Hilde Hardeman & Lotte Knudsen reflect on the value of the IUC programme


New York and Barcelona, Sevilla and Vitória, Frankfurt and Yokohama – these pairs of cities are just three examples out of more than 130 working together under the European Union’s International Urban Cooperation programme. As cities across the globe face rising challenges of migration, social inclusion, quality of life, climate change, and globalisation, the EU supports cooperation, the sharing of experiences, and the exchange of knowledge. Through the International Urban Cooperation programme, the EU promotes sustainable urban development, supports the fight against climate change, and, in Latin America specifically, develops partnerships for regional economic innovation.

The International Urban Cooperation programme is comprised of three components: city-to-city cooperation for sustainable urban development, the creation of a Global Covenant of Mayors against climate change, and region-to-region cooperation with Latin American countries on regional innovation systems.

The need for action is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. The SDGs identify the different priority fields for action, address the diversity of needs and circumstances arising across the globe and establish an implementation road map for the period leading up to 2030. One of the SDGs focuses on the role of cities in fostering sustainable development: SDG 11, which aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. All 193 countries, including the EU and its Member States, have signed up to achieving the SDGs, a determination reflected decisively in the Council conclusions of June 2017. While the UN has developed the so-called New Urban Agenda to give concrete effect to key SDGs in the cities, the EU has put in place its own Urban Agenda, having at its core the delivery of the UN-priorities for urban development on EU territory.

The role of cities in promoting sustainable development is increasingly recognised in international fora such as the UN High Level Political Forum or the UN Environment Assembly, whose 4th session ran in parallel to a cities summit. On 27-31 May 2019 the first UN Habitat Assembly will take place in Nairobi and will discuss “Innovation for Better Quality of Life in Cities and Communities” and ways to accelerate the implementation of the New Urban Agenda towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs and the 2030 Agenda are enshrined in the EU’s foreign and security policy, both in its bilateral and multi-lateral relations across the globe. In line with the approach advocated by the UN, we in the EU have recognised that shaping a response to the challenge of sustainable development means pursuing multi-layered solutions. This includes the participation of all stakeholders, from the global to the regional to the local level, from the public and the private sectors. We are convinced of the need for supporting momentum from the grassroots.

While governments and international institutions are undoubted key players in foreign policy, the International Urban Cooperation programme rather seeks to bring on board those whose lives are directly affected by pollution and climate volatility in a politically neutral and innovative spirit. It is the ownership on the ground on the part of regional and local authorities, the private sector, the research community and civil society that holds the key to the understanding of the realities and the formulation of effective responses. In short, we are promoting decentralised cooperation as an equally powerful force, alongside political leadership from the highest levels.

The International Urban Cooperation programme has also allowed EU regions to pair with regions in Latin America and the Caribbean enabling cooperation on the design and implementation of a regional innovation strategy. Building on the method applied under the city pairings, the aim is to build resilience through more innovative capacity in sub-national, regional economies. Such cooperation will also help to promote new business opportunities on both sides. Moreover, the experience of the 20 regional pairings established so far suggests that this is an area of cooperation with the potential to further extend the geographical scope of future EU policy for international decentralised cooperation. 

Two years into the programme, experience suggests that cooperation between cities and regions globally is a success. It is here that words become action. This is thanks, first and foremost, to the multitude of sub-national actors engaging in the programme, whether regional governments, large cities, small municipalities or local leaders. We wish you and the IUC programme success over the coming period. Thanks to you, the connection between the global and the local level is now a reality more than ever, helping us to mobilise local institutions for the sustainable development agenda and to improve the quality of life of all our citizens.

Today, cities and regions are laboratories where many innovative solutions are emerging to address some of the biggest challenges our societies face: economic development, social cohesion, climate change. The European Union is proud to support exchanges on sustainable urbanisation and regional innovation that will benefit both EU and non-EU citizens alike. After all, the challenges are often similar, whether you are in New York, Barcelona, Frankfurt or Yokohama.

- Hilde Hardeman, Head of the European Commission's Service for Foreign Policy Instruments

- Lotte Knudsen, Managing Director for Human Rights, Global and Multilateral Issues in the European External Action Service