Thursday

19th Jan 2017

Focus

European cities vow loyalty to the UK despite Brexit

  • Milan hosts the 2016 Eurocities congress. (Photo: Mariano Mantel)

Mayors of some of Europe’s largest cities have committed themselves to good relations with British cities after Brexit.

“Despite the Brexit vote, we see a future for UK cities in [the European project]. Like other European cities, they are economic drivers, centres of knowledge, innovation and excellence, and examples of how diversity and integration can thrive," 135 mayors, members of the Eurocities network, wrote in an open letter to EU leaders last week.

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"Many UK city leaders are determined to demonstrate that their cities are open for business and trade, and remain welcoming, tolerant and diverse places,” they added.

“Most larger cities in the UK voted to remain,” Daniel Termont, mayor of Ghent and incoming president of Eurocities, said last Friday (18 November), from Milan, where Eurocities was holding its annual congress.

“They see themselves as part of Europe. We want them to stay in our network and work with them in the future, even if they won't have access to the full benefits of an EU membership,” he added.

The platform counts thirteen British members, including London, Edinburgh and Birmingham - England’s second-largest city - which backed Brexit by a razor-thin 3,800 votes.

Birmingham was one of six founding members of Eurocities 30 years ago and currently sits on its executive committee.

The newest UK member is Leeds, voted in at the network’s annual general meeting last Friday (18 November).

“We applied as a result of the Brexit vote,” said Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council.

She says it was a shame that cities hadn't been more prominent in the EU referendum campaign.

“If it were more widely known that cities all over Europe are unhappy with the way the EU works, and wanted to reform it, maybe the vote could have gone another way,” Blake told this website.

Cities can bridge the European gaps

In their open letter, the mayors called for a rethink of the European project in the wake of the Brexit vote.

“We must learn the lessons,” they write.

“We need to rethink the way we do things in Europe… There is a growing disconnect between citizens and the EU institutions. What does the EU really do for us? Why does it matter? These are the questions asked by our citizens,” the mayors say.

"We, city leaders, can bridge this gap... We have our finger on the pulse of the local population, we know people's interests, concerns and visions. And by working with us, so can you," they add.

In a welcome address to the participants, Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala said EU institutions’ attempts to connect with EU citizens - through a ten-points programme and publicity of the EU - just didn't work.

“I was critical in my speech because I deeply care about the EU,” Sala later explained to this website,

“I know how people are talking about the European project. They don't see the benefits of the EU, just a cost and bureaucracy,” he added.

“That’s where cities can come in and be a bridge.”

Yet the EU still deals primarily with the 28 national governments rather than cities. They receive funding from the EU, for instance, for the integration of refugees.

“That approach doesn't work,” said Daniel Termont, the socialist mayor of Ghent, in Belgium, who was elected the next president of Eurocities last Friday.

“In Belgium, the federal government is right-wing. They don't give us anything. That's why we would prefer that the EU commission is dealing with us directly,” he told EUobserver.

Nonetheless, Ghent has agreed to relocate 30 asylum seekers from Athens in a gesture of solidarity.

"Cities have proved again and again they can find solutions to the problems, which member states are bickering about for years," he said. "It's in the cities that the spirit of Europe is alive."

Eurocities will organise a new summit in Brussels on 7 March to continue the debate on the role of European cities.

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