The European Union (EU) is going through a tumultuous period: a Brexit referendum, EU-septic political parties on the rise, financial and economic crises, unemployment, large numbers of incoming asylum seekers, difficult relations with its largest neighbour Russia and an open conflict in Ukraine, a compromising deal on refugees’ rights with Turkey while the country moves towards authoritarianism, etcetera. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, the Member states will sign the Pact of Amsterdam, the formal acknowledgement of the role of cities in the convoluted architecture of the governance of the European Union. A major milestone.
This Urban Agenda was a priority of the Dutch government for their presidency of the Council this semester, and actually at earlier occasions too (third time lucky!). Already in the 1990s the European Commission proposed an Urban Agenda, but most Member States were then lukewarm. Local authorities were represented though in Brussels, in the Committee for the Regions (CoR) but poorly visible, as shows the very name of this assembly, which brings together representatives of subnational authorities from each member state to advise the Council and the European Parliament. The CoR was created with the European Union during another Dutch presidency twenty five years ago when the Treaty of Maastricht was negotiated. By then, the main concern was to give a voice to regions, especially those with own competencies, like federated states in Germany. Urban problems such as deindustrialization, unemployment and social exclusion, were on the table and were dealt with in specific programmes of the regional and structural funds, but the idea of an European Urban Agenda did not take off. Times have changed since and cities are hot today. They are no longer considered as problems, but active actors in global governance, and potential partners for the states and the EU institutions. More specifically it is now widely acknowledged that most of the EU legislation and EU regulations is implemented by local authorities. EU institutions wish therefore to engage them earlier on in the policy making process.
The Pact of Amsterdam is not a new treaty. It entails the institutionalization of the role of cities in the EU. It does not involve new funds or new programmes but aims at a synergy between cities and the EU institutions. It has three main goals. The first one is probably the most important. It can be labeled the urban proofing of EU policies: by making sure that cities are involved as earlier as possible in the policy making process, the possible local impacts of these policies are better taken into account. The two other goals pertain to better access for cities to EU funding and better sharing of urban knowledge and best practices In short the Urban Agenda is not only about cities, it is about governing the Europe Union with cities. For that purpose, the Member States have chosen twelve themes to develop that dialogue. Four of themes have been selected for pilots during the Dutch presidency: housing, urban poverty, the integration of migrants and refugees, and air quality.
The zeitgeist could not be most contrasted between these unequal partners. The EU has to deal with a great deal of cynicism, skepticism, and plain opposition. There are loud and electorally successful anti-EU parties and movements in many Member States, both old and new, and British citizens are about to vote in a referendum about leaving the Union. By contrast the cities are fancied. The world would be a better place if it was ruled by mayors, as the American political scientist Benjamin Barber promises us, because they are pragmatic solution-minded managers, closer to their citizens and their concerns, and more apt to deal with contemporary social problems than the party politicians ruling the nation-states. Cities are supposed to be the motors of the global economy and the cultural hubs of a cosmopolitan world culture. In short: the place to be. Since I ❤ NY in the late 1970s, the first city branding campaign meant to compensate the then calamitous reputation of New York to attract tourists, fortune has turned. Cities are more popular than ever and city branding has become pervasive. Young professionals and creatives, tourists, investors, all convene in the most attractive and successive ones. Whether the pilot partnerships are successful and whether the envisioned structure is sufficient to make sure that cities and both local authorities and local non-state actors – are heard and feel represented, remain to be seen. For sure, it is great step that the Commission and the Member States treat the cities as partners in this new setting. A new question pops up however since the EU is supposed to help cities, but cities seem to be asked to rescue the EU to tackle the greater challenges of our time: housing, poverty, integration of migrants and refugees, climate adaptation, circular economy, etc. By picking up the gauntlet, cities might risk a lot of good will by getting associated with the EU, whose legitimacy deficit has been seen by some as the result of particularly poor branding.
Virginie Mamadouh is Associate Professor of Political and Cultural Geography at the Centre for Urban Studies of the University of Amsterdam. She co-edited with Anne van Wageningen a Dutch language volume EU@Amsterdam: Een stedelijke raad (AUP 2015) with the sponsorship of the Centre for Urban Studies and the Amsterdam Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence ACCESS EUROPE. Taking the third goal of the Urban Agenda for the EU at heart, it brings together a collection of essays about the European city, in which around sixty researchers affiliated to Amsterdam institutions such as the University of Amsterdam UvA, the Free University VU, the University of Applied Sciences HvA, the municipality of Amsterdam, Regioplan and diverse local organisations, share their urban expertise with a general public:
See also the latest edition of De Europese Kwestie in Geografie (in Dutch):