Healing Europe’s populist divisions depends on its cities

If the region is truly committed to delivering inclusive growth, it must equip local authorities with the tools to connect people and places to growth and wealth.
Students in Milan, Italy, protest a visit by the nationalist French politician Marine Le Pen, January 2016. (Tinxi/Shutterstock)

Europe is at a crossroads, and its cities are bearing the brunt of multiple challenges.

Cities are international conduits for the passage of trade, commerce and labour. They are largely responsible for carrying out the day-to-day activities required by pan-national programmes and agreements, such as finding homes for migrants. Moreover, it is in cities that social cohesion is most evident and where high concentrations of diverse peoples means that intercultural cooperation has to succeed. As such, the future of Europe is heavily dependent on the success of its cities.

Europe has many achievements to be proud of: enduring peace, greater wealth and solidarity. But it is being shaken at its foundations by the Brexit vote, by growing Euroscepticism, and by the rise of movements that stoke fear and disillusionment across the region.

There is a growing disconnect between citizens and the E. U. institutions. Citizens are asking politicians: What does the E. U. really do for us? Why does it matter? As city leaders, my colleagues and I are in a unique position to bridge this gap.

[See: How cities can respond as national governments turn rightward]

Cities represent the closest level of government to citizens. City administrations have their finger on the pulse of local populations — and through EUROCITIES, we are reaching out to European leaders to work with us.

As president of EUROCITIES, I represent the leaders of 137 of Europe’s largest cities. We want Europe to thrive and stand together to deliver real solutions for our citizens. But growing populist movements present a worrying development. We need to do more to build a Europe of which citizens feel proud.

The impact of the British public’s decision to leave the European Union should serve as a wake-up call for international leaders, and lessons need to be taken from that vote. Failure to do so could leave us sleepwalking into further problems in other cities, regions and member states.

If Europe is truly committed to delivering inclusive growth, it must equip cities with the tools to connect people and places to growth and wealth. The Urban Agenda for the E. U., adopted last year, is a step in this direction, but it will take much longer to build a stronger Europe.

[See: ‘Brexit’: A wake-up call for the New Urban Agenda]

At the city level, EUROCITIES sees a future for cities of the United Kingdom in this process, too. Many U. K. city leaders are determined to demonstrate that their cities are open for business and trade, and remain welcoming, tolerant and diverse places. EUROCITIES recently voiced our support for the U. K. Core Cities initiative.

It is our belief that cities should continue to work cooperatively across borders to secure the economic, social and environmental future that citizens want.

Advancing social cohesion

The growing number of refugees is one of the issues most often cited by Eurosceptic voices to illustrate Europe’s perceived failure. Cities are central to facilitating the integration process of newcomers, in reinforcing and enhancing social cohesion.

“Citizens are asking politicians: What does the E. U. really do for us? Why does it matter? As city leaders, my colleagues and I are in a unique position to bridge this gap.”

Over the past year, city leaders and citizens across Europe have rallied to provide warmth, shelter and comfort to tens of thousands of refugees. Ghent, the city where I am mayor, has adopted a proactive approach, which speeds up the integration process for refugees and allows organizations and citizens to get to know newcomers.

[See: In Amsterdam, an ‘embassy’ where migrants connect with locals]

This is one example of how to address negative stereotypes and prejudices regarding refugees. The moment asylum-seekers arrive in Ghent, they are brought into contact with relevant organizations, where they gain quick access to language courses and volunteer work.

As a local authority, I know that Ghent is well placed to coordinate the initiatives of NGOs and volunteers keen to welcome refugees — for example, by hosting volunteer events, setting up mentoring schemes and coordinating leisure activities. These not only empower newcomers but also fast-track their integration process, creating solidarity.

Exchanging knowledge and experiences with other European cities through the EUROCITIES network allows us to address global challenges. We are currently working with our partner cities and through the E. U. Urban Partnership on Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees in order to establish a comprehensive European Agenda on Migration.

Europe’s future

Cities are working successfully on many challenges, but further cooperation is always appreciated. On 7 March, EUROCITIES held a mayors’ summit on the future of Europe, after which we crafted the following messages to European leaders:

First, we need a confident and strong European Union that responds to the challenges we cannot effectively manage in isolation, including climate change, security and raising inequalities. As Europe’s largest cities, we invest in and contribute to an effective Europe. We do this through collaboration, based on openness, on sharing rather than competing and on solidarity between us. We cooperate to build capacity across our cities to tackle our common challenges and maximize our opportunities. We have a strong basis for believing in a positive future for the European Union.

[See: Debating the role of cities at the Global Parliament of Mayors — and leaving most details for later]

Second, a stronger European Union starts with citizens. There is a wealth of experience and examples from our cities on new forms of democracy that directly engage our citizens. As cities, we are constantly developing our mechanisms to better listen to and work with our citizens in shaping effective solutions. The E. U. should be inspired by what is happening in cities and strengthen its own tools for open governance to be able to better reflect citizens’ innovation. Politicians and officials at all levels of government need to get out from behind their desks to listen and talk directly to the citizens.

Third, Europe needs to work with us, the cities. As city leaders, we propose an ongoing open dialogue with the E. U. institutions about current and future challenges and how best to meet those together. Only this way can we jointly deliver results that respond to the needs of our citizens.

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?]

The Urban Agenda for the E. U. and its thematic partnerships are a good start in terms of testing new working methods at the regional level. In those partnerships, we gather the European Commission, member states and cities around the same table to work toward a better common understanding of challenges and solutions.

Now, these working methods across levels of governance and different sectors need to be further developed and extended beyond the limited number of themes currently included in the Urban Agenda.

Rethink, remodel Europe

It is time to rethink the way we do things in Europe. We are not prepared to watch Europe fall further into Euroscepticism, disillusionment and political extremism. Europe’s large cities need a European Union that can deliver effective solutions now.

The European Commission recently presented a “white paper” on the future of Europe, which is a useful contribution to start reflecting on next steps. But to truly rethink the way things are done, citizens must be put front and centre. Our scenario for the European Union is based on a core set of values: respect, freedom, cohesion, solidarity, security, diversity and equal opportunities.

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

As city leaders, we are committed to contributing to shaping a future of our European Union that makes sense for the citizens. In the coming year, EUROCITIES will work with local and European partners on our campaign “Cities rethink and remodel Europe”.

Through this project, we want to directly engage citizens in an open dialogue about what kind of European Union we need. We offer our commitment and partnership to the E. U. and national leaders to jointly work toward a positive future for Europe, bringing it closer to its citizens.

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Daniël Termont

Daniël Termont is mayor of Ghent, Belgium, and president of EUROCITIES.