Empty chairs at empty tables

The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, recently came under fire for not attending an election debate focussed on climate change alongside other UK political leaders – Channel 4, which hosted the debate, chose to replace Mr Johnson with a melting block of ice.

And once again, Boris Johnson will be leaving a cold, empty seat on one of the hottest issues on the planet by not showing up to the European Council summit, taking place this Thursday and Friday, the same day (Thursday) as the UK election, when the main debate at the Council summit will be on becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

A sign of the times? Is the UK really ready to quit Europe?

Frank Ross welcoming particpants from more than 100 cities to the EUROCITIES Conference 2018

“Brexit isn’t a done deal yet,” points out Frank Ross, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, in an interview for EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.

“It’s possible that Brexit still doesn’t happen. From a personal point of view, from a city point of view and from a Scottish point of view that is certainly our wish.”

The difference in outlook between these two leaders is telling, not only of the deep rift that has carved its way through the British political life, but of the growing role of cities as bastions of socioeconomic and political progress in their own right.

Leaders of major city administrations know full well their international role, as economic drivers and as centres of knowledge innovation and excellence, and examples of how diversity and integration can thrive.

The times they are a changin’

In recent decades, thanks to networks like EUROCITIES, cities have been able to create more opportunities to cooperate.

As Ross explains, “the good thing is, if Brexit happens or not, Edinburgh will remain a member of EUROCITIES. And so we will still be able to have the cooperation between the cities. We still will be able to share best practice and understand.”

Indeed, for many cities, whether in the EU or not, these linkages are an essential part of how they operate, and, it is how cities have been able to raise their voice, taking their own seat at the table.

The Urban Agenda for the EU marked a particular milestone for cities in this regard – by giving cities a direct say on policy matters that affect them, and by showing that getting results on wider societal goals like emissions reductions needs city administrations on board, working alongside other levels of government.

And maintaining these international ties is clearly important to EUROCITIES, which has recently revamped its internal rules to allow better access to non-EU cities to its decision making structures.

However, as Ross laments, “a lot of the partnerships of cities have grown up as cooperatives to make (funding) applications and to carry out European projects”, which would no longer be an option for UK cities after Brexit.

Regardless of the travails of Brexit, and a lack of vision on the national level, it’s clear that there is an appetite from city leaders, such as Ross, to continue to work together, learn from one another, and to take that seat at the decision making table.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer