9th Dec 2023


Greek island pioneering 'territorial diplomacy' on energy

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A small Greek island of less than 800 inhabitants in the Aegean Sea has managed to become the first energy self-sufficient Greek island using renewable energy sources, and a paradigm for migrant integration — while in the rest of the country, islands depend on burning heavy oil, and the coast guard lets refugees drown at sea, when it's not participating in pushbacks.

How did this tiny island manage all of this?

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Tilos' achievements are the result of territorial diplomacy, also known as city diplomacy or para-diplomacy. It's the 'small' foreign policy of local authorities, in this case mayor's Maria Kamma-Aliferi policy and her vigorous pioneering spirit, that allows them to transcend national borders and create collaborations to promote their own economic and social development.

Andre Sobczak, secretary general of Eurocities, a 38 year-old network of more than 200 member cities with more than 250,000 inhabitants, believes that sometimes local officials are better equipped to tackle common European challenges since they are closer to their citizens' needs.

Tilos' transition to clean energy was a collaborative project of seven European countries completed in 2019 through the EU-funded research program Horizon 2020. The innovative project made the island self-sufficient in case of blackouts and stopped power fluctuations of the underwater electricity network connected to two other islands, which destroyed many household appliances.

Lost in a bureaucratic system of favouritism

"When we started, the country was not ready legislatively to welcome a project of this kind. Because the energy was hybrid, meaning both wind and solar, for almost two years we were fighting the Greek parliament to pass the legislation to accept the project," the mayor of Tilos told us.

Even though the island is now powered by renewable energy, the residents pay the same high price per kWh as they did when they burned oil. Kamma-Aliferi characterises this as "the pricing policy of a monopolistic electricity regime established by the Public Power Corporation," a company partly owned by the Greek state.

Territorial diplomacy is about democracy, cooperation, and the rule of law, but in many more clientelistic countries, local authorities can't escape favouritism.

"The situation differs according to national context," Andre Sobczak tells EUobserver, and explains: "The EU gives the money to national governments and then it's up to them to distribute it locally. What we could see in Poland and Hungary is that all the money went to small villages with mayors from the same political party as that of the national government, but the big cities, Warsaw and Budapest that were in the opposition party got no money."

The two cities, along with Prague and Bratislava, have also signed the Free Cities Pact, a form of collaboration to fight against the ever-changing political environment.

The funds that were poorly distributed by the Polish and Hungarian governments came from the Recovery and Resilience Facility and RepowerEU. In both cases, given the urgency, the EU Commission decided not to impose any mandatory consultation of cities and local governments on the use of these funds, to not delay the process.

Local self-government depends on the government

Although the political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities are supported by the European Charter of Local Self-Government of the Council of Europe (1985), they don't have direct access to EU funds themselves, even if they are meant for them.

For example, cohesion policy funds, which aim to fight inequalities between the different European regions with the involvement of local governments, remain rather centralised.

"It is mandatory that at least eight percent of the [Cohesion] funds go to cities. But cities can not directly receive funds from the EU; the funds go through the national government or through the region, which often creates additional administrative burdens and longer processes, so much so that some cities prefer not to ask for such budgets because they cannot handle the processes", says Sobczak.

Polish MEP Jan Olbrycht. (Photo: Dominique HOMMEL © European Union 2020)

As the president of the Urban Intergroup, a cross-parties and cross-committees structure in the European Parliament that represents the interests of Europe's towns and cities for urban development, Polish MEP Jan Olbrycht told EUobserver that these bureaucratic issues will not be improved.

He claims that cities can't have direct access to European funds, partly because the process would require three times the existing manpower, but mainly because European money goes to the national envelopes that each government is fighting for.

Taking again the island of Tilos as an example, its efforts show that local governance can't always escape national governance.

In 2018, Tilos created a small cheese cooperative with the financial help of the municipality of Meinier in Switzerland, the Greek NGO Solidarity Now, and the UNHCR, to include migrants in the local economy in an effort to escape the Greek gospel of ephemeral economic success, tourism.

Some of the migrants and refugees even became shareholders of the cooperative, but the state limited the mayor's abilities: for refugees to become shareholders, they needed to be granted immunity at a time when these decisions were delayed. Many of them became frustrated and fled Greece.

The situation worsened after the Greek migration ministry took over the EU-funded ESTIA program providing housing for asylum seekers, and decided to close it, since according to the minister "immigration is now under control". When the termination of ESTIA was announced in April 2022, 12,684 people were in the program's structures.

"We reacted strongly by sending letters and conducting meetings at a national level, but all the refugees were forced to leave", mayor Kamma-Aliferi told the EUobserver. She now has the saddening task of closing the cooperative to release the shareholders. "Those who legislate ignore good practices" she adds.

City vs National governance power struggle?

"It's not a question of power" says Eurocities secretary general Sobczak, "the idea is not to take some power from the national government, or to say that we are more necessary than ministers or the prime minister, but that we are facing many challenges that nobody has the solution for so it's important to use all the different ideas from everybody including the mayor."

Sobczak adds that during the pandemic "we saw many national governments a little bit lost, and it was the cities who were setting up vaccination centres. When refugees left Ukraine, governments were completely unable to find spaces to welcome them. It was the cities that volunteered to collect goods and help organise drives in Ukraine."

This city-to-city cooperation is something "many national states view as a potential threat to their authoritative power" says Fabrizio Rossi, secretary general at the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR). "Collaborative efforts between city local and regional leaders, national governments, and international organisations are essential in upholding democracy and countering authoritarian trends across Europe".

But putting the burden of managing migration or fighting climate change in city's hands, while millions of the EU budget are spent on border control and member states are committing to fossil fuel projects approved and funded by the EU, begs the question whether territorial diplomacy is being used by national governments and the European institutions to delegate the responsibility and avoid implementing long-term policies.

Jan Olbryct believes the problem lies in a lack of horizontal coordination, different from the administrative hierarchy. For 20 years, he has been fighting for a European Urban Policy that would coordinate the several elements of urban dimension in different EU policies.

"Everybody is opposing because this means that the coordinator will be more important than the others", the Polish MEP explains.

Getting a seat at the table

As CEMR states "the upcoming EU election carries the lessons from the past four years: the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the hottest summer ever registered in Europe, and now the resurgence of conflict in the Middle East. Responses to these crises have leaned towards centralisation. The European Parliament is the institution closest to the European citizens so electing representatives who prioritise regional interests can sway policy decisions in favour of decentralised governance and regional development."

City diplomacy has come a long way since the era of twin-towns. A product of two world wars and the Cold War, sister cities were born to promote solidarity, cultural diversity and active citizen participation, and although they have created a lot of awareness concerning human rights issues over the years, cities can now impact legislation.

According to MEP Olbrycht, even though the Committee of Regions is the formal opinion-making body in Europe, cities can be more influential if they work with international organisations such as Eurocities and CEMR.

Eurocities has actually pushed the commission for the implementation of sustainable food and cycling strategies, making sure "everybody can have access to quality and healthy food" and "reduce air pollution in the cities."

The commission is also set to work together with 100 cities all over Europe that want to reach climate neutrality by 2030, and give specific support directly to the cities without passing through the national governments.

Author bio

Konstantina Maltepioti is an investigative journalist based in Greece and a part of the Reporters United network. She has covered political corruption, environment and human rights.


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