Mayors of central European capitals on Wednesday (12 February) laid out their plans for direct access to EU funds, bypassing national governments, to fight climate change and populism.
The leaders of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw, who banded together in December, are presenting themselves as new allies of EU integration in countries where illiberal and populist governments have locked horns with EU institutions over the bloc’s values and rule of law.
The mayors are seeking help from the EU Commission to make sure their national governments commit 10 percent of EU cohesion subsidies to cities in the new EU budget – and allocate it without political bias.
The city leaders’ push comes as talks on the next seven-year budget are under way among deeply-divided member states. with a special summit scheduled for next week.
The mayors are also lobbying the EU executive to get direct access to EU funding under the Green Deal.
In a letter to commission president Ursula von Der Leyen – signed by the four mayors and leaders of 11 other European cities, including Berlin, Vienna and the Hague – the mayors argue that “cities led by elected leaders now represent two-thirds of Europe’s population, and are responsible for the bulk of its climate mitigation and adaptation efforts”.
“The fight against climate change will be won or lost in cities,” they add.
The issue goes to the heart of the EU – where national governments have guarded their sovereignty and territorial control fiercely, while being the ultimate decision-makers in the bloc.
The mayors of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw met with commission vice-president Frans Timmermans on Wednesday, and will meet with cohesion commissioner Elisa Ferreira on Thursday.
“Designing a Green Deal that would give direct EU funding to cities requires courage. But the EU is a project that was born out of courage,” Budapest mayor, 44-year-old Gergely Karacsony told reporters on Wednesday.
New face of ‘Visegrad’ countries
The mayors, who come from different shades of the political spectrum, want to reverse the image of central Europe, which is often seen as the EU’s obstructionist club.
“One of the reasons why we formed the alliance is to show another face of the region,” Karacsony said, adding the “Visegrad governments are not the same as the Visegrad countries”.
The EU has already launched sanctions procedures against the governments of Poland and Hungary for breaking EU rules and norms.
“The symbolism of the pact is important,” Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a 48-year-old former MEP of the centre-right Civic Platform said on Wednesday.
He added that while the Visegrad countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland have become synonymous with blocking EU proposals, the cities want to show they are committed to the EU.
Prague mayor Zdeněk Hřib, a 38-year-old physician from the Pirate Party said that by supporting more direct funding for cities and regions, the EU could also tackle corruption and conflict-of-interest issues.
Czech prime minister Andrej Babis has been under investigation for misusing EU funds, although he denies wrongdoing. A firm once belonging to a relative of Hungarian premier Viktor Orban has also been under EU scrutiny.
“One side effect is that it will bring less bureaucracy by leaving one level out, and will bring the EU closer to people,” Hřib added.
“The EU can chose from two bad options and we would like to offer a third good one,” Karacsony told EUobserver, regarding the EU’s efforts to discipline countries breaking EU rules.
“One bad option is there are no sanctions because of possible corruption and violation of the rule of law, the other bad option is punishing not the governments but the countries themselves, feeding populism in the countries,” he warned.
“A third option is bypassing the national bureaucracy, where public funds are often misplaced, and directly fund cities. We don’t want more money, we want to decide how to use those funds following EU priorities,” he said.
Karacsony, a former political science lecturer, beat the Orban-backed incumbent for the mayor’s seat last October.
Opposition parties Hungary also took 10 other cities in what was a first breakthrough for opposition parties since Orban’s party returned to power in 2010.
Orban’s government has been putting pressure on local governments, recently floating a proposal to cut a business tax that would starve local governments of their most important source of revenue.
Karacsony said Hungary’s government wants to centralise to the extreme the EU funds, and among the priority areas designated by the government are areas where government-friendly businesses have important investments.
He said he would seek help from the EU to make sure the Hungarian government treats Budapest as a partner – point out that he himself only found out from leaked media reports how the government plans to spend EU subsidies.
“Direct financing of cities could be beneficial to all of Hungary, yet the Hungarian government views the possibility on direct financing as a hostile proposal,” Karacsony said, adding that Budapest produces 40 percent of Hungary’s GDP.