Paris, France, April 2021 – Representatives of the cities of Budapest (Hungary) and Gdansk (Poland) as well as a Hungarian MEP called for direct support from the EU to cities in eastern and central Europe that are confronted with breaches of fundamental rights by their national governments, during a web conference on the rule of law in the EU organised by Efus as part of its General Assembly meeting, on 18 March.
Benedek Jávor, Head of the Representation of the City of Budapest in Brussels, Sándor Rónai, Hungarian MEP, and Piotr Borawski, Deputy Mayor of the City of Gdansk, described how the governments of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland are increasingly centralising power and, as mentioned by one of the speakers, “trying to reduce the power and competences of local authorities” in order to push their agenda of “dismantling the rule of law.”
Central governments curtailing the power of local authorities
Hungarian MEP (Democratic Coalition Party, DK) Sándor Rónai said that “for years, the Orbán government has been centralising and withdrawing resources from local authorities under our eyes, while ignoring EU warnings,” and that the Orbán government has now “almost no common traits with European values,” such as the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary and the principle of subsidiarity.
Deputy Mayor of Gdansk Piotr Borawski made a similar assessment: “We are witnessing a worrying situation in Poland, with threats against the Constitutional Tribunal, a tax reform that has restricted the power of local governments, and the fact that Poland has plummeted from the 18th to the 62nd rank in the Press Freedom Index.”
Call for direct EU funding
In a context where the Hungarian and Polish governments have difficult relationships with the EU, Messrs Borawski, Rónai and Jávor believe that direct EU funding to cities would be one way to strengthen local democracy against illiberal governments.
“We need strong European support to regions and local communities to protect the rule of law, the principles of law, and European values,” said Gdansk’s Deputy Mayor. The Hungarian MEP added that “a very significant part of the support from the EU could be direct funding to cities, and making sure that citizens know where this funding comes from, with the caveat that we have to keep an eye on local governments and ensure they respect the rule of law and European values.”
Head of the representation of Budapest in Brussels and former MEP Benedek Jávor also highlighted the need for such direct funding: “Making more EU funding easily accessible to local and regional authorities, strongly pushing unbiased and simple access to national envelopes (e.g. ERDF SUD or Horizon Europe ‘Climate Neutral and Smart Cities’ mission), widening the scope of ‘direct management’ against ‘shared management’ systems, and creating an ‘Urban Policy’ pillar in the Multiannual Financial framework” that would ‘stand alone’ following the model of the Cohesion Policy could all be interesting options, he said.
An impact on the whole of the EU
Piotr Borawski added that support from EU institutions is all the more important given that “the deterioration of civil rights and freedom in some Member States has a real impact on the state of democracy in the entire European family.” He called for “a world plan to strengthen democracy in the EU,” which would start with a diagnosis of phenomena such as restrictions on the freedom of the press and the spreading of fake news, the rise of radicalism, or curbs on the right to protest. Such a diagnosis would also include the identification of good practices: “Such good examples would be like a democracy vaccine that would stop the disease” of authoritarianism, he said.
Progressive cities vs. authoritarian national governments
Mr Jávor stressed that although Member States from Western Europe are also prey to populist, anti-EU movements, a growing number of progressive cities have direct international relations and are becoming a powerful voice on issues such as democratic rights, social inclusion and climate change. “Cities tend to elect leaders that are more progressive, pro-European, less populistic” than countries as a whole do with their national governments, he said, citing the examples of Budapest, Gdansk, Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, Bucharest, and also Istanbul. This means the EU has potential partners in many central and eastern European cities and beyond: “The EU actually does have allies in many European cities, and there should be a strategic partnership with them.”
A coalition of progressive cities
Mr Borawski painted an emotional portrait of his city – whose progressive Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, one of the historic leaders of Solidarnosc, was murdered in 2019 after 21 years in office – as a beacon of tolerance and social inclusion, citing the prestigious international awards received by the municipality for its immigrant integration policy and its equal treatment policy.
For his part, Mr Jávor said that cooperation among like-minded cities is a way to unite forces against authoritarianism. He cited the Pact of Free Cities between Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest, adding that that they are now looking at broadening this partnership both at the domestic and European level. “In the EU itself, the importance of cities and their involvement in EU decision-making should be strengthened, for example by upgrading the Committee of the Regions, or by creating new channels for cities,” he said.
Upholding the rule of law is high on the EU agenda
Speaking on behalf of the EU, Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice, who introduced the session, stressed that the rule of law of “is at the heart” of the European project and that there are new mechanisms to monitor and strengthen its application across the Union. One of them is the European Rule of Law Mechanism, which provides a process for an annual dialogue on the state of play of the rule of law in European countries between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament together with Member States as well as national parliaments, civil society and other stakeholders.
One of the key aspects of this process is the yearly Rule of Law Report, the first issue of which was published in September 2020. It aims to identify possible problems in relation to the rule of law as early as possible, as well as good practices in areas such as justice systems, the anti-corruption framework, media pluralism and freedom, and other institutional issues linked to checks and balances.
Another key instrument is the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation, which is complementary to these tools. The European Commission issued a legislative proposal in 2018 that sought to defend the Union’s financial interests in cases where deficiencies related to the respect of rule of law are detected in the Member States. This legislative proposal led to the recently negotiated Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation that aims to protect the Union budget in case of breaches of the principles of the rule of law in Member States.
“These new instruments will allow the Commission to better protect and uphold the rule of law across the EU, but we need collaboration at all levels, notably support from regional and local authorities,” said Mr Reynders.
> Read the minutes of the web conference
> More information on the EU’s Rule of Law report
> Efus invites all its members to discuss these and other issues at the international Security, Democracy and Cities conference on 20-22 October 2021