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Debate: Municipalize Europe!

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

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 per cent 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 defence

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 the 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 were 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 in 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 for 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 cities, and that they should provide 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 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 work with cities more than ever to achieve a green and just recovery. 

The right to housing is now more important than ever – Why cities demand a larger say in housing policies

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, ‘staying at home’ has become the main strategy to minimize the spread of the pandemic. Consequently, affordable housing with adequate living conditions has become a matter of life and death, which demonstrates why it is essential to prioritize the right to housing. What have cities done to secure adequate living conditions before and after COVID-19, and what should the EU do to help cities achieve a breakthrough in terms of affordable housing? Those were the questions guiding the Housing panel during the Municipalize Europe conference on November 05, 2020.

Lucia Martín, counselor at Barcelona City Hall and a previous housing activist, kicked off the session by sharing the observation that COVID-19 and the mandate to stay at home has turned houses into extremely important spaces. At the same time, however, rents in many European cities are rising to astronomical heights. Thus, there is a need to change the regulation of housing prices―Berlin, Paris and New York City have already attempted to do so.

Barcelona is joining the effort. The city owns a comparatively small stock of public housing but is working on increasing that, with 2000 housing units planned to be built next year alone. Furthermore, two regulations have been put into law: the first is the 30% rule, which mandates that 30% of all newly built homes and major renovation projects must become protected housing and have ceilings on rent prices. The second is a declaration designating the whole city as an area where the City Council has the right of first refusal, which gives the administration preferential purchase rights on plots of land and buildings.

A large problem Barcelona’s government has been fighting for five years are short-term tourist rentals through platforms such as Airbnb. Countering them is harder than one might think, since 9,000 of those renting out spaces to tourists have a license to do so that is in principle valid for a lifetime. It sometimes seems that the municipality is running out of tools to counter the misuse of living space, since most of the power to do so lies with the national  government―which is just one more case in favour of municipalism. But, as Lucia Martín ensured, Barcelona is far from giving up.

Michaela Kauer, director of the Brussels Liaison Office of the City of Vienna (‘Vienna House’), started her introductory intervention by sharing an observation of what the COVID-19 crisis and the 2008 financial crisis have in common: cities with a large share of social, public, cooperative or municipal housing and a strong regulation of the private sector seem to be coping better in both situations.  

Vienna is lucky in the regard that it never sold its public housing sector off like other cities did (or were forced to do). Sixty-four percent of the population of Vienna currently live in social, public, cooperative, or for-limited-profit housing, and, as Michaela Kauer noted, they are proud of that. To keep it that way, Vienna introduced a new zoning law in March 2019 that ensures that two-thirds of units of new urban development projects with a size of more than 5000 m2 have to be social housing, with a net rent of not more than €5 per square metre. She emphasized that a public housing stock―which hinges on publicly owned land―is the most important asset for a municipality to make effective housing policy. ‘Keep your land. Do not sell it off!’ she urged.

Lastly, she noted that taking housing seriously as a basic right means that ensuring participation from those affected is imperative. The best protection of tenants, apart from rent caps and regulations, is to create a level playing field between homeowners and tenants and support the latter in legal struggles. She further made a case for unlimited contracts, saying that in that case people will have a feeling of ownership of the place where they live.

Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, used her introductory intervention to build a strong case for a human rights-based approach to ensure adequate housing for people in cities across Europe and the world. ‘Cities didn’t get a choice in that the crisis happened, but they do have a choice on how to react,’ she declared. The pandemic has shown that even the richest cities have alarming rates of homelessness which increase proportionally with wealth, and the most vulnerable―migrants and refugees―are often hit the worst. That is a denial of human rights and shows that the current system is simply not working. It cries for a new, more sustainable approach.

Leilani Farha advocates for a human rights-based approach to housing because it focuses on people and households rather than on finance and markets. Cities do not usually want their population to be homeless, and from her own work in Canada she learned that there is a huge appetite for a human rights-based way forward. Cities can use the international human rights obligations framework as leverage to pressure national governments into more accountability.

In a final note on the EU, Leilani criticized that EU officials often claim that housing is outside their scope. This is wrong, she argued, because the issue of housing cannot be considered isolated from others. Topics such as migration, austerity politics or finances are all core EU issues that interfere with housing.

Kim van Sparrentak, European Parliament rapporteur on affordable housing in the EU and member of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, is the living example that housing and the EU belong together. She is responsible for the European Parliament’s Report on Access to decent and affordable housing for all. Agreeing with Leilani Farha’s criticism of the EU, she added that she can quote at least ten EU laws that prevent cities from providing their citizens with more affordable housing. Her report found that more than 700,000 people in Europe sleep rough every night while more than 80 million struggle to pay rent―and these are numbers from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

European policy is not helping: ‘The right to make a lot of profit with housing has a stronger fundament in European regulation than the right to have a roof over your head,’ she noted. The pandemic made the situation worse, but also drew more attention to the issue as the need to go into lockdown put a spotlight especially on homelessness, which is often neglected or, in some member states, even criminalised. Among other actions, her report is calling for setting a European goal to eradicate homelessness by 2030. This means that the EU commission would need to create an action plan and might also propose a framework for a national homelessness strategy which would mean that every member state has to propose a national plan for reaching that goal.

The second action the report calls for is increased effort to fight evictions and halt the rising financialisation of the housing sector, which is reflected in phenomena such as cities selling off their social housing to make their budget look better. Kim van Sparrentak also calls for more transparency on real estate owners, highlighting that many tenants do not even know who owns their accommodation. She further emphasized the need to prioritize the green deal with a special focus on social housing which has a lot of potential for renovation, but to also be careful not to take that as an excuse for gentrification.

Kim van Sparrentak closed her remarks by stating that although she is pro-European, she proposes to allocate more power to local authorities because they know best what their inhabitants need. She thus advocates for putting EU power back into the hands of the cities.

 After their interventions, the speakers engaged in discussions with each other and the audience. Part of the debate centred around the EU recovery fund that, unfortunately, does not foresee the possibility of member states setting aside part of its funding to go directly to cities and regions, as Kim van Sparrentak noted. Michaela Kauer criticized that cities, despite being highly affected, do not have a seat at the table when EU regulations are designed, do not have access to funding and are oftentimes not allowed to combine different sources of funding. In October, more than 50 cities signed a letter demanding direct access to the recovery fund to help them achieve climate neutrality. 

Leilani Farha called for a better integration of housing and migration policies in order to ensure that migrants do not end up in homelessness or migration policies fail due to a lack of adequate housing. Many refugees flee from human rights violations and are then met with renewed human rights violations when they are denied adequate housing in the cities where they seek asylum.

Finally, the discussion moved to the question of how to ensure public housing stock. Leilani Farha suggested that municipalities should buy assets quickly as soon as they come on the market before private companies can do so.

The need to discard market-based solutions and move to alternatives became crystal-clear during the sessions. Or, in Michaela Kauer’s words: ‘Housing is a right. The market does not deliver. Therefore, intervention in the market is necessary.’

The full video of this session of the Municipalise Europe! event can be found here.

Making the European Green Deal work for municipalities

On November 5th, the last session of the online Municipalize Europe! event brought together a variety of municipalists who power and practise progressive policies on the local and system-wide level in the fight against the climate crisis. They discussed which municipal actions the EU should support for a European Green Deal (EGD) to have justice, democracy and regeneration at its heart.

Anne-Sophie Olmos, Grenobles’ Councilor for Public Management and Procurement, and Blanca Bayas of the Debt Observatory in Globalisation (ODG), put community-led public services at the center of their contributions. For the EGD to succeed much more is needed than simply investing in renewable energy. Indeed, decarbonising the economy also means to divest from all that is extractive* and instead invest in the goods, services and infrastructures that care for society and the ecosystems that give us life. To give a concrete example: with sufficient pressure from residents, more than two thousand local governments have been turning back privatisation and creating new public services, a process known as (re)municipalisation. Grenoble was one of the first cities to deprivatise and democratise its water, after which over 100 other French water remunicipalisations followed. While in Spain, Blanca shared that public services have been reclaimed and rebuilt nearly a 120 times. When municipal ownership of public services is combined with participatory governance, it can deliver on social and environmental challenges simultaneously. As TNI research shows, some municipalities embrace this by entering into collaborative partnerships with community organisations and also other public bodies. I couldn’t agree more. Such approaches counter apparent market competition and privatisation schemes that benefit private profiteers and sow reckless growth – with a democratic model that meets people’s needs. Yet how do we make sure this framework also explicitly applies to energy as powering both the economy and our public services?

To protect energy as a public service and human right, municipalities have an important role to play. Ever since the EU Clean Energy Packages recognized energy communities, there have been high hopes for citizens to participate in the energy transition. Renewable energy communities can be understood as collective renewable energy actions around open, democratic participation and governance and the provision of benefits for the members or the local community. The energy community of the Belgium city of Leuven is called Leuven2030. David Dessers, Vice-Mayor of Leuven, who has been leading this effort, explains that this is a city-wide network, with already 600 members, in which citizens, local companies, education institutions and the municipality permanently partner to make the territory energy neutral. As a result, when installing renewable energy the Leuven will aim for at least 50% direct participation by the inhabitants, for example by creating citizen-led cooperative structures.

The extent to which residents will benefit from the energy transition will also depend on how specific Directives – such as the one on the Internal Electricity Market – are translated into Member State legislation, thus Joan Herrera, Director of the Environment and Energy at the Prat de Llobregat City Council. This will determine whether renewable electricity production will also become a local source of income and whether municipalities will also distribute electricity and manage electricity demand in order to ensure grid stability while balancing fluctuating supply and demand. For example, by charging electric vehicles or public busses when demand is low and supply is plentiful, local renewable generation and distribution can be interlinked with a renewable public transport strategy. Let me just add that for the EU, Member States and municipalities to switch to renewables, we also have to reduce and change our energy use. This demands bold energy efficiency actions, such as deep retrofits that lower the use of heating (and cooling) in buildings and industry, which accounts for half of the EU’s energy consumption. And to do all this effectively, municipalists have to push back against the extent to which these energy communities continue to be subject to market competition by strategizing how to take the energy system out of the market and into democratic public ownership on every level.     

To combat the climate crisis, municipalists are also working hard to build local, resilient and circular economies. In 2021, the EU will come with new circular economy legislation from which cities and citizens should be able to benefit. According to Anna Cavazzini, German member of the European Parliament for the Greens, explains how that requires different models of production and consumption. To build on that: in particular corporate powers, which have excessive political clout in Brussels, have shaped these models and are responsible for ongoing social and environmental destruction across the globe. Moreover, changing consumption patterns also means we have to reorganise production, changing “what we produce, how we produce it, and who gets a say in these decisions.” That has big implications for how municipalities construct, provide food and relate to land and biodiversity. Herrera shares that to protect biodiversity, policies need to be designed to value, protect and replenish the biodiversity not just outside the city but also within. And by working with small, local and organic farmers, equitable relationships can be built that foster regional solidarity towards overcoming urban and rural disparities. Grenoble, for example, is using public procurement in order to provide 100 percent local, organic food for school children over time. However, instead of EU support and as referred to by Cavazzini, the updated Common Agriculture Policy determines that more than 34 per cent of annual EU funds will continue to be pumped into an extractive and fossil fueled agriculture model. 

This is sadly only the tip of the iceberg. Speakers very much agreed that many EU and Member State policies have to fundamentally change for a social and environmentally just Europe to take shape. Not only should municipalities receive a substantial percentage of the EGD and Covid-19 recovery funds, but they should also have a real say in how these funds are spent. Not only does the EU and its members need to implement a financial transaction tax, but they should actively fight the tax evasion and avoidance by its multinationals that are particularly robbing countries in the global South. Not only does the trade and investment regime need a complete overhaul, but the whole EU architecture of more markets, more competition and more liberalisation is destined for the dustbin. 

As concluded by Dessers, the EU’s deal can help cities to accelerate their climate policy, while a force of cities can help the EU to get out of the neoliberal pathway. Hence, the fact that after lasting resistance from cities and civil society from across Europe, the European Commission was forced to withdraw the Service Notification Procedure as this would further reign in progressive municipal power, shows where collective action can take us. Municipalists have not only the power to expose the ills of these neoliberal policies, they already act out some of the public futures that are possible. But, political, financial and legislative support from higher-up institutions will be imperative for the EGD to really work for municipalities and their residents.

*Including but not limited to destructive mining, speculative finance and mass tourism to fossil fueled agriculture and non-essential consumerism

The full video of this session of the Municipalise Europe! event can be found here.