City diplomacy in action

28 September 2022

Where national governments seem to be failing to meet people’s expectations, leading to a tide of anti-democratic sentiment, and a distrust of government, cities should be well placed to demonstrate a layer of transparency and ability to get things done – so contend mayors from across Europe.

The war in Ukraine, and the impact of the energy crisis, which will both heavily impact European cities throughout the coming months, were the subject of consecutive debates in the city of Prague this week, which took the opportunity of the Czech EU Presidency to invite mayors from other capital and big cities.

Pact of Free Cities

Since its launch in Budapest in 2019 by mayors Gergely Karácsony (Budapest), Matúš Vallo (Bratislava), Rafal Trzaskowski (Warsaw) and Zdeněk Hřib (Prague), the Pact of Free Cities has advocated for directly accessible EU-funding for cities and reached out to other like-minded mayors and cities to enhance cooperation, with the support of networks like Eurocities.

At its annual meeting this Monday in Prague, the focus was on rebuilding Ukrainian cities. As pointed out by Zdeněk  Hřib, Mayor of Prague, “this is particularly important for the cities that now host Ukrainian refugees because there needs to be hope for those people that they will be able to return to their homes.”

He pointed out that there are two levels of this, “the first is immediate help. For example, we have donated 20 trams to the city of Kharkiv,” which uses very similar trams to those in Prague, meaning that maintenance is straightforward.

“At the same time,” continued the Mayor, “there needs to be a planning for the post war reconstruction process, which the cities must be involved in – both Ukrainian and other European cities because we hold the necessary know how to get things done.”

Of course, as the Mayor made clear, while the Pact of Free Cities is a values-based pact, the idea is to coordinate with Eurocities and other more practical initiatives, such as the European Alliance for Cities and Regions.

Indeed, Eurocities has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ukrainian authorities, following a mission to the country by a delegation of mayors, to ensure continued mayor-to-mayor dialogue. Meanwhile, the network plans a pilot project to support peer-learning and capacity building towards a sustainable rebuilding of Ukrainian cities.

Cities from Riga to Barcelona immediately opened their doors to welcome Ukrainian refugees in recent months, and many are now ready to take the next steps.

“Tirana is a sister city with Kharkiv, and we feel very close, because we’ve had a small Ukrainian diaspora since the days of the Ottoman empire,” explained Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana. Veliaj was one of the mayors taking part in the aforementioned Eurocities mission to Ukraine.

“We’re also the co-authors of every resolution on Ukraine, together with the United States, in the UN Security Council…And we’ve experienced our own reconstruction after communism and two severe earthquakes, using the crises as an opportunity to build a better and more aesthetically appealing city,” which is something that the city could bring to the rebuilding missions in Ukraine.

If mayors ruled the world

As explained by André Sobczak, Secretary General at Eurocities, “on a daily basis mayors act on the ground, they see the problems and challenges…. And mayors see cities as the place where we can innovate and make new solutions for people to live better lives.”

The mayors were joined by Vitali Klitschko, Mayor of Kyiv, who thanked his colleagues for their actions to date and noted their ongoing efforts to support Ukraine and Ukrainians.

One example of this comes from the fact that there are perhaps some 2.25 million Ukrainian children currently in European cities, which has meant cities have adapted to consider not only how to best welcome these children but to plan for and deliver their continued education.

Berlin, as shared by Mayor Franziska Giffey, which saw 300,000 refugees pass through its territory in recent months, and remains home to around one third of these, is currently offering an extra 6,000 places for Ukrainian children in its schools.

Similarly, Barcelona, in the West of Europe, assisted over 12,500 Ukrainian citizens from March to July, of which 1,740 ended up registering as a resident and 584 children started their school year in the city.

With energy prices rising and inflation provoking a cost-of-living crisis this winter, Klitschko admitted that he feared the response to Ukraine will simply fall off the list of European and global political priorities.

Nonetheless, he urged colleagues to stay the course, saying that the illegal Russian actions must not be allowed to usurp the ability of Western leaders to act in the way they see fit – sometimes “we pay a price for our independence,” he said, and that is the difficult political message that may need to be shared with people this winter.

The bleak mid-winter

While the current myriad of situations is challenging, there is no doubt that the continued leadership of city mayors is much needed for Europe to reach its goal of climate neutrality. This was the topic of discussion on Tuesday at the 11th annual meeting between European capital cities and the European Commission.

The point made by many speakers and put succinctly by Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw, is that “cities are at the forefront of change and are battling with every challenge that is before the European Union. The refugee crisis, the war, the rising energy prices, the greening of our economy and that’s why we need our voice to be heard in Europe, and why we need direct support from the European institutions.”

The mayors were joined by Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who is responsible for the European Green Deal. This includes oversight of the Mission for 100 Climate Neutral Cities, which he described as presenting a “foot in the door” for these city leader ambitions to position cities even more centrally in the EU, and as essential to achieve the transformation for a more sustainable and equitable society.

This is also an ambition of Eurocities’ Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, which aims to boost the role of cities in the EU and the visibility of the initiatives that deliver the Green Deal locally.

The city leaders presented a declaration to Vice President Timmermans, which outlines three key priorities that European cities have now:

  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Building energy self-sufficiency
  • Preventing the rise of energy poverty and other social effects of this crisis.

By 2050 “Europe’s urban areas will host over 80% of the population,” reads the declaration, and, with that in mind, European cities are standing united and will continue to inspire each other. For example, to reduce energy consumption ahead of this winter:

  • Barcelona has just announced an energy saving plan for public transport, which aims for a 15% reduction of annual energy consumption, and reducing 122,000 tons of carbon emissions;
  • Mannheim is working to achieve a 20% energy saving by reducing the temperature of indoor swimming pools to 26°C, and minimising the difference to the ambient room temperature;
  • Lyon is reducing the speed limit to 30km/h across 84% of the municipal road network; and
  • Amsterdam has implemented a gas reduction campaign, aiming to reduce gas usage by 15% before winter.

And many more cities are taking similar measures.

Words matter

Timmermans acknowledged the role of cities but noted that the tension between supply and demand on energy may be even bigger by next winter, and the solutions must take a long term outlook. This includes massifying many of the types of actions already being carried out by cities, especially empowering citizens to believe in the long term ambitions of the European Green Deal.

As noted by Mayor Hřib of Prague, cities have a great potential in decentralised energy production, such as through solar panels, and in the development of local renewable energy communities, and district heating services.

However, as was brought up several times by different speakers, managing these commitments while keeping people on board means a big effort on the part of political leaders to find the right narrative. This winter might see mayors making choices such as reducing public lighting, with also implications for public safety and quality of life.

On that front, the war in Ukraine remains centre stage. Keeping the course on the various transitions will mean keeping an open dialogue with people about why all and any actions are being taken. As the closest level of government to citizens, it is also through mayors and city administrations that many of these otherwise European arguments might be made. Most especially because in a growing wave of populist victories at the ballot box, cities largely remain inoculated to political extremism.

And that is also where the argument for a greater link between European funds and cities comes back into play, and where the EU and cities can be seen to be working towards common goals.