The mayors of four central European capitals signed a so-called “Pact of Free Cities” in Budapest on Monday, vowing to stand together against populist national governments in the region.
Budapest’s mayor Gergely Karácsony was joined by his counterparts from Warsaw, Prague and Bratislava to sign the document, which promised to promote the “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity”.
They also called on Brussels to allocate funds directly to their municipal budgets, bypassing national governments that have been accused of corrupt and politicised disbursal of EU funds.
Karácsony, with a background in liberal and green politics, won a surprise victory in October mayoral elections, defeating the candidate backed by Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in what was the populist’s first electoral blow for a decade. While Orbán has based his political appeal on anti-immigrant rhetoric, Karácsony has promised to keep Budapest open, tolerant and focused on green issues.
“Our voices cannot be silenced any more, neither at home nor in Europe. If one of us is muted, the others will raise their voices for them,” said Karácsony at the signing ceremony.
“Together we can be stronger, more resourceful and much more knowledgable … We can be part of the solution to the problems our cities suffer,” said Zdeněk Hřib, the mayor of Prague. “If we fail it will mean a new wave of populism that would provide a simple and wrong answer to the problems.”
Poland and Hungary are under fire in the European parliament over rule of law issues, while across the region there are questions about how governments use EU funding and alleged corruption among elites. The mayors said they would push for direct European funding, particularly to help fight the climate emergency. EU leaders signed up to a 2050 carbon neutral pledge last week, but Poland has exempted itself from the target at the current time.
“My government decided … that one member state does not want to share the priorities of the rest of the union. Well I, as mayor of Warsaw, would like my city to be fighting climate change,” said Rafał Trzaskowski. The hope is that in the next European budget cycle, some funds will be disbursed directly to cities.
The mayoral pact mirrors the so-called Višegrad Four group, set up by the national governments of the region, which in recent years has often acted as an illiberal solidarity group jointly facing down threats and reprimands from Brussels.
Orbán has repeatedly spoken of a bright future for an integrated Central Europe, including at a speech in Romania on Saturday where he spoke of building a region that would be “one of the most successful and competitive regions in the world”.
However, the vision of Orbán and some other politicians is a region of “illiberal democracies” based on a particular interpretation of “Christian values”. Governments have used divisive rhetoric to sow fear of immigrants and minorities. The LGBT communities in the region, particularly in Poland, have been targeted as part of rightwing political campaigns.
By contrast, the four mayors said they were supporters of tolerance and diversity. “Our cities will remain open, progressive, tolerant, and most importantly European,” said Trzaskowski.
Since Karácsony’s win in Budapest, Orbán’s government has been pushing back with legislation that appears aimed at curbing the city’s ability to act independently, including laws that would restrict opposition coalition-building and a law increasing central government control over theatres. Karácsony spoke at a protest against the theatre law last week, and has also appeared at climate protests.
The signing event was held at the symbolic venue of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, which has been forced by Orbán’s government to move much of its operations to Vienna. The university was set up by the financier and philanthropist George Soros and has fallen victim to Orbán’s campaign against him, with the government refusing to allow it to issue US-accredited degrees.
Zsolt Enyedi, CEU’s deputy rector, said that in the middle ages, cities were often seen as “islands of freedom”, and the task of cities in the modern world was to cease to be islands and inspire the rest of the country.
Karácsony spoke in similar terms: “Populism is striving for hegemony, but it cannot win over cities. Cities can be the bridgeheads starting from which all the current crises of democracy can be repaired,” he said.
However, with Orbán’s Fidesz party still polling at high numbers in much of the rest of Hungary, and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party securing a second term in office in October, it is not clear that opposition politicians in the region have found a way to win popularity outside the big cities. In fact, it may even serve to increase a divide that is often exploited by populist governments, between metropolitan elites and the rest of the country.
The group said they are open to cooperation with any other cities that may feel out-of-place in their domestic political environments. Trzaskowski, who received London mayor Sadiq Khan in Warsaw in September, said that despite Brexit, London would continue to be part of European city networks.
The tale of a diverse and largely pro-European city being pulled away from the EU is a familiar one to the mayors of Budapest and Warsaw. “Even if Britain is leaving Europe, we want to keep working with London and cooperating on climate-related projects and many others,” said Trzaskowski.
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