Why EU cities and regions must be international

Categorized as News from IURC

“We are major advocates of the need for a territorial justice and for territorial development and we have been now 30 years in this business.”

This passion for justice, according to Ronald Hall, Senior adviser to the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy, made the International Urban and Regional Cooperation programme a natural step for DG REGIO. Watch or read the full interview with Mr Hall.


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Ronald Hall: Hello everyone and to all the people who are fans of the International Urban and Regional Cooperation Programme. My name is Ronnie Hall. I am recently retired from the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission. And I have had an involvement from the beginning in this Directorate General’s activities in international cooperation involving directly the representatives of the cities and the regions.

Anthony Colclough: Brilliant and thank you so much for coming to speak with us today and shed some light on this programme. So maybe you can tell us then, what are the origins of this programme in your directorate and what is DG REGIO trying to achieve through it?

RH: Well, there is an expression that some people achieve greatness, while others have greatness thrust upon them, and to some extent I would say that DG REGIO had greatness thrust upon us, because we found, this is going back 20 years, that many major countries from outside the European Union, I’m talking about China, Brazil, Russia, when they negotiated policy dialogues with the European Union, one of the sectors that they included in their shortlist of topics for this discourse was, well, it was described variously, such as regional policy, policy to reduce territorial disparities, policies to improve sustainable urban development. So we actually found that from the outside there was this desire on the part of countries outside the EU to have a discourse with the European Union on the these policy fields.

I think it’s something to do with the reputation of EU regional and urban policy, acquired  particularly since reforms introduced in 1989 onwards. And many countries from outside the EU were very interested in the methodology for these policies to reduce territorial disparities. This led in 2006 to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with China between the Commissioner for Regional Policy in the European Commission and the Minister for Regional Development in China. And after that there were another. So it has kind of ballooned since then. What is REGIO trying to achieve through this? Well, I mean we are major advocates of the need for a territorial justice and for territorial development and we have been now 30 years in this business. And of course we think that we have, on the one hand, a lot of ideas to share. We have a lot of good and bad practises to share with other countries across the world, and of course through international cooperation we have a wonderful opportunity to learn about approaches being adopted in other parts of the world.

AC: Fantastic, very clear. So that’s something that was, something that we were doing well. Other countries saw it and they really wanted in on the action. And the feeling is that we can learn from them as well as vice versa.

RH: Absolutely.

AC: Brilliant. And you’ve been in this a long before this programme was set up. What what’s your personal role at present? How are you involved in the international cooperation?

RH: Well, as you say, I was a founder member of International Cooperation within the Directorate General for Regional Policy. I suppose we can trace it back to the 2006 Memorandum of Understanding that we signed with China and then, as the years progressed, we found that we had a lot of support from the European Parliament, who, with the flexibility they have under the EU budgetary system, granted water called pilot projects and preparatory actions with a small amount of financing to help us develop these activities. But the real moment came when, in 2016, the decision was taken to create the International Urban Cooperation Programme which has now become the International Urban and Regional Cooperation Programme,  which essentially marked the moment when this area of activity became fully integrated into the external priorities of the European Union.

My role in this activity is to assist the colleagues in DG Regio, because many people know it’s an extremely small team, so I have taken on the role of what is called in Commission speak, ‘active senior’, which means that I can support the colleagues in developing work. For example, at the end of 2020, I helped to develop a detailed study on the prospects for regional innovation exchanges between the EU and China in the current period. I’ve also represented the programmes in conferences and meetings with representatives of both cities and regions of the EU on the one hand, and their counterparts on the other.

AC: Super. And I know from my experiences with China that having some having a longstanding contact is something really important for some international collaboration as well.

RH: Yes. The continuity is important. And where there is not continuity, be it on our side in the European Union, or be it on the side of the country outside the EU with which we are cooperating, we find that where there are frequent changes of personnel, the cooperation is definitely a bigger challenge.

AC: So as the creator of this International Urban and Regional Cooperation Programme, how do you see its role among the myriad of different international activities of the EU?

RH: Well, the one thing that I would say about regional policy and urban policy, compared to many other sectors, is that it ticks all the boxes with regard to what the European Union is trying to achieve in its relationship with countries outside the EU. In other words, in its diplomatic activities. For example, if you take the three broad priorities of External Action Policy: The first is to understand EU policy priorities and programmes. And definitely having an understanding across the world about EU regional policy and its principles of territorial justice, participation by the actors on the ground, a focus on promoting growth and employment. This is an extremely useful area that ticks the boxes with regard to the EU’s priorities and its values. It also ticks the box of promoting people to people relationships, which again is a priority of external relations. For example, you see that in the in the International Urban Cooperation Programme, ‘International Urban and Regional Cooperation Programme’ now, in the very close relationship that we are establishing between universities and between business actors as well as between public authorities. And thirdly, regional policy makes a contribution to the priority of the European Union, which is to promote trade. And under International Urban Corporation, and now under IURC, we insist that there is a business aspect, a business development aspect, and that business representatives are involved in the activities in order to promote cooperation, collaboration, to exchange ideas, perhaps undertake joint research or finance the development of new products, for example, such as vehicle battery technology, which is a particular example under the previous actions. So that is for me the value of having regional policy in external relations. It ticks the boxes on the key priorities of the European Union.

AC: Right, it seems like it’s a knot that’s tying a lot of different things together in one bundle.

RH: Yes, that’s it. It’s something to do with the sort of comprehensive nature of regional policy. Because it’s different from the other policies, such as transport, environment, research and development, in the sense that it is that the delivery system for these policies. So you have this integrated overview, which is extremely useful, I think, when it comes to international diplomacy.

AC: Brilliant. Now some people might take the opposite view. They say, they look around at the global pandemic at the moment, and they say, ‘Well look, here’s the consequence of globalisation: we’re all locked in our homes.’ How is the IURC going to show that this international connectedness has got added value even in moments like this?

RH: I would say that the value of IURC was demonstrated most clearly after we were hit by the pandemic. It was almost immediately from the beginning of 2020, say from February/March onwards, when we began to organise our video conferences, which met with a lot of determination and a lot of enthusiasm on all sides. Even though this new world of looking at each other through screens was not by any means easy at the beginning.  But what happened was that the participants on both sides, EU and outside EU began immediately to see how the programme could be used to address the new challenges brought about by the pandemic. Essentially, we had a discussion which you could divide into two areas. One is: How can we actually promote actions to improve the quality of life of our citizens in the context of the pandemic and lockdowns and so on?

And secondly, how can we preserve the gains which are being brought about by the pandemic, such as, for example, the new concern with sustainable development in the urban setting. You know, the pop up cycle lanes, the concern with nature and protecting the cultural heritage. How to redesign residential buildings so that they are more comfortable for people who have to work at home, and so on and so forth. So we had this two pronged attack. On the one hand, what new actions do we need to promote? And secondly, how can we promote the spin offs from the pandemic in terms of what it has done to the environment?

AC: Got you. Absolutely. So, which is also a global issue that requires a global solution. This… Just following on from that. I mean you gave a few nice concrete examples of things that cities have been assisting each other with just there across the globe. But we know that in these European projects can often seem a little bit abstract and sometimes results are intangible, which in itself is not a bad thing, but it would be great if you could share a concrete outcome of the programme that for you really shows in vivid terms what it is that we’re trying to achieve.

RH: It would be, I think, slightly unfair to select one concrete outcome because to be honest there have been so many good outcomes from the programme. I mentioned the collaboration on battery technology, for example between the EU and China. We’ve also had exchanges of personnel between the EU and non EU countries. We have helped other countries in the design of regional development and urban development strategies. We have brought the universities together in many cases for joint collaboration. We have seen regions and cities open officers mutually. Inside the EU, on the part of cities and regions from outside the EU, and vice versa. So we have had many concrete outcomes from the programme. As you know, it is still a comparatively new programme and we are producing and putting online these many particular projects that have been achieved over the last few years.

AC: Brilliant. Well indeed, for a young programme that sounds like no shortage of achievements. You’ve been, as we said, with the programme from before its inception. Looking back over the years so far, and as we move into this new phase of the programme, can you share a memory, something that sticks out for you when you think about your personal engagement?

RH: Well, one of the things of genuine surprise to me was the sheer enthusiasm that I encountered when I travelled with the programme, or indeed with its with the actions before the programme that were financed, as I mentioned by the support of the European Parliament, the enthusiasm shown by people in the regions, in the cities, to work together with their counterparts inside the European Union, there has been an incredible level of interest. And that certainly was a very pleasant surprise for all of us who have been engaged in the programme. But more recently, it relates to something that I have already said, the particular way in which the cities under IUC, during 2020, engaged on a actions to help cope with the pandemic, that was really quite amazing. We organised a large number of video conferences between the cities on both sides and even of course with the regions. Because IUC, as you know, also covered the relationship with Latin America in regional innovation systems.

And they began to work concretely on ways to improve the quality of life of citizens. The idea of promoting social justice, which perhaps has not been so much emphasised in policy for recent decades, but is now rapidly changing thanks to the pandemic. It was fascinating to see how the cities immediately changed gear and started to address the pandemic, sometimes in very concrete forms, such as the way that Chinese cities sent PPE equipment to their counterpart city in the IUC programme with which they were in direct cooperation. So that was a very interesting memory.

I’m very interested in this personally, to be honest because I’ve been reading up on the 1918 pandemic. And one of the questions that is of interest to the 2020-21 pandemic is: Will we just go back to normal when the pandemic is over? Or will there be genuine change? In other words, will the good things that have emerged from the pandemic persist? Or will they just wither away and we all go back and behave exactly as we did beforehand? And in the case of the 1918 pandemic, generally speaking, I think a lot of people unfortunately would say that after a few years we more or less went back to where we were before. The only change that I think that people point to is that we did at that time have a greater emphasis on social justice. And it did give rise to, but it took some time, changes in the social security system to increase the level of social protection provided by public authorities, which of course was no small deal over 100 years ago. So I think we need to be vigilant,  and we need to use IURC as a small contribution to make sure that we do not forget and that we try to integrate the change in our attitudes to sustainable development and to social justice that have been in a sense forced upon us in the last 12 months or so.

AC: Brilliant, so here’s to lasting change through international action. Ronald Hall, godfather of the International Urban and Regional Cooperation programme, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today.

RH: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.