Opinion

Four free cities and strong allies of the EU

European Union

While the question of whether the ultra-nationalist populism of Poland and Hungary is reason enough to veto the arrival of European Union funds for the recovery of their economies is being debated, the four capitals of the Visegrad countries - the two mentioned above plus Slovakia and the Czech Republic - have once again reiterated their request to Brussels that a large part of these funds should go directly to the cities. 

Two years ago, on 16 December 2019, the mayors of Bratislava, Matús Vallo, Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, Prague, Zdenek Hrib, and Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, signed the Pact of Free Cities. The ceremony, symbolically held on the former campus of the Central European University in Budapest, which was promoted and financed by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros but had to move its premises to Vienna after being declared "serving spurious foreign interests" by Viktor Orban's Magyar government. 

The pact came at a time when tensions between the Visegrad Group (V4) and the EU were becoming increasingly evident through the increasingly populist and nationalist claims of the countries concerned, while the EU was struggling to promote a closing of ranks in the face of both the consequences of Brexit and the threats posed by climate catastrophe and new mass flows of migrants. 

It so happened that the leaders of the V4 capitals were independents or belonged to opposition parties, sharing the same political vision in which "protecting all that is good about EU membership" prevailed. The four mayors were united in denouncing their firm opposition to the "anti-European drift" of their respective governments on such sensitive issues as immigration, justice, corruption and climate change. They stressed that the Visegrad region has the highest concentration of social, religious, political, ethnic and national diversity in Europe, but that it is somehow "closing itself off from the influence of the free Western world". 

In fact, the four mayors have become the most visible opponents of their respective governments, which has boosted their respective ratings in opinion polls, all of them above the percentages with which they were elected. 

Brussels must not leave us alone

Two years after the signing of that pact, the mayors are demanding that Brussels "not leave them alone", and that solutions be found so that a large part of the recovery funds go directly to the cities and their respective municipal programmes, with all the necessary filters and examinations, but avoid passing in their entirety through the hands of their respective governments, whom they accuse of acting and doing everything possible to divert them to other objectives, which they ultimately seek to weaken them politically. 

Brussels is awaiting final authorisation from the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) to use the funds as a weapon against countries that do not comply with the rules or do not respect the acquis communautaire. But the mayors of the capitals, which they are quick to describe as "islands of freedom, tolerance and openness in the midst of a populist sea, besieged in a political environment characterised by the centralisation of power", are calling for Europe to make it easier for them to obtain EU resources directly without relying entirely on national governments. 

Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest, has never minced words in arguing that much EU money actually goes to oligarchs close to power, referring to recent scandals in Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib stresses that Brussels should take into account that "cities are engines of growth", and that governments that take money away from cities for political reasons actually harm the whole region. All of them also subscribe to the idea that "it is cities that can best promote innovation, tackle climate change and reverse the signs of a crisis of democracy".  

It seems that, as well as listening to them, it might be in the best interests of the EU as a whole for Brussels to listen to them.