“I saw him cry,” Mayor of Ghent Matthias De Clercq recalls, speaking of how his grandfather would be transformed when recalling the liberation of Ghent by the Polish army in 1944. “That’s the feeling that we have to plant in the hearts of our citizens. If this feeling is there, we are unbeatable.” Speaking to Eurocities member cities gathered for our Annual Conference, Eurocities2021, at a session on the future of Europe and European values, Mayor De Clercq insisted that to bring this strength and passion back into European democracy cities must have a more direct role in European policy.
In contrast to the current illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary, the cities of those countries are still embracing the European values of solidarity that inspired the allied armies in their liberation of Europe. However, it is not just in opposition to member states that cities sit as bastions of European values. The other city leaders gathered on stage, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdansk; Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca; and Hermano Sanches Ruivo, Deputy Mayor of Paris, as well as Dubravka Šuica, Vice President of the European Commission; Colin Scicluna, Head of Cabinet of Vice-President Šuica; Marek Prawda, Former Polish Ambassador to the EU; and Lutz Kinkel, Managing Director European Centre for Press & Media Freedom all concurred that cities had a multifaceted role in strengthening solidarity and liberal democracy.
"In the cities we can beat nationalism and right-wing populism. Cities united in solidarity can save the European values." ❤️ @ghentinternatio @MathiasDeClercq https://t.co/sbBQGaDJOt
— Charlotte Vandycke (@charlottevdycke) November 5, 2021
This role ranges from promoting European unity, to listening to and engaging with citizens, to implementing European policies in contextually sensitive ways hand in hand with people where the vast majority of Europeans live: in cities. That’s why De Clerqu felt confident in issuing the following demand to the European Commission: “The time is here for Eurocities and our cities have a seat at the table.”
Vice-Mayor of Europe?
The European Commission was far from being deaf to cities’ demands. Its representative at the event, Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission, is herself the former Mayor of Dubrovnik and therefore brought with her a special sensitivity to the vital role played by city leaders. She was quick to espouse the virtues of cities, calling them “a hive of ideas,” and “vibrant places for citizens to deliberate on their future.” This was followed by a commitment to pursuing further collaboration between the European Commission and Europe’s cities to create a more democratic union.
Pleasure to join @EUROCITIES today to discuss 'The future of Europe and our European values'.
Cities are vibrant places for citizens to deliberate on their future. I encourage mayors & councillors to promote https://t.co/wY4k70adbR & organise events! pic.twitter.com/2rar8ny33V
— Dubravka Suica (@dubravkasuica) November 5, 2021
Challenged by Paris Mayor Hermano Sanches Ruivo on the difficulty that cities initially faced on being included in the Conference on the Future of Europe, Šuica defended the commission position of working to prioritise the voices that usually go unheard. Nevertheless, she reiterated that cities are the natural place to make up Europe’s perceived democratic deficit: “I’m sure that in your town halls this can be better deliberated than it is at the moment.”
This earned the blessing of Mayor Hermano Sanches, who, asked whether former mayors made better world national and international leaders, commented: “Yes, especially when they are female.” For Hermano Sanches, commitment to the European Union is something that cities embody because it is the right thing for the future, not because it is politically expedient to do so. “None of us win or lose an election talking about European subjects,” he noted, “but still we have to do that” in order to ensure the future. On the other hand, he pointed to collaboration through Eurocities as a great benefit of the European sphere for cities seeking solutions to local and global issues.
What is democracy?
Marek Prawda, Former Polish Ambassador to the EU, reminded attendees that “The root of the word politics and politicians is ‘polis’, ‘city.'” He added that “We have seen today how important cities are not just for our societies but for our democracies.” This importance was demonstrated in the commitment that city leaders expressed to engaging with citizens for true democracy – not just through the voting booth, but day-to-day.
For Mayor Emil Boc of Cluj-Napoca, “we need in this very moment to consolidate this European project from a bottom-up, not a top-down perspective. That means the role of cities who are the closest level of government to citizens.” Boc recalled his country’s choice to become European as a choice for freedom, and insisted that in order to maintain this equivalence, the Commission will have to keep the spirit of Cohesion Policy “in all European Policies.”
The mayor of @gdansk @Dulkiewicz_A focuses on the youth and highlights the importance of giving them power.
"There is a gap between leaders and citizens and we're trying to narrow it", answers @dubravkasuica. pic.twitter.com/MKugTQgk2l
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) November 5, 2021
Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdansk, gestured to her own city’s inclusion of young people in policy making. “I firmly believe in the young people,” she insisted, saying that democracy required leaders to “try to give people, especially young people the power too.”
Mayor De Clercq, additionally drew Commission Vice-President Šuica’s attention to the practicalities of involving citizens: “If you want to involve citizens,” he said, “you have to respect their pace.” This means that you cannot simply ask them what they think at a given time or over a brief period, but have to ‘walk with them’ through the development and implementation of policy.
Hearing what cities have to say, Šuica concurred with the importance of sustained involvement of citizens in policy making, and with the important role of cities in this process. She pointed to the Conference on the Future of Europe, which the Commission is currently running and is looking at how they might be able to transform into a permanent mechanism. “I’m firmly convinced that bringing citizens into policymaking strengthens our representative democracy,” she said. The Conference on the Future of Europe, she explained, is collecting over 9000 ideas from 800 citizens from across the Union, and further that this is “not just a listening exercise,” but “started with a clear commitment to implementation from three European institutions.”
À @StadtLeipzig🇩🇪 pour la session «l'Avenir de l'Europe et nos valeurs européennes» avec @dubravkasuica, Commissaire européenne et mes collègues d’@EUROCITIES🇪🇺 @Dulkiewicz_A🇵🇱 Matthias de Clercq🇧🇪@EmilBoc🇷🇴 pour parler des villes au cœur du renouvellement de la démocratie. #CoFE pic.twitter.com/9SAyF03yUR
— Hermano Sanches Ruivo (@hermanosanches) November 5, 2021
Mayor Hermano Sanches Ruivo was enthusiastic about the approach that the Commission is taking, but noted that “cities are not always part of the reflection, but they are always part of the solution,” an allusion in part to the failure of national governments to adequately involve cities in their proposals for Recovery and Resilience funding from the Commission, despite the contractual stipulation from the Commission that cities be properly consulted.
Democracy is not just about involving people in general, however, as cities are well aware that there is no ‘person in general’. Instead, demographic issues are more important than ever in determining the shape and future of our democracies. Besides the question of youth brought forward by Mayor Dulkiewicz, the question of ageing was also considered central. As Commission Vice-President Šuica put it, “Aging is not just for the elderly… we start ageing on the day we are born.”
Šuica also mentioned the urban-rural divide as a pressing demographic issue that policy must take into account, and asked cities to collaborate with the Commission on this issue. “For us in the European Commission, we badly need your help and your support if we want to reach every European village. Your help is very much appreciated and I hope that we will continue our collaboration,” she said.
Simultaneously fighting illiberality in national governments, fostering European identity among people on the ground, and creating truly democratic governance by involving those people in policy is no mean feat, and yet this is precisely what cities at Eurocities2021 committed to continue doing.
Mayor De Clercq cited getting rid of cars to make ‘living streets’ in the centre of Ghent, and the implementation of a participatory budget as examples of how his city has committed to implementing European ideals hand in hand with local people. “The cities are the motors of Europe. In cities are the believers of Europe,” and that Europe will have to empower citizens in ways that cities are already doing. “And I think Eurocities is a good platform to do that; without the citizens of the cities, no strong Europe, so it’s in the cities that we can engage them.”
Meanwhile Mayor Dulkiewicz, explains that in Gdansk, despite the national government’s attitude, “at the local level, we keep surviving and promoting local democracy. We’re helping people to stand for the constitution and for human rights.” She insists that the national situation in Poland should not be represented as the democratic will of the people, as voters are not given appropriate access to the information they need to control their destinies: “We really have a serious situation regarding media… we really don’t have many independent media, and those independent are now under threat,” as is the judiciary system. Therefore she sees it as being incumbent upon the European level to reach out directly to cities and assist in the implementation and dissemination of European values.
As an expert on media freedom, Kinkel added that while cities have a limited direct influence on press freedom, “you can be the lighthouse for the national level.”
Marek Prawda, Former Polish Ambassador to the EU, in #Eurocities2021: "Closer cooperation is not an ideological process, but a matter of survival." pic.twitter.com/bwlRR8Czs0
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) November 5, 2021
Prawda, drawing on his experience as former Polish Ambassador to the EU, quotes Mayor Boc, applauded the example of Gdansk and warned European leaders against making concessions to illiberal administrations: “If we make concessions to those who are acting in bad faith, we just become hostages of their delusions. They will only test our consent to the extremes.” This sentiment was shared by Mayor Sanches Ruivo who, while he mourns divergence of the Polish and Hungarian governments, calls for the discipline of illiberality through the European budget: “Maybe we should help [the Polish people] not giving a euro to the government, not giving a credit to the government. We have to stand on our values, because if not, then everything will collapse.”
Embracing multiple identities and cooperation between multiple layers of government is the secret to successful European and local democracy, according to Mayor Boc, who said, “I am Transylvanian, I am Romanian, I am European. Talking about this triple identity means we have to work together in this not ‘ego-‘ but ‘eco-‘system approach.” Boc emphasised that the local level had a vital role to play in this multiple conception of the self, as “In Europe, the highest level of trust is in local leaders, not in national leaders.” Concurring with Boc, Prawda said that what he had seen in cities showed that there was still hope for democracy: “I think European cities take a particular responsibility because they can tell us an optimistic story in a pessimistic time.”