How grassroots democracy can cure the ills of central Europe

A new “Pact of Free Cities” is launching to combat populism, promote transparency, and tackle the climate crisis.

The past three decades have brought remarkable progress to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last month, and the 15th anniversary of our countries’ accession to the European Union earlier this year.

Our economies have grown out of the shock of these systemic changes, becoming some of the most vibrant and competitive in Europe. Our countries’ active membership of the EU and NATO has brought us an unprecedented era of peace and stability.

Yet, while there is much to rejoice about, the transition has been far from perfect. Our societies are beginning to exhibit ills that we view with great alarm. Inequality is high and rising. Our healthcare systems are under strain. Too many of our young people have left in search of opportunities elsewhere.

These are troubling trends that must be reversed through grassroots democracy and smart, inclusive governance.

Unfortunately, in recent years, populists have dominated the political landscape in many countries in central Europe (and beyond). They exploit societal discontent for personal and political gain, without providing real answers. They claim to represent the nation but ignore the concerns of a substantial number of our citizens, not least those living in multicultural cities. They have whipped up our region’s historical grievances and are spreading the kind of xenophobic nationalism that twice engulfed Europe in war in the previous century.

We ran for office to show our fellow citizens that there is a better way to govern. We firmly believe in the power of grassroots democracy. We campaigned, and now lead, by listening to the people. We speak to our fellow citizens every day. We thrive on civic association and civic engagement – not on the suppression of civil society. Our motto is “nothing about us without us”.

We reject the false promise to protect our people by walling ourselves off from the rest of the world. We do not cling to an outdated understanding of the concepts of sovereignty and identity, but believe in an open society based on our cherished common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, sustainability, equality, the rule of law, social justice, tolerance, and cultural diversity.

Our countries’ active membership of the EU and NATO has brought us an unprecedented era of peace and stability.

Cities worldwide are rising to the common challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, growing inequality and intolerance, and rising housing costs. They increasingly do so in collaboration with one another, pooling resources and exchanging ideas on what works. They rise above partisanship, focusing on ways to provide solutions to their residents.

Our cities are the engines of growth and innovation in the region. As we face many common challenges, we have decided to tackle them together. To this end, we are proud to establish the “Pact of Free Cities” – which is formally launching at the Central European University in Budapest on 16 December.

The Pact is a progressive network of dynamic cities and empowered citizens that promotes pragmatism and inclusivity. We envision the Pact as a collaborative platform that other cities are welcome to join. We will share best practice in transparent, smart, evidence-based, and socially aware city management. We will focus on working together to tackle challenges in areas such as sustainable city planning, the climate crisis, housing, and public transportation.

We will coordinate our efforts to advocate tailored European policy solutions and to jointly lobby for better access to EU funding for cities. We will tap into the ingenuity of our diaspora communities to create opportunities for the next generation of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks. We will show that grassroots democracy is the answer to the challenges our societies face.

The resilience and courage of self-organising communities resulted in the collapse of the Berlin Wall three decades ago. The shipbuilders and steelworkers of the Polish Solidarność movement of 1980, the freedom fighters on the streets of Budapest in 1956, and of Prague and Bratislava in 1968, ultimately triumphed.

Times have changed, but we should not allow new walls to divide us. Our election as mayors shows that there is public support for transparent, responsible governance. We are resolved to ensure that collaborative self-governance and grassroots democracy regain the transformative power they displayed 30 years ago. The future of our citizens demands it.

The authors are the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. The inaugural pact summit takes place on December 16 in Budapest at Central European University.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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