has been added the short-term welcoming and long-term integration of a massive number of refugees. They have all been included in an Urban Agenda that the European Commission and member states presented recently.
Refugee crisis is testing ideas
"Member states and cities came to realise that with all these challenges nobody can go alone. With this pact we can start working with a consolidated agenda for years to come," EU regional policy commissioner Corina Cretu said in an interview with EUobserver.
The idea for an Urban Agenda was launched by the commission in 2014 to increase cooperation between the EU, member states and regional and local authorities. Almost two years later, the refugee crisis is testing the idea.
"It's our duty to do everything we can to turn the migration challenge into an opportunity," Corina Cretu said.
While the EU was addressing short term needs like accommodation, mobile hospitals, sanitation or water supply, she said "we all know that most effective solutions will be long term".
"We cannot avoid the fact that around 1 million people is already on the EU territory and that most of them are here to stay," she said.
EU regional and social funds have been used for many years to run development projects and community initiatives. But these programmes were designed before the migration crisis, the commissioner noted.
More flexibility required
Addressing new challenges will require more flexibility in the way the EU, member states and regional and local authorities are used to manage EU-funded projects.
Money from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) was used to finance hotspots and mobile hospitals in Italy and Greece. Social funds were used to train refugees, mainly with language lessons.
For this year, with the risk that more migrants come to Italy after the closure of the Balkan route, plans have been made to establish a working group between the commission's directorate general for migration and home affairs and the Italian interior minister to see how funds can be used to help cities.
"It is important for member states and regions to know how to exploit all possibilities of EU funds," Cretu said. "We have to find the balance between the necessity of stable investment and adapting ourselves to the challenges."
In April, the commissioner, along with her migration colleague Dimitris Avramopoulos hosted a meeting with representatives from EU cities on coping with the crisis. At the meeting, she stressed that cities directly managed €15 billion as part of the EU’s 2014-2020 cohesion funds.
"It's a sign of trust but at the same time a great responsibility," she told EUobserver. European cities are encouraged to exchange their experiences and offer to help the most affected cities. "We ask member states to come up with ideas" for projects and initiatives, Cretu said.
Amsterdam took the lead
As part of the Urban Agenda, Amsterdam accepted the lead on migration. It is one of the urban areas, with Berlin and Stockholm, where projects have been run for years and could be used as model.
In Sweden, the country which has received the most refugees as a proportion of its population, the capital Stockholm has developed what the commissioner called a "nice project" with ERDF and social funds.
Refugees have been given housing as well as language courses and job training. Children have been able to go to school for the first time, Cretu noted.
In Berlin, another project was launched several years ago with EU funds, where German mothers help Turkish mothers when they have to deal with administration.
Corina Cretu noted that the atmosphere in the EU since the start of the crisis had not been good, with difficult discussions about how to share the burden across the EU.
But "no matter how hard discussions are between EU leaders, at the end of the day it is up to local administration to find very quick solutions," she noted.
She said that Barcelona had offered to take more than 100 refugee from German cities, but the Spanish national government did not approve. She also noted that large cities were not the only ones confronted with the need to find solutions.
"I admire mayors of small cities," she said, mentioning the example of a 6,000-inhabitant town in Slovenia that had dealt with more than 10,000 migrants a day at the height of the crisis.
Linked with the migration issue, other areas covered by the Urban Agenda are social housing and the fight against poverty.
"It is important to avoid ghettos and segregation. Social inclusion is not only for migrants, but it is now the most important issue," Cretu said. "We want to tackle areas where there is a structural concentration of poverty."
France and Belgium are the pilot countries in this domain. One of the areas where the agenda is being tried out is the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, which has become infamous in recent months for being the home town of some of the terrorists from the Paris and Brussels attacks.
The commission will also present in June its Integration Agenda, which will complete what is in the Urban Agenda.
A version of this story also appears in EUobserver's new print magazine, entitled Business in Europe, due out this week. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine.