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.