Municipalist cities are key players in the corona crisis and the European Green Deal

Municipalize Europe debate report #1
23 November 2020
Article

The second ‘Municipalize Europe’ conference was held on 5 November online, while two years ago we organised the first edition in the European parliament. In that interval, municipalism, a new political movement, has been growing in Europe and beyond. It is a new way of doing local politics putting social rights and citizen engagements at the center. Municipalize Europe is an attempt to look at European politics through a municipalist lens and to build pressure for change of the top-down European politics.

 

Last month, the mayors of Barcelona, Budapest, Warsaw, Paris and other major cities sent an open letter to the EU institutions, recommending that cities should be given direct access to funding from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, the EU’s corona crisis financing package. This was one of the key issues debated in the opening panel on ‘the role of municipalist cities after the COVID-19 crisis, and the need for EU funding for cities’, which featured mayors, vice-mayors and city councilors from Amsterdam, Glenoble, Budapest and Barcelona as well as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).     

Moderator Eva Garcia Chueca pointed out that 90 percent of cases of COVID-19 have occurred in cities, and local authorities are the first responders of this crisis. She posed two key questions to city representatives: what has been your main role during the COVID-19 crisis and what are the challenges you are facing now? And, how can the EU recovery funds address the needs of cities in post-pandemic times? 

Cities are closer to people, problems, and solutions 

Józsefváros, one of the poorest districts in Budapest, has taken a quick, flexible and effective municipalist approach to support the hardest-hit citizens during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, against a backdrop of little or no information nor coordination from the Hungarian national government. Tessza Udvarhelyi is the head of the Office for Community Participation in the eighth district of Budapest. Her district, Józsefváros, provided cash assistance to  2,000 people who experienced hardships. A special hotline was set up to answer COVID-19-related questions and was mostly operated by 20 trained volunteers who were able to process 3,000 requests from March till May. One hundred more volunteers were recruited. ‘It was a first experience as a city to build a volunteer network to provide support, from helping to fill an assistance application for those who are not able to read and write, getting groceries for the vulnerable to walking dogs. Thanks to active citizen participation, we can provide socially inclusive support to people.’ 

Cities as the first line of defense

Cities are hit hardest by the pandemic and they are the first-response team to citizens. ‘We are being disproportionately affected by this pandemic and we need to answer directly to our citizens’, said Janet Sanz, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona. With little or no clear action plan from the central government, cities strived to formulate their own home-grown development to support the people from the blows of the pandemic. The city of Barcelona also worked on direct relief funds by providing housing in touristic hotels for the homeless. A fund of 90 million euros was dispensed as cash transfers of 200-300 euros given to 55,000 people who suffered the most from the hardships of the pandemic.

Budget cuts no longer an option

For Rutger Groot Wassink, Deputy Mayor of Amsterdam, his city’s corona crisis was made worse by the service economy nature of the city, which has a high dependency on tourism. Higher levels of unemployment, especially in the tourism sector, aggravated already existing inequality, poverty and loneliness. In efforts to support the local community, local shopkeepers were exempted from local taxes for at least a year. The city supported local initiatives by giving shelter to homeless people, distributing refurbished computers for homeschooling and providing WiFi. 

He stressed that cutting costs and austerity, which happened after the 2008 financial crisis, is not the answer. Instead, the city has to invest in rebuilding the local economy. He argued that the city can actively intervene in the local and regional labour market to support workers; for instance, airport and tourism industry workers can shift to sustainable jobs. The city of Amsterdam decided to spend 80 million euros for the next four years for green transition. Groot Wassink proposed to build European solidarity among cities and he invited the participants to an international municipalists’ forum as the next opportunity to build momentum, a conference which the city of Amsterdam is preparing for the end of May 2021. 

What connects municipalist cities and European politics

The Municipalize Europe debates attempt to link municipalist cities and movements with EU-level politics and policies. The memory of harsh and damaging budget cuts is deep for European cities. Severe austerity policies as the EU’s common answer following the global financial crisis in 2008 and transfers to local governments have been squeezed badly for more than a decade. ‘This has been extremely harmful’, said Ernest Urtasun, Spanish Member of the European Parliament. 

A municipalist and Greens group MEP, Urtasun has been leading in the debate in the European Parliament demanding that cities should have more say in accessing the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) funding. ‘Member states have to include local authorities as stakeholders when they make a national recovery plan and apply for RRF. And local authorities should also execute a national recovery plan. Thanks to the cities’ voices, we managed to place these regulations in the RRF as the parliament’s position’. In fact, cities not only demand direct access to the EU funding, arguing that 10 percent of the funding should go directly to cities, but also no less importantly to be recognised as partners in design and implementation of recovery to national governments and EU institutions. 

Green transition is impossible without cities 

‘More and more cities start working together towards social and ecological transformation. Without cities on board, it is simply impossible to achieve the EU’s green and digital transformation’, MEP Urtasun stressed. 

Many municipalist cities have set ambitious goals and are leading towards the goals of the European Green Deal (EGD). While the pandemic pushed aside the priorities of the climate agenda in national debates in many cases, cities tackle these formidable challenges as an opportunity to build ecological local resilience.

Eric Piolle, the first Green Mayor in France was elected in 2014 and re-elected this year. The city of Grenoble has won the European Commission’s latest European Green Capital Award. He highlighted that climate change would affect the poorest cities and municipalities. Piolle stressed the importance of direct EU funding to accelerate the city's goals but also said local authorities should be a part of the design of such funding. In particular, he thinks cities can contribute to the Green Deal on three specific aspects: renovation of housing for less energy consumption; empowering the circular economy such as sustainable local food systems, sharing and repairing goods; and carbon-neutral urban development. He did not forget to address the revenue side; financial speculation tax should finance green transition.   

Barcelona’s ‘Superblock’ project is a very inspiring example of how new urban design can help achieve green recovery and improve quality of life. Janet Sanz, as a deputy mayor, has been responsible for this project since 2016 and now six superblocks in the city centre of Barcelona are a paradise for pedestrians, bikers, children and residents. Playgrounds, green spaces, benches and tables, and bike lanes are now at the center of public spaces and streets, instead of cars and parking spaces. Carbon-neutral streets become a place for residents to meet, talk and eat lunch while kids play safely. To achieve the green transformations, cities must also be placed at the forefront of policy-making. ‘Cities are your allies to build greener solutions’, said Sanz. 

Tessza Udvarhelyi from Budapest left no doubt about what’s at stake: ‘If cities can access directly to the EU recovery and green deal funding or not is a life and death issue in a country like Hungary.’ ‘All we want to do, reliable climate policies, are the opposite of what the national government wants. Local governments don’t exist or are invisible to the authoritarian state.’  Therefore the formation of the free cities alliance, bringing together the capital cities of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, is so important as a voice in European politics. 

Building progressive municipalist pressure 

Municipalist and ecofeminist MEP María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop said that the national governments and the EU have a lot to learn from the cities and they should support, rather than making their life more difficult. She praised the cities’ success in remunicipalising a range of public services, such as water, energy, social and health care, waste collection, and cleaning - all are essential work and services for all. Palop also commended cities that led to defiant policies for human rights, such as LGBTQ and minority rights. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities have acted as the frontline defenders against the health and economic fallouts. Cities have also empowered local citizen solidarity initiatives despite always-limited resources and sometimes hostile treatment from national governments, like in Hungary. 

Municipalist cities go beyond crisis management and are acting to accelerate social and ecological transformation, ranging from public space redesign and inclusive public services to just transitions of workers. The EU institutions need to listen to and walk with cities more than ever to achieve a green and just recovery.