In search of cohesion: The 2020 EU Cities Forum

On 30 and 31 January 2020, the 4th EU Cities Forum took place in Porto, bringing together hundreds of European, national and local policy-makers and stakeholders on the theme of sustainable urban development. Our senior researcher Moritz Baumgärtel shares his impressions from the event.

By Moritz Baumgärtel - 16 February 2020

My first visit to an EU Cities Forum dates back two years when it was taking place at to our doorstep in Rotterdam. Back then, the relatively late decision to participate meant that my schedule didn't allow me to do more than attend the panel in which I was speaking. Left without a proper impression of what was going on, I promised myself not to repeat this mistake but to spend the appropriate amount of time and attention at this year's edition in Porto.

The 4th EU Cities Forum, co-organized by the EU Commission's DG REGIO and the City of Porto, is one of those events that you attend with a twofold aim when you're a researcher: on the one hand, you're being asked to speak and offer practically meaningful insights from your project in a way that is accessible for a wide audience (a valuable exercise in itself). On the other hand, it's an excellent opportunity to make observations about what's going on in the world of cities and towns in terms of policies, projects, discourses and the general "mood". With over 700 participants including mayors, local and national civil servants, representatives from national governments and EU institutions, NGO staff and researchers, one will hardly get a better chance, at least not in Europe.

Porto, grey and rainy at this time of the year
Photo: Porto, grey and rainy at this time of the year

The topic of this year's edition of the Forum: "together we shape a sustainable urban future". If our research tells us that local authorities aren't newcomers (anymore) to this kind of global agenda point, this event didn't provide any evidence to the contrary. Even assuming a selection bias among the attendees, one was left without any doubt that sustainable development is today a local as much as a global priority. What's missing, then, to make further progress is mostly funding if one is to believe an on-the-spot poll taken at the Forum's plenary session. Mind you, we're speaking here not only of more financial support from national governments but also of direct funding from EU and international institutions that wouldn't entail any involvement of the national authorities. These, according to some participants, may as well want to "disappear" for sustainable urban development to actually take shape.

Poll: What do local authorities need from national governments?
Photo: What do local authorities expect from national governments? To pay... or disappear.

The animosity is unsurprising. Trade, migration, the housing crisis, and obviously the fight against the climate emergency: national governments are often dragging their feet when it comes to tackling global challenges, with some withdrawing from it altogether. On the Friday of the conference, coincidentally also "Brexit Day", more than one speaker voiced their regret about the UK's decision to leave the EU, though the reminders of this historic moment sounded like messages from (and about) a parallel universe. Where the focus lies on concrete problems, national politics seem to amount to little more than a nuisance. Indeed, a walk around the "Pillar Hall" of the beautiful Alfandega Congress Centre, a historic customs house, illustrated why local policy-making is frequently portrayed as inherently "pragmatic" in scholarship: dozens of cities were displaying posters of fascinating projects related, amongst others, to housing, mobility, and climate change mitigation, all of which had been implemented with EU funding.

My modest contribution to the Forum was to provide an introduction to a panel debate on cities as "guardians of fundamental rights". Human rights, as became clear quickly during the discussion, are both ubiquitous and absent. While municipal authorities, helped (and frequently pushed) by local civil society actors can be quite proactive in improving access to services for vulnerable groups, these initiatives don't usually derive from a profound commitment to human rights as stipulated in international treaties. This observation, which is in line with preliminary findings from our project, also provided the starting point for my presentation, in which I underlined that human rights should be considered a framework for good local governance as well as a resource for "de-coupling" local from national policies. To be sure, that doesn't diminish their principally legal character in that they also place obligations on local authorities, either indirectly through national legal frameworks or directly when it comes to EU law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Panel on cities as guardians of human rights
Photo: Panel on cities as guardians of human rights (courtesy Hans Sakkers)

Looking back at the event in general, my conclusion is the following: whilst an excellent example of cities, towns and their partners "teaming up", the Forum also illustrated that it's currently difficult, if not impossible to steer the process by which local policies are made. The EU Urban Agenda, in this sense, is not a multi-level governance framework as much as it is a loose funding structure, relatively accessible and inclusive in terms of organization but thin in normative content. That's not necessarily a problem if one subscribes to the belief that the best policy solutions are created "bottom-up" as local authorities, in all their diversity, try to confront their particular local challenges. However, if the perceived need is to elevate the role of cities and towns vis-à-vis national government at the European or even global levels, this approach clearly has its limits. Decades of research on international relations has shown that sovereignty, however defined, needs to be pooled to shape matters at these scales, which means that priorities would have to be negotiated among local authorities, compromises would have to be made, and responsibilities would have to be defined.

As I was attending the Forum, I didn't get the impression that this was the direction in which we're heading. From a viewpoint of human rights specifically, creating more "cohesion" (to use the Commission's long-standing jargon) beyond the call for more money would probably be a welcome development as it would force local actors to relate more explicitly to established international frameworks and to address the question what role human rights, as legal obligations, should play in a future world shaped by cities and towns.

Photo: The "Pillar Hall"
Photo: The "Pillar Hall", like the Forum fascinating but a bit all over the place